Shirin Neshat’s Photos in the Frame of Orientalism: For Whom Do We Pose?

By Alyeh Mehin Jafarabadi
Submitted to Session P4996 (The Surreal and the Real between Orientalism and Post-Orientalism, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Shirin Neshat has gained prominent stature among Western commentators and Iranian based artists and art critics, who praise her work for shedding light on Iranian women’s lives in the post-1979 era. While her Women of Allah (1989) created shock followed by extensive commentary indicating that her art work resisted stereotypical representation of Islam, little is written about her following photo series Shadow under the Web (1997), Turbulent (1998), Rapture (1999) and Soliloquy (1999) as well as her more recent series on Arab Spring titles My House is on Fire (2013), which seem like repetitions of the first original series with similar techniques and subject matter. Drawing on the framework outlined by Ali Behdad (self-Orientalism) and Hamid Dabashi (post-Orientalism), this study uses the method of visual ethnography to argue that in her representation of post-1979 Iranian society, Shirin Neshat takes an outmoded Orientalist perspective in order to appeal to Western audience, who in turn in the neoliberal capitalism praise her work for generic characteristics that save the inferior position to the subject matter she represents. She fashions this by using stereotyped locations of ruins and village buildings and portraying submissive female characters with hijab and partially covered eyes and lips; For her style, she combines Persian handwritten scripts with Arabic haraka, black and white primitive forms of photography, cropped hands and feet with tattoo and henna like patterns, and locations of Arab cities for representing Iranian spaces. This analysis reveals that rather than shedding light on the lives of Iranians or providing nuanced understanding of the region, Shirin Neshat’s work homogenizes the Middle East cultures as one entirety. Coupled with global cultural taste, her representations of Islam as desired in neoliberal capitalism, end up reinforcing the structure of Orientalism. The practical implications of this study are for contemporary museum curators, her audience who desire a nuanced understanding about Iran, and the artists who aspire to her as a successful role model.