After failing my mission of going to view the exhibition Shirin Neshat: Facing History earlier this week (it’s all your fault, beautiful weather!), I finally made it to the Hirshhorn – and I’m so glad I did. This exhibition is as powerful as it is personal, highlighting cultural strength through striking photographs and film. Facing History serves as a proud and vast record of Neshat’s work in which she focuses on identity and the influence of society via one of her most prominent inspirations: Iranian women. Educational in nature, this exhibition reflects Neshat’s growth as a person and as an artist, sharing the experiences and wisdom she has gathered throughout this progression. The artist emphasizes both the collective and individual cultural and political disparities of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, comparing it with the Green Movement of 2009, and explores the role of Iranian women within this turmoil.
Walking into the exhibition, I was surprised by its massive size: there are several large rooms displaying Neshat’s photographs, a few screening rooms for her films, and interactive tables set up in the circular hallway just outside of the showcase. The tables are somewhat small and neatly decorated with books and touch screens. The books, which present the works of the exhibition and contain poetry used in these works, help to inform the viewer by providing historical and cultural context. The screens have a similar function; however, rather than giving information about the setting of the work, these screens play videos of various speeches given by the artist, offering insight on her character and thought processes. I highly recommend taking the time to watch at least one of these videos – Neshat’s intelligence and wisdom shine through her words and enhance her work. Composed, well-spoken, and deeply brave, Neshat takes the hardships she faces as a female Iranian artist and uses them to set an example, leading others like her through the power of her work. As spoken in one of her featured speeches, Neshat claims, “politics doesn’t escape people like me. Every Iranian artist, in one form or another, is political… Art is our weapon. Culture is a form of resistance.” These words roughly sum up Neshat’s artistic mission, and she uses her work to express these ideals with purpose and elegance.
The photographs themselves are bold portraits of Iranian people, mostly women, layered with hand-written, modern Farsi poetry. The portraits are intimate and intense, yet they radiate a sense of vulnerability. The language barrier slightly distances Western viewers, making the work more significant to Iranians. Don’t let that stop you from visiting, though – there are English translations in the books outside and printed on the walls of the museum. I was also impressed with the work put into the design of the exhibition: the photos are set at eye level, large enough to seize the attention of the audience without appearing intimidating, and they’re cleanly framed with thick, black borders. The portraits expressing a more subtle defiance are displayed separately from the more chaotic and energetic photos, and they’re separated by videos of strong women facing hardship (Munis) and expressing their independence through song (Turbulent). Both the content and its arrangement pushed me to explore in depth a culture with which I had only a surface-level understanding. While Neshat’s work clearly does not reveal everything about Iran and its people, I think it’s a beautiful introduction.
This exhibition is on display until September 20th, so check it out while you can!