An artist whose work explores the role of women in Islamic society, Iranian-born Shirin Neshat, 52, has long drawn on events making news in her homeland. But having lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since she was 17, she had never expected to see her own name in the Iranian papers. All that changed last September, when Neshat, to her great surprise, won the Silver Lion for best director at the Venice Film Festival for her first feature, Women Without Men. “We didn’t even have a poster!” she says with a laugh.
The movie traces the lives of four women living in Tehran in 1953, when a British- and CIA-led coup replaced Iran’s democratically elected government with the Shah. In a show of solidarity with the current uprising—also known as the Green Movement—Neshat walked the red carpet in Venice in a green gown and flashed a peace sign to the crowd. Overnight she found herself one of the faces of the expatriate opposition. “That picture ran in all the conservative papers in Iran; they accused me of being a Zionist and CIA agent,” says Neshat, who has spent the morning scouring Facebook for newly posted video clips of the student protests taking place in Iran that day. “It’s my way of keeping up with what’s going on,” she explains between sips of tea in her loft in New York’s SoHo.
Neshat, whose mother and siblings still live in Iran, has been observing the country from afar since 1974, when her family sent her to California, where she studied painting just as the Iranian revolution was gaining ground. She feared returning for 16 years, during which time she married Korean-American artist-architect Kyong Park; had a son, Cyrus, now 20; and questioned whether she wanted to make art. But in going home again in 1990, she found her subject matter and her voice as an artist. She visited sporadically until 1996, when she was detained at the airport and badly frightened. Fourteen years later the experience of dislocation—of being poised between two cultures—continues to dominate her art. “My work has a lot to do with my obsession with home and the absence of home,” says Neshat, who won the top prize at the Venice Biennale in 1999 and is best known for her photographs and video installations. It is only through art, she says, that she can “create this other world that allows me to become complete.”
For the women populating her debut film, such freedom is out of reach. Each in flight from social or sexual oppression, they converge in a mystical orchard. Though one goes mad and another jumps from a roof to her death—in the film’s opening image she’s suspended in free fall—Neshat refuses to see her characters as victims. “If they have the courage to flee,” she says, her delicate features set off by the black swooshes of kohl beneath her eyes, “they’ve taken their lives into their own hands.”