|Mona Jensen: The Orientalist discourse was pinpointed by the Palestinian American professor and literary theorist, Edward Said. In his book Orientalism from 1978 he argued that since the 19th century, the West has reduced the cultures of the East into a mythical Orient. By distinguishing sharply between the West and the East, the West defined itself in contrast to the Other, to the East—as a superior culture. We all know that 9/11 and, on a smaller scale, the Mohammed Cartoons changed our world, or at least our perception of the world. Terrorism and wars in the Middle East area have increased tensions between the East and the West. And an incipient fertile and equal dialogue was replaced by hostile feelings toward the East and Islam in particular.|
Shirin Neshat interviewed by Mona Jensen
Mona Jensen: The Orientalist discourse was pinpointed by the Palestinian American professor and literary theorist, Edward Said. In his book Orientalism from 1978 he argued that since the 19th century, the West has reduced the cultures of the East into a mythical Orient. By distinguishing sharply between the West and the East, the West defined itself in contrast to the Other, to the East—as a superior culture.
We all know that 9/11 and, on a smaller scale, the Mohammed Cartoons changed our world, or at least our perception of the world. Terrorism and wars in the Middle East area have increased tensions between the East and the West. And an incipient fertile and equal dialogue was replaced by hostile feelings toward the East and Islam in particular.
You have expressed very strong feelings about how Westerners, especially powerful people, deny distinguishing between Islam as a spiritual religion and Islam as a political, ideological weapon. At the same time, I know you have an urgently critical stance toward the Islamic world and its repressive and sometimes violent behavior. I know you have felt very angry about the damage the Islamic revolution did to Iran. Will you please tell us more about this?
Shirin Neshat: You have described my dilemma very well. I seem to be caught between two opposing poles. As you have mentioned, on one hand I’m entirely opposed to the simplistic, stereotypically negative image that has been constructed about the Islamic culture in the West, which essentially undermines the truth that the practice of Islam differs widely from culture to culture, and one must not generalize. Yet indeed like many Westerners, I myself do not sympathize or endorse “radical” Islam, or any group who simply uses religion as a tool to serve a political interest.
I consider myself a secular Muslim, and support many Muslims who look to their “faith” with a deep sense of spiritual conviction. Many of my own family members are religious, but do not at all endorse the way in which Islam has been currently practiced in their own country and the region. I have felt insulted at times by the Western perception of and views on Muslims, so at times I have taken the public stand that reductive judgment and readings should not be tolerated. Obviously there is a great cultural gap between Islam and the Western world, which has only further widened over the recent years since September 11 and the American war in Iraq. This may be partially due to the fact that Westerners continue to look at other cultures within their own ideas of rationality. In the case of the Mohammed Cartoons, so much of course has already been said, but obviously most Europeans underestimated the magnitude of such insults to the Muslims, where perhaps similar behavior in the West would most likely have been tolerated.
Regardless of clichéd Western readings about Islamic culture, I myself speak out strongly against the terrible and at times atrocious behavior of the Islamic world, particularly in my own country. I have personally paid a great price for it by not being allowed to travel freely to my own home and basically living in a form of self-imposed exile. I have made several works which have directly questioned the Iranian Islamic revolution and particularly its treatment of women.
MJ: In 1974 you went to California to study art at Berkeley, and you have actually lived 33 years in the U.S., approximately two-thirds of your life. Nevertheless, you are still looked upon as an Iranian woman working with authentic Iranian themes. Almost all critics initially introduce you by mentioning your Iranian origins. Being at once Western and Eastern, please give me your comments on how nationality and exile have influenced you, and how you cope with it when creating art?
SN: I think the question of “home” or “origin” is a subject that can’t be avoided. It’s very true that I have spent far more years in the U.S.A. now than in my own place of birth, but it is also true that my relationship to my home continues to remain unresolved. My very first works were developed on the basis of a personal desire for a sort of reunification with my country and family. Obviously nostalgia played a big part, but essentially engaging in a form of artistic conversation with my country kept the relationship alive and vital. To this day, while my art appears to have an elaborate social political edge, it continues to be my way of facing my own personal unresolved questions and anxieties. Also, although the themes of my work continue to be Iranian and concerning the Islamic population, essentially I believe my art is intended to transcend the notion of “place” and “nationality” and function more on a universal basis.
MJ: At the beginning of the 90s, after your first visit to Iran, you entered into the world of art with photographic series including Women of Allah with its references to women and the Iranian Islamic revolution. These are staged photographs picturing yourself dressed in chador and sometimes carrying a weapon, in which you have written texts in Farsi on those parts of your body not covered up by a chador, for example, the face, hands, and feet. These works are extremely expressive and sensitive, and they contributed greatly to extending the boundaries of contemporary art internationally. What was the driving force behind the photographs?
SN: I have been educated in the West, therefore my methods remain Western while my subjects remain deeply Eastern. For example, my photographs are highly stylized and inspired by conceptual art originating in Western art history. These images break the rules of what I consider conventional photography by incorporating calligraphy and introducing the art of performance into the picture.