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TEDWomen 2010

Shirin Neshat: Art in exile

December 4, 2010

Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat explores the paradox of being an artist in exile: a voice for her people, but unable to go home. In her work, she explores Iran pre- and post-Islamic Revolution, tracing political and societal change through powerful images of women.

Shirin Neshat - Iranian visual artist
Shirin Neshat has lived much of her life outside her native Iran. Her photographs and films offer a glimpse of the cultural, religious and political realities that shape the identities of Muslim women worldwide. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
The story I wanted to share with you today
00:15
is my challenge as an Iranian artist,
00:17
as an Iranian woman artist,
00:21
as an Iranian woman artist
00:23
living in exile.
00:25
Well, it has its pluses and minuses.
00:28
On the dark side,
00:31
politics doesn't seem to escape people like me.
00:33
Every Iranian artist, in one form or another,
00:36
is political.
00:39
Politics have defined our lives.
00:41
If you're living in Iran,
00:44
you're facing censorship, harassment,
00:46
arrest, torture --
00:49
at times, execution.
00:51
If you're living outside like me,
00:54
you're faced with life in exile --
00:56
the pain of the longing
00:58
and the separation from your loved ones
01:00
and your family.
01:02
Therefore, we don't find
01:04
the moral, emotional,
01:06
psychological and political space
01:08
to distance ourselves from the reality
01:10
of social responsibility.
01:13
Oddly enough,
01:16
an artist such as myself
01:18
finds herself also in the position of being the voice,
01:20
the speaker of my people,
01:24
even if I have, indeed,
01:27
no access to my own country.
01:29
Also, people like myself,
01:32
we're fighting two battles on different grounds.
01:35
We're being critical of the West,
01:38
the perception of the West
01:40
about our identity --
01:42
about the image that is constructed about us,
01:44
about our women, about our politics,
01:47
about our religion.
01:50
We are there to take pride
01:52
and insist on respect.
01:54
And at the same time,
01:56
we're fighting another battle.
01:58
That is our regime,
02:00
our government --
02:02
our atrocious government,
02:04
[that] has done every crime
02:06
in order to stay in power.
02:08
Our artists are at risk.
02:11
We are in a position of danger.
02:14
We pose a threat
02:17
to the order of the government.
02:19
But ironically,
02:21
this situation
02:23
has empowered all of us,
02:25
because we are considered, as artists,
02:27
central to the cultural, political,
02:29
social discourse in Iran.
02:32
We are there to inspire, to provoke,
02:34
to mobilize,
02:37
to bring hope to our people.
02:39
We are the reporters of our people,
02:41
and are communicators
02:44
to the outside world.
02:46
Art is our weapon.
02:48
Culture is a form of resistance.
02:51
I envy sometimes the artists of the West
02:54
for their freedom of expression.
02:57
For the fact that they can distance themselves
02:59
from the question of politics.
03:02
From the fact that they are only serving one audience,
03:04
mainly the Western culture.
03:06
But also, I worry about the West,
03:09
because often in this country,
03:13
in this Western world that we have,
03:15
culture risks being a form of entertainment.
03:18
Our people depend on our artists,
03:23
and culture is beyond communication.
03:26
My journey as an artist
03:30
started from a very, very personal place.
03:32
I did not start
03:35
to make social commentary
03:37
about my country.
03:39
The first one that you see in front of you
03:41
is actually when I first returned to Iran
03:44
after being separated for a good 12 years.
03:46
It was after the Islamic Revolution
03:49
of 1979.
03:51
While I was absent from Iran,
03:54
the Islamic Revolution had descended on Iran
03:57
and had entirely transformed the country
04:00
from Persian to the Islamic culture.
04:02
I came mainly to be reunited with my family
04:05
and to reconnect in a way
04:08
that I found my place in the society.
04:10
But instead, I found a country
04:12
that was totally ideological
04:14
and that I didn't recognize anymore.
04:16
More so, I became very interested,
04:19
as I was facing
04:21
my own personal dilemmas and questions,
04:23
I became immersed in the study
04:25
of the Islamic Revolution --
04:27
how, indeed,
04:29
it had incredibly transformed
04:31
the lives of Iranian women.
04:33
I found the subject of Iranian women
04:35
immensely interesting,
04:37
in the way the women of Iran, historically,
04:39
seemed to embody the political transformation.
04:42
So in a way, by studying a woman,
04:45
you can read the structure and the ideology of the country.
04:48
So I made a group of work
04:52
that at once faced my own personal questions in life,
04:54
and yet it brought my work into a larger discourse --
04:58
the subject of martyrdom,
05:01
the question of those who willingly stand in that intersection
05:03
of love of God, faith,
05:07
but violence and crime and cruelty.
05:11
For me, this became incredibly important.
05:14
And yet, I had an unusual position toward this.
05:17
I was an outsider
05:20
who had come back to Iran to find my place,
05:22
but I was not in a position
05:25
to be critical of the government
05:27
or the ideology of the Islamic Revolution.
05:30
This changed slowly
05:33
as I found my voice
05:35
and I discovered things
05:37
that I didn't know I would discover.
05:39
So my art became slightly more critical.
05:41
My knife became a little sharper.
05:44
And I fell into a life in exile.
05:46
I am a nomadic artist.
05:50
I work in Morocco, in Turkey, in Mexico.
05:52
I go everywhere to make believe it's Iran.
05:55
Now I am making films.
05:58
Last year, I finished a film
06:00
called "Women Without Men."
06:02
"Women Without Men" returns to history,
06:04
but another part of our Iranian history.
06:06
It goes to 1953
06:09
when American CIA exercised a coup
06:11
and removed a democratically elected leader,
06:14
Dr. Mossadegh.
06:16
The book is written by an Iranian woman,
06:18
Shahrnush Parsipur.
06:20
It's a magical realist novel.
06:22
This book is banned,
06:24
and she spent five years in prison.
06:26
My obsession with this book,
06:28
and the reason I made this into a film,
06:30
is because it at once was addressing
06:32
the question of being a female --
06:34
traditionally, historically in Iran --
06:36
and the question of four women
06:39
who are all looking for an idea
06:41
of change, freedom and democracy --
06:43
while the country of Iran, equally, as if another character,
06:46
also struggled for an idea
06:49
of freedom and democracy
06:51
and independence from the foreign interventions.
06:53
I made this film
06:56
because I felt it's important
06:58
for it to speak to the Westerners
07:00
about our history as a country.
07:02
That all of you seem to remember Iran
07:05
after the Islamic Revolution.
07:07
That Iran was once a secular society,
07:09
and we had democracy,
07:12
and this democracy was stolen from us
07:14
by the American government,
07:16
by the British government.
07:18
This film also speaks to the Iranian people
07:20
in asking them to return to their history
07:23
and look at themselves before they were so Islamicized --
07:25
in the way we looked, in the way we played music,
07:29
in the way we had intellectual life.
07:32
And most of all,
07:36
in the way that we fought for democracy.
07:38
These are some of the shots actually from my film.
07:41
These are some of the images of the coup.
07:44
And we made this film in Casablanca,
07:46
recreating all the shots.
07:49
This film tried to find a balance
07:51
between telling a political story,
07:54
but also a feminine story.
07:56
Being a visual artist, indeed,
07:58
I am foremost interested to make art --
08:00
to make art that transcends
08:03
politics, religion,
08:05
the question of feminism,
08:07
and become an important, timeless,
08:10
universal work of art.
08:12
The challenge I have
08:14
is how to do that.
08:16
How to tell a political story but an allegorical story.
08:18
How to move you with your emotions,
08:21
but also make your mind work.
08:23
These are some of the images
08:25
and the characters of the film.
08:27
Now comes the green movement --
08:40
the summer of 2009,
08:42
as my film is released --
08:44
the uprising begins in the streets of Tehran.
08:46
What is unbelievably ironic
08:49
is the period that we tried to depict in the film,
08:52
the cry for democracy
08:55
and social justice,
08:57
repeats itself now
08:59
again in Tehran.
09:01
The green movement
09:03
significantly inspired the world.
09:05
It brought a lot of attention to all those Iranians
09:07
who stand for basic human rights
09:10
and struggle for democracy.
09:12
What was most significant for me
09:14
was, once again,
09:16
the presence of the women.
09:18
They're absolutely inspirational for me.
09:20
If in the Islamic Revolution,
09:22
the images of the woman portrayed
09:24
were submissive
09:26
and didn't have a voice,
09:28
now we saw a new idea of feminism
09:30
in the streets of Tehran --
09:32
women who were educated,
09:35
forward thinking, non-traditional,
09:37
sexually open, fearless
09:39
and seriously feminist.
09:42
These women and those young men
09:45
united Iranians
09:48
across the world, inside and outside.
09:50
I then discovered
09:53
why I take so much inspiration
09:55
from Iranian women.
09:57
That, under all circumstances,
09:59
they have pushed the boundary.
10:01
They have confronted the authority.
10:03
They have broken every rule
10:05
in the smallest and the biggest way.
10:07
And once again, they proved themselves.
10:09
I stand here to say
10:11
that Iranian women have found a new voice,
10:13
and their voice is giving me my voice.
10:16
And it's a great honor
10:19
to be an Iranian woman and an Iranian artist,
10:21
even if I have to operate in the West only for now.
10:24
Thank you so much.
10:28
(Applause)
10:30

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Shirin Neshat - Iranian visual artist
Shirin Neshat has lived much of her life outside her native Iran. Her photographs and films offer a glimpse of the cultural, religious and political realities that shape the identities of Muslim women worldwide.

Why you should listen

Shirin Neshat is among the best-known Persian artists in the Western world. She has lived in the United States, in self-imposed exile from her native Iran, for most of her adult life. This experience, of being caught between two cultures, dominates Neshat’s creative work: each of her pieces offers a glimpse into the complex social, religious and political realities that shape her identity—and the identities of Muslim women worldwide.

Neshat’s provocative photographs, videos and multimedia installations have resonated with the curators of many major international art exhibitions, including the XLVIII Venice Biennale, where she won the top prize in 1999. Her first feature film, Women Without Men, tells the stories of four women struggling to escape oppression in Tehran. It won her the Silver Lion for best director at the 2010 Venice Film Festival.

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