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Neshat’s photos bring the perspective of an Iranian woman to the West

Thanks to funding by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, the Rose Art Museum has acquired two photographs by Shirin Neshat, world-renowned Iranian visual artist.

Neshat developed a collection of portraits titled “Our House is On Fire,” which will be granted by the Rauschenberg Foundation to 33 schools around the world. These colleges and universities, in turn, will take this opportunity to put these portraits to educational use in a wide range of disciplines. Two of the large photographs are currently hanging in the Crown Center for Middle East Studies.

Brandeis received “Ghada” and “Sayed,” both taken in 2013. Set in black and white, these portraits are rich with emotion and pull the viewer into their vibrant details. Inscribed on the faces of her subjects are nearly invisible lines of Arabic calligraphy. Neshat met both subjects of these photographs while working in Egypt. The Rose writes, “Ghada and Sayed’s piercing eyes and powerful gaze confront the viewers … we imagine that these haunting portraits will inspire young students from America to empathize with the elderly Egyptian man and woman.”

Director of the Crown Center Shai Feldman, in a letter posted on the center’s website, writes that “since its inauguration in April 2005, the Crown Center for Middle East Studies has been committed to a balanced and dispassionate approach to the Middle East.” Neshat’s work will further this mission by approaching political and social issues through the visual representation of individual narratives. Her work fosters close connections between subject and viewer, and evokes deep feelings of empathy. The Huffington Post writes that “Her work responds to the ideological war being waged between Islam and the secular world over matters of gender, religion, and democracy. It’s [her] navigation through the ongoing convergences and collisions of values in the formation of global culture that separates her from her peers.”

Robert Rauschenberg was an innovative American artist who worked and travelled all around the world to promote global understanding and peacemaking. “Neshat’s project embodies Rauschenberg’s own belief that art could change the dialogue for challenging international issues,” said Executive Director of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Christy MacLear.

In a TED talk in 2011, Neshat powerfully stated, “Every Iranian artist, in one form or another, is political. Politics have defined our lives. If you’re living in Iran, you’re facing censorship, harassment, arrest, torture—at times, execution. If you’re living outside like me, you’re faced with life in exile—the pain of the longing and the separation from your loved ones and your family.” Neshat left Iran in 1974 for Los Angeles, and was unable to return until 1990.

Despite the challenges she faced in exile, Neshat sees reason for hope in her role outside of Iran. “Ironically, this situation has empowered all of us, because we are considered, as artists, central to the cultural, political, social discourse in Iran. We are there to inspire, to provoke, to mobilize, to bring hope to our people. We are the reporters of our people, and are communicators to the outside world. Art is our weapon. Culture is a form of resistance.”

Neshat brings the perspective of an Iranian woman to the West. She is deeply inspired by the strength and resilience of Iranian women and Iran as a nation, and creates a dialogue with her artwork that counters the typical Western understanding of Iranian people. She hopes a Western audience can learn to look beyond the recent Islamization of Iran to see the struggles for peace and for democracy that predated the popular image of Iran seen today. Her photographs epitomize the fundamental role of art and its ability to reflect political, ethnic, racial or religious issues as framed by issues of human suffering and the role of a global society.

The Rose hopes to see these photographs benefit a number of departments, such as Fine Arts; Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies; Film, Television and Interactive Media; Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies and the new minor in Creativity, the Arts and Social Transformation.

Neshat has been recognized by many prestigious organizations, earning the First International Prize at the Venice Biennale (1999), the Grand Prix at the Kwangju Biennale (2000), the Visual Art Award from the Edinburgh International Film Festival (2000), the Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography in New York (2002), the ZeroOne Award from the Universität der Künste Berlin (2003), the Hiroshima Freedom Prize from the Hiroshima City Museum of Art (2005) and the Lillian Gish Prize in New York (2006), to name only a few of her many illustrious achievements. NPR describes her as “the most famous contemporary artist to come from Iran,” and the Huffington Post named her as “Artist of the Decade” in 2010.

“I never imagined that my work someday would be looked upon as a form of dialogue, larger than my own personal life,” expressed Neshat in an interview with NPR. Her photographs have done just that. In creating deeply personal and emotive images, Neshat has made unparalleled artwork that transcends large sources of conflict and speaks to the individuals who are ultimately tied up in these issues.

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