As a student at the University of Virginia in the mid-1990s, I once took a class with Farzaneh Milani, a Persian studies scholar, on women’s fiction in the modern Middle East. Milani was a theatrical teacher. Once a semester, she would breeze into class wearing full chador—not her usual style—for the explicit purpose of shocking her students into a frank and open debate about politics, religion, rebellion, revolution, the body, and the veil. It was a stunt I never saw, but she told the story well, and the complexity of what she wanted us to address—of what she wanted us to untangle in ourselves and in heated discussion with one another—established the groundwork for much of the looking and thinking I have been doing ever since.
It was around that time that I began writing about art. I would drive to New York (eventually I moved there) and pick my way through blocks of cold new galleries in Chelsea. A lot of the work I saw then seemed pretty remote, except for Shirin Neshat’s photographs from the "Women of Allah" series, which floored me the first time I found them on the last day of a show that was closing at Annina Nosei. The gallery is gone now, but the pictures—stark black-and-white images of veiled women, prints adorned with Farsi poetry and Islamic patterns, the barrel of a gun prominent in several compositions—still pose so many questions for me.
For one thing, Neshat is the author of those images, but she didn’t actually take most of the photographs. She posed for them, directed them in the manner of a film, and told someone else what to do with the camera. It is most often her face looking back at us. What does this mix of photography and performance mean for how we understand the work of artists in our time?
Another thing, the photographs are ambiguous in their politics. Made more than a decade after the Iranian revolution, by an artist who had been living out of Tehran even longer, are they really about that, or was that only what I (and many others) assumed? Do they romanticize violence with those weapons? Do they comment on the subjugation of women by religion with those veils? And what about those texts? If much of the writing is by feminist poets, then how does that change how the images might be read? Twenty years later, I think all of this uncertainty is deliberate, and a mark of Neshat’s strength. She keeps us guessing.
Another thing stands out, looking at Identified, 1995, in particular. The image is actually quite peaceful. Neshat’s eyes gaze somewhere over my right shoulder. She is wearing a white veil with a floral pattern. Her hands are resting over her mouth, up to the bridge of her nose, and they are covered in tiny designs, letters and numbers between her knuckles, and a word on the back of her hand that I can’t make out. I also can’t tell if she is laughing or smiling or if the expression on her face is severe. She looks like a bride, a lost Madonna, a millennial Mona Lisa with a landscape on her clothes and skin. She is a riddle, an enigma, a beauty—and she makes me rethink the entire series.
What I realize now is that many of the photographs in the "Women of Allah" series are as beautiful and, strangely, as tender—two hands folded together, two fingers resting on a bottom lip, a mother holding the hand of her son. Over the years, Neshat’s work has been criticized, on occasion, for being too aesthetic, too violent, or too exotic. Taken collectively, her photographs, videos, and films can be all of those things at times. But Identified sets off in another direction. I’m not sure where it leads. I’ve now lived in Beirut longer than I ever lived in New York (or Charlottesville). I see women in chador every day, guns on occasion. I read a script that is similar. And I’m almost certain Identified has more to say about feminism and performance in the US than it does about women in Islam or revolution in Iran. But sensing some mischief in Neshat’s face, this picture reminds me most of a classroom where nearly all of the students were women (inevitably, given the subject). None of them knew where they were going, but they were all up for debate, willing to listen, and ready, as ever, to argue all over again.