The last time I reviewed an exhibition on view at The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, I joined throngs of summertime museum-goers gorging on Takashi Murakami’s Superflat feast.
What a difference three years and one pandemic make. “Shirin Neshat: I Will Greet the Sun Again,” now in the same space, was less populated (for obvious reasons), unembellished and keenly focused in its exploration of Iranian culture and identity.
Born in Iran, Neshat came to the United States in the 1970s to pursue an education free from increasing political volatility in her homeland. After the Shah of Iran was overthrown the country’s post-revolutionary climate of unrest prevented Neshat from returning. She acquired an MFA from the University of California, Berkeley, moved to New York, and began making images during the early 1990s. Since then she’s won prestigious awards and become internationally recognized, although she has only returned to Iran a couple of times and has been an American citizen since 1983.
Now her work is getting a retrospective of major scale in the U.S. Originating at The Broad in Los Angeles, the exhibition boasts over 200 photographs, two videos and seven video installations. Its title comes from a poem by Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad, whose lyrical language (along with Tahereh Saffarzadeh’s) is highlighted in the show. Like Neshat, Farrokhzad was a brave artist known for expressing a frank female perspective in her writing, which also examined culturally prescribed gender roles.
The first photo series on view, “Women of Allah,” features the iconic “Rebellious Silence” (1994), a black and white image of a woman (who, like most from the series, happen to be Neshat) dressed in a chador. While most of her face is visible, it is laced with text from a poem by Tahereh Saffarzadeh “Allegiance with Wakefulness” celebrating martyrdom and acting as a veil. The subject’s body is bisymmetrically divided by the barrel of a rifle she is holding vertically. Her darkly lined eyes are trained on the viewer; thankfully the gun is not.
Another “Untitled” photo from “Women of Allah” (1996) depicts the bottom half of a woman’s face and her hand covers her lips. Her fingers (an area allowed to be seen) display an inscription of Farrokhzad’s “I Pity the Garden” in Farsi calligraphy. The hand position resembles the “hamsa” a popular good luck symbol in the Middle East. Not only is the gesture meant to ward off evil, but it’s known as the “Hand of Fatima” in Islam and used by the Islamic Republic to represent the ideally faithful and virtuous daughter of the prophet Muhammad.
Historically, the Fatimid Dynasty traced their lineage to Muhammad through his daughter Fatima and her husband and were regarded by Shiites as the legitimate successors of the Prophet. So here in this stark black and white photo, a whole host of historical and cultural legacies are layered. And the poet-creative desires expression, but the confines of the law and religious rule are omnipresent.
Vivid portrayals of ideological contrasts, binaries and dichotomies are woven throughout Neshat’s video work, including “Turbulent” (1998). Having myself shown the online version of this video in the classroom, seeing the two-channel installation in person and being immersed in the large-scale projections of two performers on facing screens, is all the more visceral. A large video projection of a male figure (played by Shoja Azari) enthusiastically sings a melodic tune to an audience of attentive men. As his song comes to its climactic finish, the crowd claps and a low moaning or hum immediately begins. A shadowy female projected on the other wall (played by singer Sussan Deyhim) begins to quietly vocalize. As her volume increases the viewer searches to distinguish words but cannot. The romantic lyrics sung by the man are from a traditional Persian song — sentimental and soft. In contrast the syncopated grunts and gasps of the female express and assert her agency. Both the music and sound grab you, and while one figure has an audience the other does not — the viewer is inserted as another audience member positioned amidst a struggle for power and social justice that doesn’t necessarily resolve itself.
Neshat moves away from socio-political content in 2013’s short film “Illusions and Lies.” (Wait, is that Natalie Portman?) Here we follow Portman as she wanders-staggers across a beach and then in a town trying to keep up with indecipherable figures who visually disappear and morph into ephemeral ghost-like forms. It’s pretty clear early on that the artist is influenced by the French Surrealists and their penchant for experimental photographic techniques in this film, although the themes of female identity and displacement can be gleaned too.
Other videos filmed in Morocco and Mexico continue to address topics associated with displacement, exile, refuge and emigration. In “Tooba” (2002) a woman leans against the trunk of a tooba/tuba tree. The tree represents the Koran’s promise of paradise along with Sufi ideas of nourishment, hope and peace. The woman’s weathered skin shows signs of age and her body fatigue, suggesting the trials and endurance associated with emigration. As people approach, she eventually disappears into the tree; it’s unclear whether she has been forced out or willingly merged into the environment.
In addition to the monumental (and somewhat exhaustive) portrait series “The Book of Kings” and “The Home in My Eyes,” is a more unusual multidisciplinary project called, “Land of Dreams” (2019). “Land of Dreams” is designed to capture Trump-era America and recapture the Iranian landscape, drawing on the American Southwest for its setting and subjects. Part of it is a two-channel video that follows an art student knocking on doors and asking to photograph strangers. She also asks them about their most recent dreams. There’s a second video narrative seems to take place in a government facility of some sort, where the female character is archiving materials perhaps to be used for nefarious purposes?
Adjacent to these videos “Land of Dreams” reveals 111 (yes, that many) photographs of New Mexico residents, taken while filming. Hung salon style, these are variously sized portraits of individuals seated and standing looking straight into the camera. They are unidealized to the point of being brutal and all in black and white.
It should be noted that virtually the entire exhibition is in black and white which in formal terms mirrors the range of values examined along with ideological oppositions, absolutes and “gray areas.” Also, many of the works were directed by the artist collaborating with other photographers such as Cynthia Preston, Larry Barns, Bahman Jalali, David Jiménez and Kyong Park. However Neshat’s clarity and consistency of vision and straightforward even confrontational approach to imagery, makes for sweeping stylistic unity and an unwavering artistic voice.
The exhibition is on view the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth through May 16.