On September 16, 22-year-old Mahsa (Zhina) Amini was killed at the hands of Iran’s morality police after incorrectly wearing her hijab. Amini’s death sparked historic demonstrations across the country, led by Iranian women in demand for equal rights. In its bloody crackdown on activists over the last two months, Iranian authorities have killed at least 362 people and detained over 16,000, according to the latest figures from the Human Rights Activists News Agency, a non-governmental organization founded by Iranian human rights advocates.
In the comparatively small and largely inconsequential realm of the art community, the protests have also had a profound impact on conversations surrounding the representation of Iranian women. One very famous artist’s images have been prominently circulated: those of Shirin Neshat, known for her recognizable black-and-white photographs of just such a group. But not everyone agrees that these are the best visuals to represent the struggles of Iranian women today. Following displays of Neshat’s work in London and Los Angeles last month, another piece titled “Unveiling” (1993) was hung outside the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, a museum helmed by former MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach. It was exhibited for only 48 hours on October 29 and 30, but its display has continued to spark criticism.
On November 12, Kataoon Barzegar, an artist who moved from Iran to the Netherlands three years ago, gave a talk with fellow artist Pegah Pasalar, who left Iran for New York five years ago, at an art space in Rotterdam. Titled “The Commodification of ‘Zin, Zyian, Azadi’: Western Art Institutions and the Reinforcement of the Oriental Gaze,” the talk centered the Neue Nationalgalerie’s display of the banner. The image is characteristic of Neshat’s work — Farsi is written across the face and chest of a woman wearing a hijab and staring directly at the viewer. But in this work, the rallying cry of Iranian protesters, “Woman, life, freedom” (which began as a Kurdish slogan at the end of the 20th century, before being championed during the recent demonstrations) is overlaid on the photograph.
Barzegar explained to Hyperallergic that criticism of Neshat has long existed in artist communities in both Iran and its diaspora, but since the recent protests, the artist’s work has raised new questions.
“The reaction is: ‘Why did you put the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ chant on the work?” Barzegar said. “Because this work is completely against the images that women are fighting for, and they really want to break this image in Iran.” Pasalar added that Neshat’s Neue Nationalgalerie banner depicts a woman who is passive, who contains “rebellious silence.”
“This is so distant, so distorted,” Pasalar said. “People are putting their scarves on fire in the streets, are being beaten to death, there are threats of execution.” Both artists pointed to the fact that Neshat left Iran in 1975 at the age of 17, before the 1978–79 Iranian Revolution, and did not return until 1990.
“It is basically glorifying the suffering of Iranian women while she has not even lived once a single day in that society, and making profit off of it without contributing anything,” Pasalar said.
Hyperallergic reached out to Shirin Neshat for comment. In a phone call conversation, which she requested, Neshat accused Hyperallergic of being “no different than the Islamic Republic of Iran” and engaging in “cancel culture” by amplifying criticism of her work. She also rejected some activists’ claims that she is profiting from the images’ circulation.
“Klaus Biesenbach happened to know I was in Berlin and he wanted to do this because he wanted to participate in museums that are showing solidarity,” Neshat said. “He thought it was a good image, I gave it to him. How am I profiting from that?”
“You’re focusing on a minority group of people who either misunderstood, or are jealous, or are acting like teenagers, and magnifying that, and undermining what I have been doing,” she said.
On October 28, Biesenbach posted a video to Instagram showing Neshat speaking in front of the Neue Nationalgalerie, starting a wave of negative comments in the week to come. The next day, Biesenbach posted a picture of the banner outside the museum and received another scathing comment from an account attributed to artist Mahsa Mohammadi, who wrote that the artwork was “sheer orientalism.” “Try to understand it: neither this woman nor her art represent Iranian women and their magnificent courage in ‘woman, life, freedom’ revolution,’” Mohammadi wrote. “THIS IS NOT OUR VOICE!”
Comments are now restricted on both posts, and Biesenbach also restricted comments on a November 4 video of the October 30 solidarity event at the museum, which is funded by the German state. In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, a press representative for the Neue Nationalgalerie said: “We did this to offer an open mic and the opportunity for artists, musicians, poets, activists and groups, and different voices showing solidarity with the protesters in Iran. Shirin had kindly introduced us to a group of initial contacts that in turn reached out to others and just before the poster was meant to go down on Sunday afternoon the solidarity action could take place.” Biesenbach could not be reached for comment.
When Neshat posted the event to her Instagram page, some shared messages of support, but others flooded her comment section with angry messages. One of those commenters was Melika Forouzan, a photographer who graduated from the University of Tehran and is now earning her MFA at the University of Calgary. She told Hyperallergic she’s been aware of Neshat’s work since she was a student in Iran and has always thought of it as “orientalism,” a presentation of Iranian women that is inaccurate but speaks to “the way the West likes to see it.”
“Neshat has found the ongoing situation as an opportunity to take out this obsolete art from the closet and show it again to the uninformed Western audience and relate it to the freedom movement of Iranian women,” Forouzan said.
The solidarity event also received backlash outside of the virtual realm when three protestors arrived, including two Iranian women artists who held signs reading “Hey Mr. Biesenbach, stop capitalizing on the struggle of people in Iran” in front of Neshat’s banner.
“I think that image, in this moment when people are trying not to have the compulsory hijab, is very traumatizing,” said one of the protesters, an artist and art historian who preferred to remain anonymous. She stated that the photograph is “absolutely damaging,” especially for Iranians in the diaspora (she moved from Iran to Germany seven years ago). “We had to, for years, defend ourselves against this image that was made of us in Europe.”
She arrived at the event with artist and social worker Niusha Ramzani, who told Hyperallergic that being at the event was strange and lonely: Some attendees approached the pair to ask for an explanation about their signs, with interactions ranging from friendly to hostile. They lamented the lack of public acknowledgment on behalf of Biesenbach, the museum, and Neshat of the complexities of displaying the image.
Although the banner was taken down, some Iranian artists continued to criticize the German museum’s decision to display it. A November 10 Instagram post by Artists United 4 Iran, a small collective of Iranian artists in Berlin and the United Kingdom, asked Biesenbach to explain his position on the “commodification and appropriation of the feminist movement in Iran.”
In the view of Raf Projects, a German-Iranian curatorial team based out of Berlin and Tehran, Neshat’s depiction “reproduces the desired Western perspective in which the women are being perceived as victims without any agency.” This observation was part of an open letter penned by Raf Projects leader Alireza Labeshka and distributed at the Neue Nationalgalerie event, where he met the other two protestors. Labeshka’s letter, which he said he handed to Biesenbach himself, protests the banner’s insistence on the “passivity of stereo-typed middle eastern women.”
Ramzani told Hyperallergic that the recent controversy over Neshat’s images was eye-opening in many ways.
“Something I realized through this event and the whole backlash was that just because someone is from a certain community doesn’t mean that they can represent the community, at all,” Ramzani said, specifying that someone being Iranian does not mean they cannot appropriate Iranian culture and struggle. “I think the problem is that for the White art spaces, they think, ‘Oh, Shirin Neshat, she’s the Iranian artist, so we cannot go wrong with her.'”