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April 17, 2013

Artist’s emotionally powerful work speaks to issues and history

By K. Michelle Moran
C & G Staff Writer

» click to enlarge «
Shirin Neshat, in her studio, works on Roja from the artist’s “The Book of Kings” series. Neshat’s work in still photography and film is the subject of a mid-career retrospective on display through July 7 at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

DETROIT — Whether working in film, video or still photography, artist Shirin Neshat has a remarkable eye for composition and creating images that speak volumes.

Born in Qazvin, Iran, in 1957, and now living in New York, Neshat is the subject of a mid-career retrospective that’s on display through July 7 at the Detroit Institute of Arts. She’s considered one of the most important modern artists working today. The first major showing of Neshat’s work in more than a decade, the exhibit features film and video installations, and photographs, including work from the relatively recent “The Book of Kings” series. Admission to the exhibit is free for residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

Neshat’s art addresses her homeland’s complex sociopolitical history, as well as issues of gender and identity. In self-imposed exile from Iran, she has found herself torn between two cultures, and her art speaks to that dynamic.

“Shirin’s one of the most important international artists working today,” said Rebecca Hart, associate curator of contemporary art at the DIA. “It is a real privilege for the DIA to have her agree to do a show with us.”

Neshat’s work has been featured in many prominent international exhibitions, including the 10th Biennale of Sydney, the fifth International Istanbul Biennale and second Johannesburg Biennale. In America, her work has been shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris in New York, among others.

DIA Director Graham Beal said the DIA retrospective puts many of these films and photographs together for the first time. An early series of photos from 1993-97, “Women of Allah,” looks at the status of women in Iran after the 1979 revolution and the imposition of conservative religious laws, using excerpts from female Persian writers and scholars painted in Farsi on the oversized prints. Swarupa Anila, director of interpretive engagement at the DIA, said there are four symbolic components to these images: the gaze, the text, the veil and the gun. In some cases, the same woman is photographed in different situations — in prayer, with a child, as a warrior, with a man — to make viewers think more deeply about stereotypes, Hart explained.

“This particular (series of) work is probably her most strident work. … It is based on literary theory,” Hart said.

Contrary to what some believe, she said none of the inscriptions are from the Koran.

A more recent photo series, “The Book of Kings,” considers issues of political power and who wields it. Early video installations by Neshat — “Turbulent” (1998), the Philip Glass-scored “Rapture” (1999) and “Fervor” (2000) — as well as three of Neshat’s five videos for the installation “Women Without Men” (2011), speak to gender roles in conservative Muslim environments. Neshat grew up during a progressive period in Iran’s history, but her native country underwent dramatic changes while she was in college in the United States. Her work comes from her life.

“I think that an artist responds to the life they live and the things they experience,” Neshat said. “I saw the work as a bridge between the inside and outside of the artist … and it speaks to the world about something greater than the artist herself.”

Anila said Neshat is working through personal subjects, as well as the larger political world.

Hart said Neshat creates art “that delights (and) provokes.” Beal concurred.

“When I first viewed her work in 2000, I was particularly entranced by the serenity and stark beauty of what I saw: qualities that pervade Neshat’s work even as she engages with the demanding issues of power, gender and social values,” he said in a prepared statement.

Anila said the museum worked with dozens of metro Detroiters — including people originally from the Middle East of various faiths and Muslim women who wear the hijab, a headscarf — to understand their readings of the work and address their concerns. They also wanted to create an exhibit that would resonate with those unfamiliar with Iran’s history, and to that end, the display includes a historical timeline and other background information.

“Our goal is to help visitors make meaning from the art, wherever it comes from,” Anila said.

Visitors can leave their own responses to the work, as well, in a special area created for that purpose.

Hart said Neshat wants to create “an open-ended dialogue with the audience and perhaps the political regime.” The artist “welcomes us into her world,” she said.

“She embarked on this path to challenge the status quo. … Hers is a gentle but strong voice,” Hart said of Neshat.

The DIA is located at 5200 Woodward in Detroit’s Cultural Center. For more information, visit www.dia.org or call (313) 833-7900.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer K. Michelle Moran at kmoran@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1047.