Skip main navigation

Lens-based Activism: Shirin Neshat

Melanie Manos discusses the work of Iranian artist Shirin Neshat's, which uses images and text to explore gender dynamics and cultural identities.
6.7
<v ->Shirin Neshat is a photographer</v> and filmmaker born and raised in Iran. [Narrator] Her work is distinctive for its use of text and imagery, exploring gender dynamics and cultural identity as a middle Eastern woman. Neshat work is often layered with symbolism. Here, we see a woman that Neshat herself has described as “touching her lip with her fingers, “as if she’s just about to open her mouth, “but nothing comes out. “And in fact, her words are inscribed on her hands”
43.5
The words we see are taken from a poem by a famous Iranian poet and feminist Forugh Farrokhzad. They use a garden as a metaphor for a woman. “No one is thinking about the flowers. “No one is thinking about the fish. “No one wants to believe that the garden is dying, “that the garden is slowly forgetting its green moments”
70.1
Neshat also pairs that with a traditional Islamic saying from her childhood, that one uses to ask God for help. For all the layers It can be tempting to see Neshat’s work and assume because it uses such specific symbolism that it’s only focusing on or critiquing Iranian culture. And that critique is definitely there, but Neshat is also giving us a window into her subject. Rather than portray her as a victim or a symbol she allows her to be a complicated figure with depth and desire. Neshat’s work is created for and experienced by a global audience and is exhibited in museums.
116.1
She offers an alternative to the objectified female from the viewpoint of the male gaze, we see so frequently in our work. [Narrator] In another of Neshat’s pieces from the same series, we see a woman’s feet also overlayed with words from another prominent female Iranian poet. The prose here is about martyrdom and is visually reinforced by the barrel of a rifle pointing directly at the viewer. Outside of the gun, there’s nothing threatening about the subjects pose and her bare feet instead seemed distinctly soft and vulnerable. Neshat is juxtaposing feminine ideals often ascribed to middle Eastern women. The vulnerable subservient woman as a lesser citizen and the dangerous religious fanatic.
170.6
By showing a woman exhibiting traits from both extremes, she shows that neither can tell her true story.
179.2
Well, Neshat is using references to critique how fundamentalism deals with femininity. We can also recognize this stereotyping of Islamic women throughout American culture. It’s not just something specific to religious extremism, but is in many ways a product of the same male-centric gaze Suzanne Lacy and the Guerrilla Girls address in their work.

Iranian artist Shirin Neshat’s works use images and text to explore gender dynamics and cultural identities.

View more about Shirin Neshat.

This article is from the free online

Visualizing Women's Work: Using Art Media for Social Justice

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education