“Iranian People Need Solidarity,” Shirin Neshat on Defiance and Hope in Iran

Amid protests following the death of Mahsa Amini, the artist’s work takes on a new significance.

A black and white portrait of Shirin Neshat in her signature eyeliner
Photograph by Rodolfo Martinez

The New York City-based artist Shirin Neshat typically calls her mother in Iran via WhatsApp every day. But lately, that communication has been cut substantially, as the government of Neshat’s home country has limited citizens’ access to the Internet amid one of the nation’s most significant uprisings since the mid 2000s.

On September 16, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman, died after being detained by the morality police in Tehran for allegedly violating the hijab law which requires that women cover their hair and dress modestly in loose robes. The news of her death while in state custody was met with outrage throughout Iran’s capital and beyond, prompting protesters to take to the streets to decry the hard-line politics of Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi. At the center of these rallies, which have grown increasingly violent as police intervene, are young people and women fed up with not only the country’s ultraconservative social conditions but its current economic downturn.

For Neshat—whose work has for decades explored issues of power, religion, race, and gender—watching the revolt from abroad has been extremely difficult. On a recent Zoom she says she’s been glued to her phone, her television, and her computer, hoping for whatever information she can get from her family while telecommunications are being curbed or fully blocked by the government. “I heard from my sister this morning, who finally got enough Internet to call me back,” Neshat says from her studio in Brooklyn, her eyes lined in the heavy black kohl that’s become her signature makeup. “She said she hears gunfire all night long, because people come out at sundown—revolutionary guards are hiding in every corner, under trees, and spreading tear gas. I asked my sister if people are more afraid because of this very militant attack on people. And she said, oddly enough, they are not afraid. And they continue to come out like a storm.”

It’s against this backdrop of a burgeoning revolution that Neshat’s latest project, an NFT collection titled A Loss For Words, takes on new significance. The works, which were inspired by some of her most famous photographs, merge video, hand-drawn calligraphy, and animation to tackle concepts of resilience and rebellion and consists of ten different texts by Iranian poets including Simin Behbahani and Forugh Farrokhzad. In short videos, excerpts of their literature can be seen painted onto a pair of hands which open slowly as if revealing a secret. “This work is about concealing and letting go,” Neshat explains of the NFTs which will be available October 17th on the platform Artwrld. “Coming from a country where we have so much censorship and so much has to be hidden, and yet so much subversiveness is in the air. This is what the Iranian people have learned to deal with: the absence of freedom of expression means finding ways of speaking without really opening your mouth.”

Shirin Neshat, I Will Greet the Sun Again (Fragment 1).

Courtesy of the artist

“It was really playing with an idea that is so relevant to me and my work, but so relevant to the Iranian people,” she continues. “Everything for us works in allegory and metaphor and in codes. It’s been really beautiful, the last few days, listening to the people chanting when they’re protesting: ‘Women, life, freedom.’ Iranian people have ways with words because we have such a history of poetry. We are very expressive, even at a time of protest.” The fact that Neshat began working on A Loss For Words months before Mahsa Amini's death, underscores its relevance in the present sociopolitical moment.

“The world has been going through such a difficult time, between the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the rise of conservatism, nothing makes sense,” she says. “What makes this time different is, our anxieties are now collective anxieties. People, for the first time, have realized we have a shared pain. We’re just conditioned to different cultures and regimes and political systems.”

There’s another bit of context that makes these uprisings in Iran so unique and distinct: the involvement of women, many of whom are young leaders in the movement and have demonstrated by sitting in public spaces unveiled and unmoving, even when taunted or harassed.

“What’s really powerful is one single person taking that responsibility, and that becomes a symbol for everyone else,” Neshat says. “Iranian people need solidarity, and they need to know that those outside are supporting them.”

When asked whether there is an overarching message Neshat hopes to send with A Loss for Words, the artist says she aimed to encapsulate feelings of despair and defiance—two emotions that resonate with her strongly at this very moment. But most importantly, she wants to evoke the idea of hope.

“I heard yesterday a 16-year-old talking on YouTube,” Neshat adds. “She said, ‘I just got beaten up by 10 uniformed men. I can barely speak, my head is spinning, but I’m gonna make sure I go back to protest tomorrow morning.’ We are not giving up. We have a lot to say.”