Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat’s first solo show in Washington features a sequence of black-and-white photographs of women clad in black chadors. What’s striking is that some of the women are holding guns, and their faces, hands and feet are covered with Persian calligraphy that Neshat inscribed on the photos with ink.
With these portraits from her mid-1990s “Women of Allah” series, Neshat set out to subvert the Western stereotype of powerless Muslim women. By adding the Persian texts, which come from poetry by contemporary female Iranian writers, Neshat gave her protagonists a voice.
“The Western view is that Iranian women or Muslim women are very repressed, but the reality is that in my country, women are far more radical and rebellious than men are,” Neshat says. “My work is an allegorical sort of remark on the reality as I see it, as I feel it.”
The images are featured in the exhibit “Shirin Neshat: Facing History,” which opened at the Hirshhorn this week and takes up an entire floor of gallery space. It’s the inaugural exhibition organized by Melissa Chiu, who took over as museum director in late 2014.
Over the past two decades, Neshat’s photography, video installations and films have offered a distinctive commentary on her native Iran through her personal lens as a longtime exile based in New York.
The 58-year-old artist has had solo exhibitions everywhere from New York and Paris to Detroit and Seoul in recent years, but little of her work has been shown in Washington until now.
“As the world has changed, especially post-9/11, [Neshat’s] work has acquired even more importance as research for a counterbalance to the prevailing idea of the Middle East and particularly Iran,” Chiu says.
The Hirshhorn has structured the exhibit around three defining moments in Iranian history that Neshat’s works reference: the 1953 U.S.-backed coup that overthrew democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the 2009 pro-democracy Green Movement.
For example, Neshat’s surrealist 2008 short film “Munis” — about a woman’s apparent suicide in response to familial and political repression during the 1953 upheaval — is presented alongside news photos and documentary material from the period, with the aim of providing context in a way that other shows haven’t.
“There’s been a tendency to read her work in terms of representing the Middle East and Islam and women. And I think sometimes the specificity is lost in those generalizations,” Chiu says. “It’s really Iran that is the central driver, the central reference point, in her work.”
That this exhibition has opened during a time of seemingly historic rapprochement between Washington and Tehran is not lost on the artist.
“We’re sitting here in Washington, Iran and the USA are in negotiation, and there is an exhibit by an Iranian woman artist that is targeting three different pivotal periods of Iranian history,” Neshat says. “I just find that fascinating. But certainly, I didn’t plan on it.”
Hirshhorn Museum, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW; through Sept. 20, free.
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