"Shirin Neshat," the latest show at the Miami Art Museum, with films and photographs of the exile Iranian artist, is a unique event, helping us to grasp the complexity of women's struggle for social liberation under Islam. The exhibit brings a fresh perspective to difficult political and ethnic themes with remarkable aesthetic results. This traveling show is curated by Paulette Gagnon and originates at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Montreal.
A point of contention in the struggle for women's emancipation in Muslim societies is whether women's rights are a Western invention. Sadly, many initiatives to open regional dialogues to challenge patriarchal familial conventions are seen -- at least by most Islamic fundamentalists -- as a betrayal of Muslim culture and a genuflection to Western cultural imperialism. Neshat's story and art speaks of the paradox of finding oneself only from outside one's culture.
Shirin Neshat was born in a small city two hours from Tehran. As a child she dreamed of becoming an artist. In 1983, nine years after migrating to the United States, she earned a master's in fine arts from Berkeley. Shortly afterward she moved to New York, where she married a Korean architect who ran the Storefront For Art and Architecture, a known alternative space in SoHo. As co-director of the space, Neshat worked and met with all sorts of people across disciplines. In the early 1990s, after ten years without creating art, Neshat made several trips to Iran. This re-encounter with her culture changed her outlook as artist and exile. She had found her true voice.
In this show don't miss Neshat's so-called film trilogy: Turbulent, Rapture, and Fervor. In Turbulent, two screens show simultaneous projections: A man passionately sings to us while facing away from his all-male audience. His self-assurance is fed by the approving delight of his peers. Then we turn to the opposite wall, where a mysterious woman comes into view, covered in a black chador, facing an empty auditorium. As Neshat's camera moves around her veiled body, we begin to hear a primal guttural mantra. With her face the only thing uncovered, this woman intones a stirring chant ranging from deep and silky hums to high-pitched, mellifluous wordless cries. Before this performance, the man on the other side looks perplexed and hesitant.
I take Turbulent to address the power of the voice in the public realm. Women are prevented from singing publicly, a taboo in fundamentalist Iran, and Neshat confronts the issue with subtlety, giving women the power to make music without words; it is a religiously subversive, archaic, and uncodified universal form of expression -- around before language and history.
Rapture revisits the formal dynamic of Turbulent, but here Neshat questions the relevance of specific patriarchal norms, even at the cost of social breakup. We see this throng of men walking in a solid social group, partaking of their entrenched cultural practices, such as capturing an abandoned fortress next to the sea. In the end their mission seems to fail and the group falls into disarray -- unable to understand what has happened.
On the other wall, the women covered with black veils make their way through a barren and windy landscape, slowly coming toward us. They have no wall or street to shield them. As they come closer and watch us intently, their only exploit is to drone a powerful vocal shrill so unwavering that it breaks the men's inane pretense. Yet, almost immediately, the men -- more relaxed now -- proceed to wash themselves, doing what they've been socially conditioned to do. The women push toward the sea and six of them climb into a boat. The men blankly watch, from the fortress's highest point. Already adrift at sea, the women begin a perilous journey.
Fervor, the last of the trilogy, deals with a series of broken encounters between a man and a woman whose gazes meet more than once as they participate in a sex-segregated religious ritual. There is a poetic atmosphere of predeliberate moments in which these two souls, separated by gender and veil, have a sexual meeting of minds. All the while, a mullah righteously preaches the dangers of desire from a platform. The woman suddenly stands up and leaves, followed by the man. Again their paths diverge, only this time they are walking on the same street from opposite directions -- hinting at a possible face-to-face encounter.
Fervor exploits the power of the woman's gaze, also taboo in Iran. It signals how a strict religious atmosphere can distance people, turning them into theocratic machines. Turbulent, Rapture, and Fervor share continuity, a message, which I take as the negation of woman as an equal in the domestic and public realms. Neshat probes Islam's misogynistic forms in its cause. If "fear" of woman becomes a religious weapon, the result is the irresolvable conflict of hate and guilt in the face of woman's irresistible seduction.
Finally, Neshat's Pulse takes us to the private chamber of a woman, a place where the feminine soul can be uncovered and free with itself; where love, desire, and rebellion can still speak to the heart. This young woman chants, which mixes with the voice of an absent beloved very near the archetypal Western device, the radio. Neshat transforms a means of communication into a private altar, a medium for the exchange of voices.
I'm not so taken on the idea of a mystic voice if it masks a world that oppresses. That would be equivalent to self-induced social Alzheimer's. However, mysticism can be seen as subversive as well, because it transcends the entrenched community of followers and can be a means for individual expression. No doubt Neshat's films point to the power of women to reveal their humanity in spite of insurmountable social obstacles.
The show has a catalog with essays from Paulette Gagnon, filmmaker Atom Egoyan, and Shoja Azari, whose essay, entitled An Inside Look into Shirin Neshat, I find problematical. Azari's language is deeply embedded in post-Structuralism -- a Western discourse: From her reading of Neshat's Pulse as showing that "emancipation is possible only as an act of self-sacrifice," to her debunking of "exile" as a political choice of protest, these arguments overlook Neshat's universal appeal. Neshat's work is universal because it is firmly embedded in her culture. Her films are politically nuanced in resisting old stereotypes of Muslim women, and they may even concede that there are possibilities for reform within Iranian fundamentalism (as the artist's overtures to work in Iran show). But given the present circumstances within the history of Islam, I take her art to convey a more important message of emancipation for Muslim women. Isn't it symptomatic that with more than 30 one-person exhibits all over the world, Shirin Neshat, one of the best Iranian artists today, has never been allowed a show in Iran?
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