FIVE ELEMENTS OF CONTEMPORARY ART: HYBRIDITY: NESHAT
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Shirin Neshat was born in 1957 in Qazvin, Iran. In 1974, at age 17, she studied art in Los Angeles, later earning BA and MFA degrees at the University of California, Berkeley. While Neshat was in the United States, a political revolution took place in Iran, transforming it into a forcefully conservative Islamic Republic. The artist did not return there until 1990. After 16 years of separation, she found the country of her youth profoundly changed. Many basic freedoms were curtailed and new laws were strictly enforced, including a dress code legally requiring all women to wear a veil in public. This experience had a great impact on the artist. In 1995, Neshat created The Women of Allah, a series of photographic portraits of women with Persian writing covering their faces. She went on to make films and videos, including dual- and triple-projection installations and multimedia productions. She has also collaborated with other artists, such as composer Philip Glass and with Iranian-born singer Sussan Deyhim. In 2007, Neshat began work on a full-length feature film titled Women without Men, based on a novella by an exiled Iranian author.
Neshat’s work often addresses the role of women in Islamic society as well as the sadness of loss and separation from her home country. She uses a powerful mix of opposites: man/woman, black/white, East/West, light/dark. Her works have appeared in exhibitions all over the world. In 1999, she won the International Award of the Venice Biennial, where she presented the dual-screen films Turbulent and Rapture. The artist currently lives and works in New York City.
ABOUT THE ART
Neshat’s film Soliloquy explores identity and the splitting of the self. It investigates the hybrid identity of a woman, played by Neshat, who appears simultaneously in Middle Eastern and Western settings. The piece consists of two parts, each projected on the opposite wall. The audience sits in between the screens and must choose when to look at a particular scene. Because viewers can’t watch both parts at the same time, they physically experience the dislocation addressed in the film. On one screen, the woman is shown walking in a modern American cityscape, while the other shows her in an ancient Eastern city in Turkey, reminiscent of Iran. She wears a chador, a large cloth worn usually by Muslim women, especially in Iran, as a combination head covering, veil, and shawl. Soliloquy was made after the artist’s father died, and expresses a sense of loss for both her family and the prerevolutionary Iranian culture of her childhood. At the end of Soliloquy the sounds of Western choral music and chanted Islamic prayer play at the same time, perhaps as a reconciliation of two separate realms.
What is the definition of “culture”?
The word “culture” refers to a specific human society at a particular place and time. It also means something more complex, encompassing traditions, values, and belief systems passed down through generations. Cultural patterns can be seen in languages, governing practices, arts, holiday celebrations, food, dating rituals, clothing, and many other behaviors. At its broadest, “culture” is the sum total of a people’s way of life.
Any definition of culture in our world today must also take into account the effects of global economic, political, and technological evolutions. In some cases, cultural differences are the source of misunderstandings and conflicts between groups. On the other hand, the boundaries between some cultures become increasingly blended, offering hope for worldwide connections and global cooperation.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Have you experienced the feeling of being an outsider? How could you express that in visual art, music, writing, or movement?
2. Have you lived in or traveled to another country? What makes it different from the one in which you live now?
3. Compare and contrast the stills from Soliloquy. What remains the same? What changes? How do the images help to communicate the message of Neshat’s work?
4. The title of the piece Soliloquy is derived from the Latin words solus, which means alone, and loqui, to speak. It means literally “speaking alone” or talking to oneself. Imagine you were hearing the thoughts of the woman in this film. What would she be saying to herself?
A hybrid is a combination of two or more different things. For example, a hybrid car engine combines electricity and gas as components to produce energy; a hybrid plant or animal blends characteristics of different varieties, breeds, or species to form a new type. Artistic hybridity can refer to works that explore the blurring of boundaries between people, both social and geographic. In today’s world, political and economic upheaval, coupled with the relative ease of travel across long distances, have caused people to immigrate between countries and continents at unprecedented rates. At the same time, technological advances such as the Internet create links between far-flung places. Today’s artists may come from multiple ethnic or geographic backgrounds, or travel back and forth from one place to another. For many artists who have these experiences, their cultural hybridity becomes a theme in their work, addressing the differences between the worlds they experience or ways that they combine them to form a new view of their identity.
“Whatever the reason, however, those of us living in the state of the ‘in
between’ have certain advantages and disadvantages—the advantage of being exposed to a new culture and, in my case, the freedom that comes with living in the U.S.A.; the disadvantages of course being that you will never experience again being in a ‘center’ or quite at ‘home’ anywhere.”
—Shirin Neshat, 2000