Neshat has been recognized countless times for her work, from winning the International Award of the XLVIII Venice Biennale in 1999, to winning the Silver Lion for best director at the 66th Venice Film Festival in 2009, to being named Artist of the Decade by Huffington Post critic G. Roger Denson.
Neshat is the fourth of five children of wealthy parents, brought up in the religious town of Qazvin in north-western Iran under a "very warm, supportive Muslim family environment", where she learned traditional religious values through her maternal grandparents. Neshat's father was a physician and her mother a homemaker. Neshat said that her father "fantasized about the west, romanticized the west, and slowly rejected all of his own values; both her parents did. What happened, I think, was that their identity slowly dissolved, they exchanged it for comfort. It served their class”.
As a part of Neshat’s "Westernization" she was enrolled in a Catholic boarding school in Tehran. Through her father’s acceptance of Western ideologies came an acceptance of a form of western feminism. Neshat’s father encouraged each of his daughters to "be an individual, to take risks, to learn, to see the world", and he sent his daughters as well as his sons to college to receive their higher education.
In 1975, Neshat left Iran to study art at UC Berkeley and completed her BA, MA and MFA. Neshat graduated from UC Berkeley in 1983, where she soon moved to New York City, it was there she quickly realized that making art wasn’t going to be her profession at the time. After meeting her future husband, who ran the Storefront for Art and Architecture, an alternative space in Manhattan, she dedicated 10 years of her life to working with him at the storefront, which was where her true education began.
During this time, she did not make any serious attempts at creating art, and the few attempts were subsequently destroyed. In 1990, she returned to Iran. "It was probably one of the most shocking experiences that I have ever had. The difference between what I had remembered from the Iranian culture and what I was witnessing was enormous. The change was both frightening and exciting; I had never been in a country that was so ideologically based. Most noticeable, of course, was the change in people's physical appearance and public behavior."
She was very intimidated by the New York art scene and the art she was making was not substantial enough. She explains that the storefront ran like a cultural laboratory, she not only had exposure to artists, architects, philosophers, etc. It kick started her passion for art again, made her think deeply about herself and what she wanted to create as an artist. She states “those ten years I made practically no art, and the art I did make I was dissatisfied with and eventually destroyed.” It was only until 1993 that Neshat began seriously to make art again, the first of which being her photographs.
Neshat’s earliest works were photographs, such as the Unveiling (1993) and Women of Allah (1993–97) series, which explore notions of femininity in relation to Islamic fundamentalism and militancy in her home country. As a way of coping with the discrepancy between the culture that she was experiencing and that of the pre-revolution Iran in which she was raised, she began her first mature body of work, the Women of Allah series, portraits of women entirely overlaid by Persian calligraphy.
Her work refers to the social, cultural and religious codes of Muslim societies and the complexity of certain oppositions, such as man and woman. Neshat often emphasizes this theme showing two or more coordinated films concurrently, creating stark visual contrasts through motifs such as light and dark, black and white, male and female. Neshat has also made more traditional narrative short films, such as Zarin.
The work of Neshat addresses the social, political and psychological dimensions of women's experience in contemporary Islamic societies. Although Neshat actively resists stereotypical representations of Islam, her artistic objectives are not explicitly polemical. Rather, her work recognizes the complex intellectual and religious forces shaping the identity of Muslim women throughout the world. Using Persian poetry and calligraphy she examined concepts such as martyrdom, the space of exile, the issues of identity and femininity.
In 2001–02, Neshat collaborated with singer Sussan Deyhim and created Logic of the Birds, which was produced by curator and art historian RoseLee Goldberg. The full length multimedia production premiered at the Lincoln Center Summer Festival in 2002 and toured to the Walker Art Institute in Minneapolis and to Artangel in London. In this collaboration, as well as her other projects that incorporate music, Neshat uses sound to help create an emotionally evocative and beautiful piece that will resonate with viewers of both Eastern and Western cultures. In an interview with Bomb magazine in 2000, Neshat revealed: "Music becomes the soul, the personal, the intuitive, and neutralizes the sociopolitical aspects of the work. This combination of image and music is meant to create an experience that moves the audience."
Neshat was profiled in The New Yorker magazine on October 22, 2007.
When Neshat first came to use film, she was influenced by the work of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. She directed several videos, among them Anchorage (1996) and, projected on two opposing walls: Shadow under the Web (1997), Turbulent (1998), Rapture (1999) and Soliloquy (1999). Neshat's recognition became more international in 1999, when she won the International Award of the XLVIII Venice Biennale with Turbulent and Rapture, a project involving almost 250 extras and produced by the Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont which met with critical and public success after its worldwide avant-première at the Art Institute of Chicago in May 1999. With Rapture, Neshat tried for the first time to make pure photography with the intent of creating an aesthetic, poetic, and emotional shock. Games of Desire, a video and still-photography piece, was displayed between September 3 and October 3 at the Gladstone Gallery in Brussels before moving in November to the Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont in Paris. The film, which is based in Laos, centers on a small group of elderly people who sing folk songs with sexual lyrics - a practice which had been nearing obsolescence.
In 2009 she won the Silver Lion for best director at the 66th Venice Film Festival for her directorial debut Women Without Men, based on Shahrnush Parsipur's novel of the same name. She said about the movie: "This has been a labour of love for six years.(...) This film speaks to the world and to my country." The film examines the 1953 British-American backed coup, which supplanted Iran's democratically elected government with a monarchy.
In July 2009 Neshat took part in a three-day hunger strike at the United Nations Headquarters in New York in protest of the 2009 Iranian presidential election.
Since her first solo exhibition, at Franklin Furnace in New York in 1993, Neshat has been featured in solo exhibitions at the Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City; Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2002); Castello di Rivoli, Turin; Dallas Museum of Art (2000); Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Serpentine Gallery, London; Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León, León; and the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin (2005). In 2008, her solo exhibition “Women Without Men” opened at the ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Denmark, and traveled to the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, and to the Kulturhuset, Stockholm. She was included in Prospect.1, the 2008 New Orleans Biennial, documenta XI, the 2000 Whitney Biennial, and the 1999 Venice Biennale. In 2012 Shirin Neshat had a Solo Exhibition in Singapore, Game of Desire at Art Plural Gallery. A major retrospective of Neshat’s work, organized by the Detroit Institute of Arts, was scheduled to open in 2013.
Since 2000 Neshat has also participated in film festivals, including the Telluride Film Festival (2000), Chicago International Film Festival (2001), San Francisco International Film Festival (2001), Locarno International Film Festival (2002), Tribeca Film Festival (2003), Sundance Film Festival (2003), and Cannes Film Festival (2008).
In 2013 she was a member of the jury at the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival.
Dirimart is pleased to announce DREAMERS, an exhibition by Shirin Neshat, curated by Heinz Peter Schwerfel. The show will include 2 video installations; “Roja” (2016) and “Sara” (2016) in addition to a series of new photos titled “Dreamers”. Each video revolves around single female protagonists whose emotional and psychological narratives remain on the border of dream and reality; madness and sanity; and consciousness and sub-consciousness as they each face their own distinct inner anxieties.
These beautifully shot, black and white films share similar surrealistic and dreamy visual effects. Based on aspects of the artist’s own recurring dreams, memories and sense of longings; Neshat manages to achieve a haunting quality through simple, nonlinear narratives and effective use of subtle camera techniques. In all the works, natural landscapes and distinct monolithic architecture become dominant aspects of the brief narratives, which indirectly investigate issues of gender, power, displacement, protest, identity, and the space between the personal and the political.
Neshat was artist in residence at the Wexner Center for the Arts (2000) and at MASS MoCA (2001). In 2004 she was awarded an honorary professorship at the Universität der Künste, Berlin. In 2006 she was awarded The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, one of the richest prizes in the arts, given annually to “a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.”
In 2010 Neshat was named Artist of the Decade by Huffington Post critic G. Roger Denson, for "the degree to which world events have more than met the artist in making her art chronically relevant to an increasingly global culture," for reflecting "the ideological war being waged between Islam and the secular world over matters of gender, religion, and democracy," and because "the impact of her work far transcends the realms of art in reflecting the most vital and far-reaching struggle to assert human rights."
In 2015 Neshat was selected and photographed by Annie Leibovitz as part of the 43rd Pirelli Calendar which celebrated some of the world's most inspiring women.
Cindy Sherman was the first person to buy Neshat's work, at Annina Nosei Gallery in 1995.
At the 2017 Salzburg Festival Neshat directed Giuseppe Verdi's opera Aida, with Riccardo Muti as conductor and Anna Netrebko singing the main character. Asked by the festival organizers about the particular challenge for an Iranian woman to stage a play that deals with the threats of political obedience and religion for the privat life and love Neshat said "Sometimes the boundaries between Aida and myself are blurred.”Turbulent, 1998. Two channel video/audio installation.
Rapture, 1999. Two channel video/audio installation.
Soliloquy, 1999. Color video/audio installation with artist as the protagonist.
Fervor, 2000. Two channel video/audio installation.
Passage, 2001. Single channel video/audio installation.
Logic of the Birds, 2002. Multi-media performance.
Tooba, 2002. Two channel video/audio installation based on Shahrnush Parsipur’s novel Women Without Men.
Mahdokht, 2004. Three channel video/audio installation.
Zarin, 2005. Single channel video/audio installation.
Munis, 2008. Color video/audio installation based on Shahrnush Parsipur’s novel Women Without Men.
Faezeh, 2008. Color video/audio installation based on Shahrnush Parsipur’s novel Women Without Men.
Possession, 2009. Black & white video/audio installation.
Women Without Men, 2009. Feature film based on Shahrnush Parsipur’s novel Women Without Men.
Illusions & Mirrors, 2013. Film commissioned by Dior and featuring Natalie Portman.
Looking for Oum Kulthum, 2017, film.
First International Prize at the Venice Biennale (1999)
Grand Prix at the Kwangju Biennale (2000)
Visual Art Award from the Edinburgh International Film Festival (2000)
Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography in New York (2002)
ZeroOne Award from the Universität der Künste Berlin (2003)
Hiroshima Freedom Prize from the Hiroshima City Museum of Art (2005)
Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize in New York (2006)
Rockefeller Foundation Media Arts Fellowship in New York (2008)
Cultural Achievement Award, Asia Society in New York (2008)
Cinema for Peace Special Award, Hessischer Filmpreis, Germany (2009)
Crystal Award, World Economy Forum, Davos, Switzerland (2014)
USA Rockefeller Fellow, United States Artists, New York (2016)
Expressing the inexpressible [videorecording DVD]: Shirin Neshat. 2004, 42 minutes, Color. Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities & Sciences. Originally produced by Westdeutscher Rundfunk in 2000.
Women Without Men (2009 film)