Interview. The Iranian artist is one of the stars of the new Pirelli calendar by Annie Leibovitz.

Shirin Neshat, between cultures and sexes

Eclectic artist Shirin Neshat explores visual art through the world of women in Islamic culture, revealing the contradictions and limitations, the poetry and sensuality that coexist in an ancient culture. Photos, installations and films intertwine in the works of this Iranian artist, who has produced musical projects and forayed into fashion. She recently participated in Annie Leibovitz’s 2016 Pirelli calendar, chosen as a symbol of influential and successful contemporary femininity, along with 11 other women.

Neshat continues to investigate herself and being a woman in all its meanings, from a lifestyle that perfectly balances the West and the Middle East. She spoke with il manifesto.

What do you think of the new style of the Pirelli calendar and how did you feel when Annie Leibovitz contacted you?

I did not know much about the Pirelli calendar, but I agreed [on the basis of] the reputation of the excellent photographer Annie Leibovitz. Later, when I saw the past editions of the calendar, I thought Annie was extremely courageous to change the identity of a product well known as a sexy calendar to something that is not based on physical beauty, but on the results achieved by women. Needless to say, I was flattered to be part of her selection and I think the pictures are really cool art.

What is your relationship with Italy and the art of this country?

Italy has been instrumental in the evolution of my career, which began in Lucio D’Amelio’s gallery in 1996. I also received the most important prizes in Italy: One of these was the Golden Lion of the Venice Biennale (Visual Arts) in 1999 and the Silver Lion at the International Film Festival of Venice for my film Women Without Men, in 2009. In September 2015, I was in Bari for Passage Through the World, a journey through Mohsen Namjoo’s music, for which I made the​​ scenography, together with Shoja Aza. It was very interesting and I interacted with some elderly women, mourning women, who entered in the show and my video installation. Mohsen Namjoo had this vision of music traveling from East to West across different cultures: I found the idea impressive, especially for the particular time of conflict between Christians and Muslims, between East and West that we are going through. In this project, there were endless possibilities to develop: the idea of mystic Islamic music, the circularity of the Sufi dance, the idea of mentor and his acolytes and a type of piousness expressed by Italian mourners.

In your opinion, is there a difference between Western and Eastern art?

It is difficult to generalize because I live in the middle of the two cultures. Emotionally, I am very Iranian, but my education is Western. When I’m in New York, I feel part of the West; when in Italy I feel Oriental. I am completely divided in two, in my work, in the style, even in the way I dress. There is a big difference between the two cultures, but human emotions are the bond that unites them. With art, I try to show what they really have in common. I use Iranian iconography, music and images, but my job is to search, to find humanity. We are equal, we have the same feelings: You suffer like I suffer, you will fall in love just like I can fall in love. You’re free. I’m free. … The power of art is to track down the similarities in human experiences. There is a difference in language, religion and lifestyle, but at the same time there is the universality of humanity. Art is the only way to sift it. A good work of art should have two qualities: to show the differences and common things. My work is very Islamic. It is based on my experience as an Iranian woman. It is particularly focused on Iran. Yet at the same time, since I live out of my country, I look for paradoxes.

In your film Women Without Men the relationship between the sexes is not positive. Does it mirror the situation in Iran or is it a global condition?

Not at all. The film is based on the novel by the Iranian writer Shahrnush Parsipur, and, in my opinion, her story describes women who are unable to manage relationships with men and face them. The film was stylistically conceived as part of magical realism. The story takes place in 1953. It is not the current Iran. It is an allegory and not a realistic representation of the Iranian culture.


What do you think of the Arab Springs? Can you foresee changes for women?

I went to Tahrir Square twice. Egypt has experienced a kind of green wave, like Iran. These movements have shown a new concept of family in which women are active, they’re smart and they move within society. There is a new generation of erudite and enterprising women. In addition, they are not like Western women, who in order to participate in politics, they have to emulate men. I love that their Middle Eastern dynamism where women continue to be very feminine, they do not compete with men, and their participation in the revolution was a natural fact. This new generation has inspired me: My generation and the previous one had no access to education. I am the only one in my family who works and earns. My sisters have been lucky enough to go to school, but they got married and have children. They accepted a traditional role. The current generation is made ​​up of 95 percent educated women, who work, are familiar with technology and know the world through social media. It is not so far from the possibilities men have, and this status is new for us.

But the situation, from the political point of view, does not seem changed. A new military power has established in Egypt. The problem persists. Women are changing, but society is probably still behind. The government does not have the ability to help the transformation, although it is now difficult to drive women back to the previous situation.

What are your plans in the near future?

I’m working on a film about the life of Umm Kulthum. The Egyptian singer died in 1975, but she is still the most popular singer in the Middle East. She is popular in Egypt, Israel, Algeria, Morocco and other countries. Her figure is very complex. She was a Middle Eastern woman who achieved success in an unconventional yet progressive way. She never had children. She probably was gay. Nevertheless she was surrounded by men, lived in a male-dominated society. She was nationalist … all interesting ideas.

In 2017, I will direct Aida at the Salzburg Festival. I’m interested in experimentation. As an artist, I am inclined to do new things. Repetition bores me. When Riccardo Muti contacted me for Aida, the proposal frightened me, but at the same time it stimulated me: It is something completely new for me and it is a risk.

Finally, I am finishing shooting some video that I would like to show at my next exhibit at Gladstone Gallery in New York. I’m going to make a trilogy, three short films about dreams. The style will be conceptual, like my other videos “Turbulent” and “Rapture.” They will be in black and white and with a woman as the main character. I had already made ​​for the Biennale a three-minute movie with Natalie Portman. Now the format is 10 minutes, and it will be part of the trilogy that will call “Dreamers.” That’s all for now. Then I will see what else comes up.