Shirin Neshat (Qazvin, Iran, 1957) is well known internationally for her filmic work and photographic cycles exploring the representations of female and male identity in her own Iranian culture. Her elegant and rigorous filmic constructions won her the Leone d’Argento in 2009 as best director at the Venice Film Festival for the feature-length film Women Without Men. Again at the Venice Biennale d’Arte, in 1999 Neshat was awarded the Leone d’Oro for best international artist.
Neshat’s biography is closely interwoven with her artistic research. Shortly before Iran became an Islamic republic in 1979, following the Khomeinist Revolution, she left her country of origin and moved to the United States to study art, first in San Francisco and then at UC Berkeley, before finally making New York her home. In 1990 Neshat visited Iran again and her stay proved extremely significant: the shock she experienced at the changes in her country compared to her adolescent memories, together with the need to confront her own cultural roots, prompted her to develop a series of photographic cycles. The first series of photographs by which Neshat attracted international interest in the early nineties were Unveling and Women of Allah, a piece of which is exhibited in the permanent collection of the Madre museum, a work that was part of the solo exhibition that the Galleria Lucio Amelio in Naples dedicated to her in 1996.
Women of Allah is a series Neshat worked on from 1993 to 1997, investigating the complexity of the women’s lives in Iran after the Islamic revolution. In sharp black and white, which would become one of the hallmarks of her photography, Neshat portrayed Iranian women veiled and often wielding firearms. The few areas of skin left uncovered by the chador – face, hands and, more rarely, feet – are covered with inscriptions in Farsi (Persian). Taken from the books of Iranian writers, the inscriptions interact with the images to give them a more complex meaning; prose and poetry are often combined, and the contents range from religious to more profane subjects, exploring the spheres of intimacy and sexuality. The woman depicted in the work shown here is the artist herself and the verses, drawn on her face to form a spiral, are taken from a poem by the woman poet Forugh Farrokhzad, active in the years before the Islamic Revolution. As it happens in many other images in this series, the focal points are the eyes and the veil, interpreted respectively as symbols of individuality and religious culture. The image of women in Islamic culture is thus rendered in all its complexity and ambiguity, represented in the duality of the roles that post-revolutionary Iranian society assigns them: on the one hand the restrictions imposed by rigid religious dictates; on the other the paradoxical condition that seeks to make women responsible and committed (see the presence of guns). Neshat’s gaze avoids judgment to focus on the many cultural, social and psychological facets of these figures.
It should also be noted that the research into the human figure, particularly the women, which characterizes much of Neshat’s work – hence the dimensions of existence and sociality as a stage – has also found expression in the installation Life is Theatre, Theatre is Life, which the artist conceived for the Naples Toledo Metro Station, with photographs by Luciano Romano.