Shirin Neshat

Article Bio Works Projects Images
gender, Islam, modernity
Visual Arts (photography, video art)
Middle East, America, North
Iran (Islamic Republic of), United States of America
New York
created on:
May 12, 2003
last changed on:
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Away overseas

Hardly any other Iranian artist won acclaim as quickly as Shirin Neshat at the end of the 90s. Born in Iran in 1957, she studied art at the University of California; and her fame rests on photographs and videos contrasting Islam and the West, men and women, constraints and desires, the public and the private, the old and the new. Her works also bridge the growing gulf between them in a choreography of reconciliation.
In the beginning was the shock. 6 years after leaving Iran at the age of 17 to study in California, Shirin Neshat flew back in 1990 to visit her family. The land had changed: "Persian culture is based on quite different values to the Islamic one. It is less stiff, more poetic and bookish and very old. The new government brought a very strict, pure form of Islam into the country. They wished to erase Persian history and to replace it with a general Islamic culture."(Cited from Aufbruch in die islamische Moderne, in Art, Das Kunstmagazin, 2000, no. 4, p. 24).

Through photographs and videos Shirin Neshat has since been showing the gulf between the wealth of Persian culture on the one hand and the narrow restraints of everyday life in the Islamic Republic of Iran on the other, a gulf which critics have yet to explore in depth. Her series of photographs "Women of Allah" (1993-97) appeared in galleries in New York and Europe and brought her fame, and since 1998 her video-installations have appeared in museums all round the world; but till she took part in a group exhibition in the French Institute in Morocco in 2001, her works had never been seen within the borders of Islam and had mostly been reviewed in the West. There the calligraphy on the faces, soles and hands of her photographed women had been appreciated as decoration but not as lines from contemporary poetesses writing in Farsi, her mother tongue. Only when the photographs have reached both cultures will their meaning fully unfold.

Shirin Neshat has become known in an intercultural context, and her bridge-building has not been an effort at translation but rather at dealing with paradoxes. Though aware of the borders of political power-structures and of the economy of the art-market, which have determined the sites of her shows, she draws freely on her visual and poetic imagination.

In the series "Women of Allah" the contrast between the calligraphic text on women’s bodies and the prohibition on speech is often suggested by titles. In "Speechless" the barrel of a gun peeps out from between a head-cloth and a woman’s beautiful face laced with calligraphy, and in "Rebellious Silence" the cold steel of a weapon parts a woman’s face and dark body into light and shade. The clothing and weapons suggest both women’s defence of Allah in the revolution, and their defence of privacy and chastity in daily life. In these images there is a clear but ambiguous contrast between defence and attack, secrecy and exposure, eroticism and aggression. The range of imagery is kept within the cultural, religious and social codices of Islamic society, so Shirin Neshat is entitled to claim to have opened "a pictorial discourse between feminism and contemporary Islam", though "not as an expert" but as a "passionate researcher". (Cited from an Interview with Gerald Matt from the catalogue "Shirin Neshat", Kunsthalle Wien and Serpentine Gallery, London, 2000.)

"Turbulent", a video made in 1998, is about men’s and women’s spheres of influence. Men make themselves felt in war and politics, and women in art and music. On two opposing screens are seen a male and a female singer respectively. The man sings a song from the 13th century and is viewed by a fettered camera from behind, but the woman pours out her feelings to the whole world (and an empty auditorium) and is viewed freely by a circling camera from all sides. The Persian woman’s song is without words but invests classical Persian music with a new intense feeling and sensuality. On this video Shirin Neshat worked for the first time with the composer and singer Sussan Deyhim, who likewise comes from Iran and lives in New York.

Stony restraint and breezy spontaneity appear also in her next video "Rapture" (1999), which is likewise black and white and made in Morocco. Once more men and women appear separately, this time in large groups. The men move through a stone fortress, where the sequence of their actions is determined by the archways, narrow passages and raised galleries winding between battlements and cannon. They meet in circles, climb ladders and take up positions on the edges of walls. The women on the other hand flutter like moths through the open landscape, gather in an empty field, raise hands inscribed with calligraphy – appealing, warning or grieving – and turn finally towards the sea, to set forth in boats. In effect the women turn back from the fossilised fortress to the sea as the source of life. The music, again from Sussan Deyhim, supports the rhythmic interaction of the two opposing groups: on the one hand the women peacefully interacting with each other and at one with the open sea, and on the other hand the men declaring war on each other and withdrawing behind walls.

Like "Rapture", the film "Fervor" (2000) used two screens to show the segregation of women and men. The mere effort of glancing this way and that to relate them to each other was quite a strain, suggesting how great a strain the historical separation was in the first place. In her staging of the sexual dichotomy, Shirin Neshat takes it to extremes, and the pressure of social constraint on the individual is hard to bear. This constraint is embodied by the architecture, and the videos are like choreography, exploring the few opportunities which it affords.

Shirin Neshat’s work is devised in New York, and the locations are in Marocco or Turkey. The cultural gap between them serves as a theme for "Soliloquy" (1999). Once more the viewer stands between two screens and follows the two paths taken by a woman, one of them being through old Arabic architecture and a wide landscape, and the other being through a New York borough. Once more the two spaces are related by sounds and rhythms, as is life in America and in Iran to Shirin Neshat. The video forges an aesthetic and hopeful link between worlds still drifting apart.
Author: Katrin Bettina Müller


Shirin Neshat was born in 1957 in Kaswin in Iran. At the age of 17, she was sent by her parents to study art at the University of California (1979-82), then together with her husband she founded the Storefront for Art and Architecture as a non-commercial gallery in Soho, New York. She did not work as an artist till she had visited Iran after the revolution of 1990 but then took photographs and devised video installations, which were soon internationally acclaimed. Her videos are made with the help of the musician Sussan Deyhim and the cameraman Ghasem Ebrahimian.



Film / TV,


Film / TV,


Film / TV,


Film / TV,

Women of Allah

Film / TV,
1993 - 1997

Shadow under the Web

Film / TV,

Group Exhibitions (Choice)

Exhibition / Installation
2006 "Hablando con las manos“, Guggenheim Bilbao, Bilbao, Spain "Forms of Orientalism“, Studio La Città, Verona, Italy "War is Over”, GAMeC Galleria d´Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Bergamo, Italy 2005 "Translation", Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France "Boost In The Shell“, De Bond, Bruges, Belgium "Boost In The Shell“, Aeroplastics Contemporary, Brussel, Belgium "Some Stories”, Magazin 4”, Bregenz, Austria "Foto di famiglia“, Ierimonti Gallery, Milan, Italy "Some Stories”, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, Austria "Über Schönheit“, House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany "Happy Birthday“, Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont, Paris, France "Paula’s Home“, Lentos Kunstmuseum Linz, Linz, Austria "In Focus: Themes in Photography“, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, New York, USA 2004 "Piss Off“, Museum of New Art, Pontiac, Michigan, USA "Premieres”, MoMA - Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA "Paula´s Home”, Lentos Kunstmuseum Linz, Linz, Austria "Non Toccare la Donna Bianca”, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, Italy "Love / Hate. From Magritte to Cattelan“, Villa Manin. Centro d´arte contemporanea, Passariano, Italy "Support - Die Neue Galerie als Sammlung“, Neue Galerie Graz am Landesmuseum Joanneum, Graz, Austria "Entfernte Nähe - Neue Positionen Iranischer Künstler“, House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany 2003 "How We Live”, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia "Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Collection”, IVAM - Institut Valencià d´Art Modern, Valencia, Spain "Strangers: The First ICP Triennial of Photography and Video”, International Center of Photography, New York, USA "Female Turbulence”, Aeroplastics Contemporary, Brussel, Belgium "Nancy Spero and Shirin Neshat”, Galeria Filomena Soares, Lisbon, Portugal 2002 "The NewArt Exhibition”, Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, Teheran, Iran "Documenta XI”, Edition Schellmann, Munich, Germany "Iconos Metropolitanos Núcleo New York XXV”, Bienal de San Pablo Fundación PROA, Buenos Aires, Argentina "Moving Pictures”, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA "Documenta XI”, Documenta, Kassel, Germany 2001 "Strategies”, MUSEION - Museo d’arte moderna e contemporanea, Bozen, Italy "Ornament und Abstraktion”, Foundation Beyeler, Riehen, Switzerland "A Way with Words”, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA 2000 "Partage d´exotismes / Sharing exoticisms“, La biennale d´art contemporain de Lyon, Lyon, France "Biennial of Sydney 2000“, Biennial of Sydney, Sydney, Australia 1999 "Zeitwenden - Rückblick und Ausblick“, Kunstmuseum Bonn, Bonn, Germany "The Hand”, The Power Plant, Toronto, Canada "video cult/ures”, ZKM | Museum für Neue Kunst, Karlsruhe, Germany 1998 "7de Zomer van de Fotografie“, Museum voor Hedendaagse Kunst, Antwerp, Belgium 1997 "Alternating Currents”, Johannesburg Biennial, Johannesburg, South Africa "TRIPLE X: Contemporary Investigating Arts", International Art Festival, Amsterdam, Netherlands "Der Rest der Welt", Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt, Berlin, Germany "foto text/text foto", Museum of Modern Art, Bozen, Italy "Le Masque et le Miroir", Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona, Spain "Feminine Image", Nassau County Museum of Art, New York, USA 1996 "Gallery Artists", Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco, USA "Jurassic Technologies Revenant", Sydney Biennial, Sydney, Australia "Le Masque et le Miroir", Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie, Arles, France "Inclusion/Exclusion“, Künstlerhaus, Graz, Austria "Radical Images: Austrian Triannial on Photography 1996", Neue Galerie, Graz, Austria "Interzones", Kunstforeningen Gl. Strand, Copenhagen, Denmark "Ghostwriter", Mercer Union, Toronto, Canada "Group Exhibition", Haines Gallery, San Francisco, USA "Auf Den Leib", Kunsthalle, Wien, Austria "Gallery Artists“, Galerie Lumen Travo, Amsterdam, Netherlands "Imaginary Beings“, Exit Art, New York, USA 1995 "Gallery Artists", Annina Nosei Gallery, New York, USA "It´s How You Play the Game", Exit Art, New York, USA 1994 "Three New Photographers", Haines Gallery, San Francisco, USA "Revolving Histories", SF Camerawork, San Francisco, USA "Selection from the Artists File", Artists Space, New York, USA "Labyrinth of Exile: Recent Works by Four Contemporary Iranian Artists", Fowler Museum of Cultural History, Los Angeles, USA "Fever", Wexner Center, Columbus, USA "Beyond the Borders: Arts by Recent Immigrants", The Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York, USA 1993 "Fever", Exit Art Gallery, New York City, USA

Solo Exhibitions (Choice)

Exhibition / Installation
2006 "Posessed“, Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, Germany "Shirin Neshat“, Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin, Germany 2005 "Recent and Earlier Works“, Museum der Gegenwart, Berlin, Germany "Shirin Neshat“, Museum der Moderne, Salzburg, Austria "Shirin Neshat“, Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York, USA "Shirin Neshat“, Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam, Netherlands "The Last Word“, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla Y León, Léon, Spain "The 6th Hiroshima Art Prize”, Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, Hiroshima, Japan "Shirin Neshat“, GEM Museum voor Actuele Kunst, The Hague, Netherlands 2004 "Through The Eyes Of Shirin Neshat”, Auckland Art Gallery, Auckland, New Zealand "Turbulent“, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, Australia "International Festival of Video Art“,The State Hermitage Museum, Sankt Petersburg, Russia "Tooba”, Asia Society, New York, USA 2003 "Shirin Neshat“, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, USA "Shirin Neshat“, MAM - Miami Art Museum, Miami, USA "Rapture“, Tensta konsthall, Spanga, Sweden 2002 "Shirin Neshat - Extase (Rapture, 1999)”, Museo Guggenheim de Arte Moderno y Contemporáneo, Bilbao, Spain "Shirin Neshat – Video”, The Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw, Poland "Shirin Neshat”, Museo d’arte contemporanea Castello di Rivoli, Turin, Italy 2001 "Shirin Neshat”, Musée d´art contemporain de Montréal, Montreal, Canada "Shirin Neshat”, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Ireland "Shirin Neshat – Rapture”, Arizona State University Art Museum, Tempe, USA "Shirin Neshat”, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg 2000 "Shirin Neshat“, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, Austria "Shirin Neshat - Concentrations 34“, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, USA 1999 "Shirin Neshat“, Malmö Konsthall, Malmö, Sweden "Unfinished History“, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Chicago, USA 1998 Tate Gallery, London, Great Britain 1997 Museum of Modern Art, Lubljana, Slowenia 1996 "Shirin Neshat", Centre d´Art Contemporain, Fribourg, Switzerland 1993 Franklin Furnace, New York, USA


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.

Far Near Distance

Contemporary Positions of Iranian Artists

(19 March 04 - 09 May 04)

Real Fictions in the Project Far Near Distance

A curated chapter in

(19 March 04 - 09 May 04)

The other Modernism

Contemporary Art from Africa, Asia & Latin America

(08 May 97 - 27 July 97)
Allegiance with Wakefulness
Women of Allah
Grace under Duty