New York

Shirin Neshat

Annina Nosei Gallery

Images of hand and eye have long been used as synecdoches not only for artistic production, but also for signification. In Shirin Neshat’s photographic work, they take on additional connotative value as they are the only two portions of a woman’s body that can be exhibited in public in certain Islamic countries.

Neshat’s stark, confrontational black and white photographs are executed by others, and the artist herself—sometimes alone, sometimes with other women, always severely garbed in a black chador, and occasionally packing a weapon—is their subject. Although we may presume that Neshat composes these pictures, her gaze is figured less as the one that frames the image (that of the primary viewer, whose position we subsequent viewers come to fill) than the one that, unfathomably, returns the viewer’s gaze. And hers is the hand that has inscribed the Farsi verses that obscure the surfaces of many of the photographs, often further “veiling” Neshat’s face, hands, or feet. Though promising legibility, these signs are unintelligible to most Westerners, and thus draw our attention to the areas they cover while continuing to screen them from us. They float there like apparitions, suggesting, as in one work from the “Women of Allah Series,” 1995, that destiny can be read in the palm of the hand, or eerily fill the white of the eye in Offered Eyes, 1993. (In Seeking Martyrdom, 1995, the text functions as a backdrop for the figure, and as a result seems to lose its capacity for poetic suggestiveness.)

Neshat, who was born in Iran but has lived in the United States since 1974, has stated that her current work was inspired by the experience of revisiting her homeland after a 16-year absence. One might say that these photographs document the artist’s effort to feel her way, through the veil, toward an empathetic understanding of who she would be if, instead of having escaped the Iranian revolution, she had chosen to live it. The photographs have something of the graphic clarity of propaganda, and, as depicted in them, Neshat communicates, at first, little beyond submission (the literal meaning of the word Islam), discipline, and conviction. Yet her eyes express, at times, overwhelming vulnerability and intimacy. Is this part of the artist’s performance of her nonemigrant alter ego, or is it a remnant of a “decadent,” Westernized self nostalgic for the certainties of a neotraditional culture?

Images such as these could only be the product of a self-questioning, hybridized sensibility quite distant from the one they project, yet they are far removed from any complacent assurances as to which culture is richer or stronger. Foreclosing any direct identification between artist and viewer to emphasize a distance that, treated less rigorously, might have amounted to Orientalist exoticism, Neshat asks us to join her in reexamining our identification with the culture we think of as our own.

Barry Schwabsky