“Over the decades, these two artists have become known for their explorations of Black life in America, melding history with the present through intimate portraits, thoughtful landscapes and carefully crafted visual storytelling. Bey called their friendship a kind of “inspiration of ambition,” where the two photographers inspired each other to push the boundaries of their medium as they’ve watched photography evolve over the decades.”
“A core theme of Amends is the nature of past, present, and future. The artist revisits his home in many pieces, whether it be the portraits of his family, the cultural icons of Slovenia, or subconscious influence from his life in the Balkans.”
“The Boston show, said Marisa Anne Bass, a professor of art history at Yale University, ‘is part of a broader and important trend in scholarship on early modern European art, which no longer treats the recuperation of women artists as an end in itself but instead increasingly aims to recognize the central role of women as actors, thinkers and creators. To give women equal historical representation is not just about answering the concerns about the present. It is also about gaining a fuller understanding of the past.’”
Tooba (2002) is a 12-minute video installation by Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat. Projected on two opposing screens, it centers around the image of a woman inside a tree, within a walled garden in the midst of a desert landscape. The woman disappears into the tree as a crowd of men approach, in what appears to be a kind of pilgrimage. As with much of her work, Neshat uses the grammar of traditional narrative filmmaking (her cinematographer Darius Khondji regularly works with Hollywood filmmakers like David Fincher and the Safdie brothers) to tell an allegorical story with poetic open-endedness. The combination gives Tooba the spiritual yet earthly feeling that is present in much of her work.
Originally, Neshat intended to film in Iran. In a making-of documentary she said, “we made many steps toward it… and then it was blocked [for] whatever reason.” The “whatever reason” is most likely the Islamic Republic, the theocratic regime that has governed Iran for the past 43 years. Any film, performance, or otherwise public artwork made in the country has to be vetted by its Ministry of Culture, which must be convinced that the work isn’t critical of the regime or its particular brand of politicized Islam.
It’s not hard to imagine why Shirin Neshat, whose work has repeatedly dealt with the gender apartheid inside Iran, would have a hard time getting a stamp of approval from the Ministry of Culture. The video itself is based on a novel of the same name by Iranian author Shahrnush Parsipur, who spent years as a political prisoner inside Iran. Parsipur now lives in exile, as does Neshat.
Brought into SAM’s collection in 2015, Tooba was on view in Be/longing: Contemporary Asian Art at the Seattle Asian Art Museum until July 2022, which is about when I started my position as a SAM photographer. One aspect of my job is to walk the galleries and take photos of museum visitors looking at the art. As an Iranian-American, I get a thrill noticing people examining Iranian artifacts in the museum’s collection because there are so few instances in the US where Iranian and Middle Eastern culture are visible.
I wonder what goes through people’s minds when they see “Iran” written on wall labels and how they reconcile that name with the typical images of “Iran” from our media: scowling men in foreign-looking religious or military garb, the leaders of the Islamic Republic. The Iran of today is cloaked behind those men and the opaque politics of nuclear negotiations.
That is until September 2022.
On September 13, Mahsa Jina Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman, was detained for allegedly not complying with the regime’s compulsory hijab law—all women in the country must cover their hair and wear loose clothing that hides their bodies. She was reportedly beaten while in custody and died three days later. Amini’s death sparked a wave of country-wide civil disobedience, led by women who marched into the streets and defiantly refused to wear hair coverings. After eleven weeks of demonstrations, the movement shows no signs of slowing down. The number of women with free-flowing hair in public grows every day. To me, every one of them is an Iranian Rosa Parks daring to assert her own worth—often hand-in-hand with women who cover their hair but who fight in solidarity for the choice to do so.
The song ends with the cornerstone chant of the movement: “woman, life, freedom.” Three words which when taken together, indicate that freedom for anyone is impossible without freedom for women. And so, if Iranians are successful, we may be witnessing what Shirin Neshat has called the “first female revolution” to overthrow a government.
This is a government with no room for song (for women, literally).
And so Shirin Neshat ended up filming Tooba in Oaxaca, Mexico and kept the setting of the video nondescript. This gives her work a universality that it probably would have lacked had she filmed in Iran. Neshat’s adaptability as an artist aside, the decision on filming location should have been hers to make and not one she was backed into by a theocracy that has banned her from working in her homeland. As people outside of the country use their freedom to continue raising awareness over the long history of oppression in Iran, how many Shirin Neshats are inside the country right now—rather than making art, desperate to find a missing friend? How many Shahrnush Parsipurs will never make it out of political prison to write a book that would inspire the next Tooba? And how many more Shervin Hajipours will risk their lives to sing?
“Within the piece,
I was more mindful of my steps because of the way the mesh was ever so slippery
beneath my boot. I became aware of a slight unease at being so close to a
skylight I’d admired from the concrete floor below.”
Paul Laster writes about Do Ho Suh’s work for White Hot magazine, including past presentations at SAM and his theme of displacement. The artist’s Some/One will be a centerpiece of Be/longing at the Asian Art Museum.
conversation, Gates seems to envision a city-sanctioned and -funded memorial.
‘I want to believe that the city is open to it,” he said. “I believe Samaria
has the right to ask the city to receive this sacred space.’”
Dichotomies and oppositions course through the work of Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat, including her two-channel video installation Tooba. This video, currently on view at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, is shown on two facing screens. The lyrical imagery on each side unfolds at the pace of poetry, despite the fact that there are no words. The film shows a walled garden, the silent hordes that descend upon it, and a woman within it, swallowed by a tree.
Neshat’s work straddles two worlds, and she acknowledges “constantly negotiating between two cultures that are not just different from one another but in complete conflict.” Born in Iran in 1957, the artist moved to the United States to attend university in the late 1970s. When the Iranian Revolution broke out, she remained in the US. Shirin Neshat is perhaps the world’s best-known contemporary Middle Eastern artist, despite the fact that she has lived and worked in the US for decades. Her lived experience between these two cultures gave rise to her “idea of opposites,” the structure upon which her body of work is built.