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Effect Of Cultural Background Of Shirin Neshat On The Construction Of Her Artworks Used As An Artistic Activism

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The creative power of art has been used to evoke emotion in people in order to bring up a social change as artistic activism. Activism challenges accustomed beliefs and power association. Whereas in Art, there is an ambiguity in the intention of the artist who makes the work. It is often to create a new perspective and a clearer vision to view the aspects of the world, which can be considered as another way of rephrasing the imposition of freedom into people’s minds. Freedom and creativity is the way to conceive opportunities, which is why, artistic activism has aroused as a concept due to the intersection of these two complementary notions. Providing a broader perspective allows one to think outside their existing limits, a freedom of thoughts. Activism makes a change in the materialistic world, therefore it is complemented with art through its ability to stimulate emotions and feelings, evoking people spiritually. The involvement of art in political and social situations has been an issue for those who are being criticized, but the question here is, where does this intention coming from? Cultural background. An artist’s memory, experiences, loss, pain, hopes, devastations… One’s roots and growing environment shape its personality. Therefore, growing up in a country and a culture segregating genders or ruling the nation with extreme dictatorship, the prospect person eventually might turn against that idea. Artists who also consider themselves as activists such as Shirin Neshat and Ai Weiwei, are two cross cultural artists who have left their home country and moved to U.S for education in their early years. My interest in these artists is the way they construct the artwork, either with the visual elements in their digital art or the usage of material with the intention of propagating social, political and economic concerns within their own country. As a result, investigated the reflections of their culture on their works to have a deeper understanding of its effect on their construction process of them.

An Introduction to Shirin Neshat[image: Picture 1]

Born in Qazvin, Iran in 1957, Shirin Neshat was the youngest child of a wealthy family with four children. She was sent to U.S by her father to complete her education. Nonetheless, near the end of 1900’s, specifically in 1978, the Islamic Revolution has struck Iran. This revolution occurred when she was abroad, and prevented her from returning back to her country of origin. However, while she was away, Iran was being enforced to a state of mind where women were restricted to a much higher degree than men. She was able to return to Iran after 20 years, which she ended up being disappointed more than ever. She countered with repression towards this ideology due to her observations on the diminishing self esteem of women. The major depiction of the nobility of women who suffers from religious fundamentalism in her art. Through her arrival back Iran, Neshat’s experience of the sharp alterations in the laws which were domineering women was the peak in terms of choosing her path in art. Since she has been living in U.S for a long time, Neshat has adapted the Western culture while criticizing the complexity of gender roles created by the traditional Muslim society. She conveyed Muslim women from the perspective of the Western’s, which resulted in using contrasts as a main visual element emphasizing the difference between two cultures. She conveyed this idea first in “Women of Allah”. She examined the complexity of gender roles, and used the representation of stereotypical Muslim women from the eyes of Western culture, by also using personal insights. As she said; “Every image, every woman’s submissive gaze, suggests a far more complex and paradoxical reality behind the surface.” She mostly uses photography and video-based installations, as she once said in an interview, Neshat thinks that through these techniques she achieves the aim of conveying the reality, intimacy, immediacy and the sense of drama. Her work also delivers her complexity message through a way which is simple and clear. In addition, the juxtaposition of the use of black and white in both her video installations and photography’s convey the bisection of gender, moreover highlighting her message once again using this visual technique. Through her artistic activism, she forces the audience to reconsider their beliefs and ideologies.(

Effects Of Iranian Culture On Shirin Neshat’s Work

There is a stereotypical conservative view of Iranian women especially in the Western media. Since western media is more dominant and appeals to a wider audience, the perspective it imposes is more prevalent. Media depicts Iranian women as voiceless, inferior, powerless and almost invisible. This view appears to be a “public appearance” of Iranian women. Whereas the real issue here, is the difference between their “private lives” and “public lives”. This rises a question in minds, it is known that Iranian women are portrayed as powerless and silent, but how do they see themselves? This question is actually answered within the art of Iranian artists. The digital platform to represent themselves, therefore more effective in this case since the artist aims to make its audience feel what they are going through. Therefore, it is more effective to use a medium that would appeal to one’s senses, more than just sight, but also auditory. These effective is used by Iranian artists to convey their political and social messages, which influences social movements in society overall. In this case Iranian artist Shirin Neshat is a suitable artist to investigate since she lives out of Iran. This gives her more freedom while making her art and allows her to use her own experiences as well as investigate from outside or by comparing two cultures. Furthermore, this cross-cultural life gives her the free space to tell her and others stories in symbolic, simple and more clear ways. The explicit expression of political, social and environmental issues about the life of Iranian women directly serves as an act of activism. As Shirin Neshat said in her interview with Art Radar, “I think, to be very honest, in all of my work, there is that intention of making work that while it could have so many dimensions, political, moral, existential dimensions, it has to have an emotional dimension.”[footnoteRef:1]. Neshat captures her models pain, sufferings, struggles, meaning the emotional states that is a pure reflection of how they are treated in where they live. This direct portrayal of emotion has a shocking and touching effect on her audience and society overall. Therefore, she straightforwardly reveals the truths that are trying to be hidden by the media, which contributes to her influence on the social and political movements. [1: Lee,2014]

Cultural Impacts On The Works- Turbulent And Rapture

  • [image: Female-singers-Still-from-Turbulent-1998-Copyright-Shirin-Neshat-Courtesy-Gladstone.png]
  • Artist: Shirin Neshat
  • Title: Turbulent
  • Date: 1998
  • Medium: Digital (Video installation)

Since “Turbulent” is a film, a digital form of art, it has a narrative and a cinematic perspective. Shirin Neshat tells the stories of Iranian women, the stories that are usually covered up by the society, or just ignored since it seems like an ordinary event that is embedded into contemporary Iranian society. Turbulent, made in 1998 is the first video installation that Shirin Neshat made which consists of two videos in a black room, facing each other on the opposite sides. Throughout the video, a male and a female protagonist sings a song from Rumi’s poem with successive orders. The effects of her cultural background is so vivid in the video through the differences in the depiction of the performings of the man and the woman.


The criticism of gender inequalities is mostly reflected by the visual element of contrasts. The visual features, the contrasts of black and white is interlinked with the thematic contrasts which is the opposite life conditions of men and women in the Iranian society, which is embedded in the nature of the Iranian community. The neglected social rights of women, regarding the legal framework of Iran is also demonstrated through the differences between the split display of the videos. Right from the start, since the two videos are placed facing each other in the actual exhibition, the audience is given a choice to focus on one of them more carefully. This alludes to the domination of one gender to another, in such a patriarchal system, it is usually the male. So “Turbulent” criticizes the actual meaning of social status in a society determined by one’s visual appearance. Other than addressing only life of men and women in Iran by contrast, the work also alludes to contrasts such as; individuality/communal, traditional/non-traditional and rational/irrational. All the artistic elements conveyed in both screens depict contrasts between them, emphasizing all the differences and oppositions of the life of Iranian women compared to men. By portraying such striking contrasts, Shirin Neshat aims to create an emotional shock towards what has become ordinary in her culture.


The contrast of black and white is depicted by the use of clothes in the video so a deeper understanding is significant in terms of analyzing the reason for such portrayal. The man wears a modern white shirt whereas the woman is covered with a hijab, as well as wearing long black clothing which reveals no skin at all. In Iranian culture, the depicted clothing is called “the chador”. It is the strictest clothing in Iranian culture which only reveals a woman’s face or often only eyes. The black chador is complementary with the black background of the stage which allows the audience to only focus on the female protagonist’s face at some shots. Not only this technique loads in more emotion since the audience is focused on the facial expressions of the singer rather than any audience behind (which is the case in the man’s side), but also conveys the black and white contrast driven between both screens. The usage of clothing as a visual element on the figures is significant in terms of Neshat’s culture since the dress code for women were, and still are stricter. Even from the physical appearances of the figures on the screen, there is a palpable cultural and religious restriction on the woman, almost seen by the merged clothing and the black background draws a verge to the sides of her face.


The man has an all- male audience, whereas women is positioned in an “empty echoing hall”. Reflected by him being faced away from the audience, he is secured that he will be appreciated and accepted by his viewer, regardless of the condition he will be in which conveys his cultural privilege. Her voice ricochets while singing which symbolizes the unheard, overlooked voice of women in Iranian Society, as well as the Western media. “The empty hall” is a symbol of the position women is forced to take since she cannot speak freely, in this case to sing in a public area. The ideal stereotypical men in the society is known by its dominance, power and incentive to be the authority, rather than women. The adaption of this idea in the installation is demonstrated by depicting the man facing away from his audience. Giving the message that he is secured that he will be appreciated and accepted by his viewer, regardless of the condition he will be in, which is incarnational of his cultural privilege in the work. The contrast between the steady camera shooting the man, and the moving camera in front of the woman likewise differ in terms of composition and cinematic elements. Men’s position in the Iranian society is stabile, it has been put in order years ago which they have seen the effects of it with their dominance in social, political and economic situations. Therefore, the shooting angle of the singing male figure is steady and only focuses on one angle. In contrast, the 360 moving camera gives a clear demonstration of all the dimensions of the repression, aggression and the suppressed power of Iranian women. The fluctuation of the camera, is representative of the social status of Iranian women which is influenced by the restrictive requests of the Islamic heritage on them.

Auditory Elements

The song they both sing is taken from Rumi’s poem, which is a love song sung to one to another. The translation of the song is below;

Man: “How long can I lament with this depressed heart and soul? How long can I remain a sad autumn ever since my grief has shed my leaves? My entire heart and soul is burning in agony. How long can I hide the flames wanting to rise out of this fire? How long can one suffer the pain of hatred of another human? A friend behaving like an enemy with a broken heart. How much more can I take the message from body to soul? I believe in love. I swear by love. Believe me my love.”

Woman: “How long like a prisoner of grief can I beg for mercy? You know I’m not a piece of rock or steel, but hearing my story even water will become as tense as a stone. If I can only recount the story of my life, Right out of my body flames will grow.”

Male protagonist’s performance is more realistic and socially approvable whereas female performance is rejected and outlawed. That is why the woman’s performance appears in the video as if it is a “fantasy” with her unordinary vocals and the deviations in her tone. The complexity of the vocal piece the woman sings is contradictory with the vocal performance of men. The pain in her voice, the ability to reflect the song with such emotion, aggression is the product of the repressed power within women in Iran. Her tone is significant in terms of Neshat delivering her activist actions to the audience, where she intends to make the audience fascinated by this suppressed power and emotion.

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  • [image: Picture 1]Rapture, 1999
  • Artist: Shirin Neshat
  • Title: Rapture
  • Date: 1999
  • Medium: Digital (Video installation)
  • Source:

Both “Turbulent” and “Rapture” made by Shirin Neshat in succesive years of 1998 and 1999, convey the same idea with similar visual elements. The works demonstrate the element of gender within the Islamic culture in addition with the “Rapture”s depiction of the internalisation of accustomed gender roles within the society. The construction of both works reflect not only physical, but also social and psychological confinement in Islamic societies. Even though Neshat usually tries to avoid and demolish the stereotypical appearance of Iranian women. The split screens in both digital works leaves the audience with confusion in the middle of the installation with two different videos. This technique of duality not only reflects the difference between men and women, but also Iranian and Western society.

The construction of both works revolve around the main three themes of loss, meaning and memory. Neshat constructs her films accordingly to her experiences and recent visits to her home country Iran. She states one of her reasons for her interest in digital art is that “Photography becomes an object after a while” but “Film, must be experienced”[footnoteRef:2]. This digital form of art which she calls “moving photographs” gives much more opportunities to reach out to wider communities from all around the world. The developed technology which brings a wider range of digital platforms for artists removes the obstacles in the way of disclosing the gap between the private and public life of Iranian women. The term referred as “public life” is the stereotypical appearance of Iranian women in Western media. The aim is to propagate the portrayal as well as to draw attention to the main sources of this inequality between men and women, other than its connection with Islamic beliefs. She calls attention to governmental policies, the legal framework of the country, leading the country to a patriarchal system. Although she depicts Muslim women with veils, which is the stereotypical approach to Iranian women in the Western media, her such portrayals are the memories of her home country. [2: Shapiro, 2002]

The Political Activist Ai Weiwei – A Different Approach

Since the main goal of the research project is to investigate the effects of cultural background in the construction of artworks, it is significant to broaden the perspective with another artist from another culture. By selecting a male artist, the differences and the similarities between the constructions of artworks of both artists will be interpreted.

“Literature is a place where we can construct new realities together, but unless the literature available to us is representative, those new realities threaten to reconstruct the prejudice and discrimination of the world we live in,”[footnoteRef:3] –Ai Weiwei [3: Danuta,2017]

Ai Weiwei, a Chinese contemporary artist was born in 1957, Beijing, and currently residing and working in Berlin. His activist art initially began with his never-ending battle with the Chinese Government. However now Ai Weiwei calls out to problems from the violation of human rights to the refugee crisis in Europe. In a country where free speech is banned and counted as an act of propaganda, he was beaten up, got a house arrest as well as getting his house bulldozed all by the police. Ai Weiwei’s political and social opinions and the way he expressed them marginalized him from any side of political views (both left and right). Ai especially refused to surround to China’s oppressive rules after returning from U.S, where he described to The Economist as “completely two different societies with very different attitudes towards opinion and criticism”[footnoteRef:4]. Therefore, his aim is to portray the opposition and gap between the appearance of the Chinese Society which is the ideal one and the reality with all its cruelty. One of the members of the Chinese Communist Party(CCP) and the “former dictator” Mao Zedong, [4: Fischer,2010]

The use of materials within the construction of his installations or sculptures all allude to his opposition with the Chinese Government, especially in “On Porcelain”. The used material is fragile, yet weighs tons when all collaborated together, signifying the Chinese people in Ai’s memory.

  • [image: ]Artist: Ai Weiwei
  • Name of the work: “Sunflower Seeds”
  • Date: 2010
  • Medium: Porcelain
  • Place: Tate Modern

“Sunflower Seeds”, made in 2010 is the largest contemporary work of Ai has made using porcelain as the medium. The initial place of the work was in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. 100.000.000 sunflower seeds made of porcelain weighed a total of 150 tons.

Sunflower seed is a prevalent snack in Chinese culture. Ai took an everyday object from his childhood which now comprises several meanings within. Experiencing the Cultural Revolution in China, Ai’s memory of the sunflowers from his childhood change into joy, happiness to torture, hard labour, struggle and hunger. As well as the time period of socialists planning the economy with the collaborative worship towards Mao Zedong who was referred as the “sun”. Therefore, the seeds in Ai’s work are all the people being ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, the “sunflowers”.

Although the Sunflower seeds’ deeper meaning is open to interpretation, the creation of the work relies in Weiwei’s reproach to the Chinese Government. The aim of the construction of his work depend on his initial motive for being an artist, which is to be an activist. Furthermore, to make people see, all the small details that they have ignored due to being blinded by their authorities or could not get their voice heard at the time. Mao Zedong, exiled Ai Weiwei’s family to a labor camp in Shihnezi, Xinjiang in 1961 for sixteen years. His effort to reveal Chinese government’s inadequacies, including the Sichuan Earthquake which caused myriad casualties that could have been prevented. As he started his researches about the topic, the police bet him up, which he suffered from internal bleedings. After being a subject for the documentary “Never Sorry”, emphasizing the Chinese Government’s oppressive legal framework and governing system, he was again, beaten up by the police, arrested for 81 days, as well as having his studio bulldozed and confiscated his passport. As an aftermath of his experience, as well as his family’s in his own country Weiwei merges the two concept and makes art a tool to create a political change. He states this idea as everything is art and everything is politics[footnoteRef:5] in “Weiwei-isms”. The injustice system of Chinese government had led him to be an activist, so as DW states in his article, Weiwei continued to tackle on current political issues regarding China in his reside in Berlin (Braun,2018) which is how he became “the most dangerous person in China” [5: Weiwei,2013]

Comparison Of The Construction Of Both Artists Works And Conclusion

Both Shirin Neshat and Ai Weiwei are cross-cultural artists who went abroad from their country to move to U.S, where they saw the opposition between the legal framework constructing the human rights within their countries and the U.S. While Neshat reflects the suffering from the restrictions of the social conservatism on women as well as the other factors mentioned, Weiwei directly alludes to higher authorities’ decisions towards hindering human rights and the freedom of speech. The main themes in Shirin Neshat’s and Ai Weiwei’s works are “loss, meaning and memory” which serves for a common purpose in most of their works; to evoke its audience to revolt, or to stimulate the idea of freedom. The two cross-cultural artist’s detachment from their own country results in especially the theme of “memory”, since they reflect their culture and country as they remember from childhood, or from their most recent visits. Likewise to Shirin Neshat, Ai Weiwei’s motive for being an activist is the aftermath of his cultural background. However, despite the similarities, the mediums used in both artists works differ in terms of the purpose of using it. In Ai Weiwei’s work, medium becomes one of the elements for artistic activism, whereas Shirin Neshat uses medium as a tool to deliver her criticisms and ideas. I believe this difference relies in the aspect of their culture or country that they are criticizing about. Neshat’s work is more about feeling and experiencing the pain of her subjects. So using mediums such as photography or a video is more effective. In Weiwei’s work, the medium and the material is a part of the process of creating artistic activism.

All in all, one’s cultural background shapes the construction of thoughts and how to perceive its environment.


  21. Lee, Christine. “Iranian Artist Shirin Neshat on Art, Politics and Changing the World.” Art Radar, 1 Mar. 2014,
  22. Ai, Weiwei, and Larry Warsh. Weiwei-Isms. Princeton University Press, 2013.
  23. Shapiro, David. “SHIRIN NESHAT Interview.” GLENN LIGON – MUSEO, 2002,
  24. Braun, Stuart. “Artist Ai Weiwei Says Goodbye to Berlin after Three Years in Exile | DW | 03.05.2018.” DW.COM, 2018,
  25. Weiwei, Ai. “Ai Weiwei: The Artwork That Made Me the Most Dangerous Person in China.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 15 Feb. 2018,
  26. Fischer, Jeremy Wong. “Ai Weiwei on China’s Regime.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 22 Oct. 2010,

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