The Home of My Eyes: An Interview With Shirin Neshat

Portrait of Shirin Neshat. Photo by Rodolfo Martinez.

On March 24, at the inaugural exhibition of YARAT Contemporary Art Space in Baku, Azerbaijan, visitors will undoubtedly cluster in front of a grand series of black-and-white portraits, rendered with fine ink and stark contrast. In them: the faces of their fellow Azeri countrymen. Acclaimed Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, commissioned on behalf of YARAT, set out to make a "portrait of a country," reflecting a unified vision of diversity, in the heterogeneous citizens of a city at the crossroads between contemporary Turkey, Russia, Iran, Armenia, and historical Persia, Albania, and the Ottoman Empire. The result is a tapestry of faces, portraits of over 50 individuals of varying ethnicities, from two to eighty years old. Neshat interviewed each subject about their connection to Azerbaijan, their concept of "home," and their heartfelt responses are written in lines of detailed calligraphy overlaying their portraits.

The first contemporary art center of its kind in Azerbaijan, YARAT opens with "Shirin Neshat: The Home of My Eyes," as well as an exhibition of its permanent collection, running from March 24 to June 23. The not-for-profit center has commissioned over 80 projects since its founding in 2011; its new permanent space will serve as project space and exhibition hall, as well as offering a library, auditorium, and study center focused on art education for the region.

Shirin Neshat, Agayar, from The Home of My Eyes series, 2014-2015. Copyright Shirin Neshat, Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Neshat's work will also be the subject of a major exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Park in Washington D.C., from May 18 to September 20, where her video installations and photographic series will be displayed along with contextual information of historical events, from the Islamic Revolution of 1979 to the Green Movement of 2009.

While her studio was abuzz preparing for a studio visit from members of the board of trustees from the Hirshhorn Museum, I spoke with Neshat over the phone about Azerbaijan, her upcoming retrospective at the Hirshhorn, and the influence of political and historical events on her work.

Shirin Neshat, Soliloquy, 1999. Copyright Shirin Neshat. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Natalie Hegert: So I wanted to talk a bit about your project in Azerbaijan as well as your upcoming show at the Hirshhorn, starting with a few short questions on the circumstances of the YARAT commission. How long did you spend in Baku, Azerbaijan working on the commission for YARAT?

Shirin Neshat: I took three separate trips to Azerbaijan in 2014. The first trip was more exploratory, on the occasion of the opening of an exhibition called "Love Me Love Me Not," curated by Dina Nasser-Khadivi for the YARAT Foundation, a show that originally started in Venice and later traveled to Baku. My husband, Shoja Azari, was participating in the exhibition, so on that trip I was mostly accompanying him, but slowly a discussion began about a potential exhibition of my work.

I must say that I was quickly convinced, partially because of my long time friendship with Dina Nasser-Khadivi who has been a big supporter of my work. In part also due to my admiration and new friendship with [YARAT director] Aida Mahmudova, and her husband Soheil Dadfar, as well as my interest in the YARAT Foundation, and finally due to my growing fondness and fascination with Azerbaijan.

I remember that during my first visit, in March 2014, the museum was in its early stages of construction. Slowly, together with the curator and the YARAT Foundation, we began to envision an exhibition for the new space. At that time, we had in mind an exhibition of my past work alongside a few commissioned pieces that I would have create in Azerbaijan.

YARAT Contemporary Art Centre, Baku. Image courtesy of YARAT. Photo Fakhriyya Mammadova.

During my next trip to Baku, in June 2014, Dina Nasser-Khadivi, Shoja Azari, a few members of the YARAT Foundation and myself, traveled across Azerbaijan, in order to get to know the country better and to see whether a specific idea would sprout.

Of course being a neighboring country to Iran, I knew a bit about Azerbaijan's history, but what stood out most to me was how much this country's landscape and culture resembles Iran. Needless to say that trip turned out to be an emotional and nostalgic experience for me.

Later, I decided that I would focus my project on a series of portraits that might represent the cultural and ethnic diversity that I found at the core of Azerbaijan's identity. So in November of 2014, I returned to Baku to shoot the portraits.

Shirin Neshat, Akram, from The Home of My Eyes series, 2014-2015. Copyright Shirin Neshat, Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

NH: Did you have an opportunity to meet with artists in Azerbaijan? What was your impression of the art community there?

SN: Yes, I did. Aida Mahmudova, the director and founder of the YARAT foundation, is an artist herself, a very young and talented painter. So aside from her association with her Foundation, Aida is an active member of the artistic community in Azerbaijan, and is always surrounded by artists. I must add that in the exhibition "Love Me Love Me Not," the curator Dina Nasser-Khadivi had included several Azeri artists whom I had the pleasure to meet both in Venice and later in Baku. 

Of course the contemporary art scene in Baku is very small and is still growing, and the YARAT Foundation has had a lot to do with its development, by educating the public, particularly the young generation about contemporary art. And today, by building one of the first major contemporary art museums in Azerbaijan, the foundation is taking another step forward in that direction.

Shirin Neshat and assistant, Photo courtesy David Jimenez.

NH: The portrait project that you did there, how were the 50 people that sat for portraits chosen? It was 50 people right?

SN: I don't quite have the exact count but we had about 80 to 100 people show up and we photographed all of them, but in the end we had to reduce the selection to 55 portraits.

NH: And how were these people chosen? I read that they came in from all over the country to participate in the project.

SN: According to my knowledge all of the people that we photographed lived in Baku. My hope was to conceive a project that did justice in representing Azerbaijan's diversity, as the country is truly a crossroad for many different ethnicities, religions and languages. Few cultures today display such a sense of harmony and tolerance among its people in my opinion. On a daily basis, I was struck by how amazingly diverse Azeri faces are, and how many different languages are spoken at once.

Shirin Neshat, Gizbasti, from The Home of My Eyes series, 2014-2015. Copyright Shirin Neshat, Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

I also felt strongly that the commissioned work had to be accessible and interesting for the local community when they visited the museum. And that the theme should somehow pay tribute to what Azerbaijan ultimately symbolizes, a "home" for all of its people, regardless of differences of race, religion, and language.

With the help of the YARAT Foundation, we began the casting process and our main criteria were to recruit people from different generations, genders, ethnic and religious backgrounds.

Shirin Neshat, Javid, from The Home of My Eyes series, 2014-2015. Copyright Shirin Neshat. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

NH: Yes I wanted to talk about that, I'm interested in the decisions you make as an artist--with this commission you set out to make "a portrait of a country," which seems like an almost impossible task, to portray something so complex--how do you achieve an aesthetic unity of some sort, while being sensitive to each person's individuality?

SN: Of course with the title The Home of My Eyes, "home" became the unifying theme for the project both on a national and personal dimension. What moved me most was how passionate and proud each person felt about their country. Aside from the portraits, we interviewed each participant, with the aim of inscribing their answers on the surface of their portraits. Their responses were quite interesting and diverse. Some related to the notion of  "home" on a more intimate level, while others talked about "home" in respect to their country. So again I had a very specific concept in mind, a series of portraits that, like you described, could be interpreted as a "portrait of a country," as opposed to going into detail about each character's personal narrative.

Shirin Neshat with Hagigat and an assistant, Baku, October 2014, Photo courtesy David Jimenez.

NH: Do you have any anecdotes to share based on the time you spent with the people who took part in the project? Any stories that came about?

SN: We spent memorable days shooting the photographs. Usually, as each person arrived, there was initially an awkward barrier between my collaborators, the participants and myself. Our cast almost always appeared nervous and distant at first, but once we interviewed them and invited them to be photographed, the dynamic began to shift. They took my directions very easily, which were mainly improvised and dealt with the arrangements of simple body gestures, especially with their hands.

Once placed in front of the camera, they relaxed, and interacted with me with the help of our translator. I always showed them the results, so by the time they left, the barrier was broken, and despite the language and cultural gap, we connected and always embraced before they left.

Shirin Neshat with Mahira, Baku October 2014, Photo courtesy David Jimenez.

The interview questions were the same for everyone, and the responses were often very funny, sweet and at times quite sad. To quote a few off the top of my head, I recall someone saying, "it's impossible to describe home in one word, when you leave it, you can't breathe without it." Or, "Home is everything to me, my past, present and future."

I must say that on a personal level, hearing these people's descriptions and emotional reactions to the idea of "home" was very chilling and poignant for me, since I haven't been back to my "home" for so many years.

Another small anecdote is that my own mother's roots go back to Baku, as her ancestors were from Azerbaijan. Also my husband, Shoja's father, whose full name is Azerbaijani, was born in Azerbaijan but on the Iranian side. As you may know the two sides of Azerbaijan were once part of one country at one point of ancient history.

Shirin Neshat, Mahira, from The Home of My Eyes series, 2014-2015. Copyright Shirin Neshat, Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

NH: Well it's kind of an amazing loop of a journey for you to come all the way back to that place that you have these deep roots in, even if you hadn't really been there before.

SN: Indeed it was. The landscapes and the people of Azerbaijan felt extremely familiar to me, as they so much resembled Iranians and Iran, perhaps more than any other country I have ever visited. Also, my first trip happened to take place during Nowrooz, their national New Year. Of course Nowrooz is also celebrated in Iran since it goes back to our Zoroastrian tradition. Always falling on the first day of spring, the Azeri ceremonial rituals and celebrations were so extremely similar to how we celebrated it in Iran, during my childhood. I remember as I walked around the city of Baku during Nowrooz, it felt strangely as if I had stepped back in time, and was back in Iran.

Shirin Neshat with Mudeh Baku October 2014, Photo courtesy David Jimenez.

NH: So I wanted to talk a bit about your major exhibition opening in May at the Hirshhorn. Can you give us a few details about what is in store for audiences there?

SN: The Hirshhorn Museum has organized somewhat of a retrospective exhibition, which will focus both on my past and most recent bodies of work, from still photography to video installations. The title, "Facing History," defines the theme and approach the curators have taken in showing my work in reference to history; and how each body of work somehow embodies a pivotal political moment in the history of Iran.

Shirin Neshat, Passage, 2001. Copyright Shirin Neshat. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

For example: how my feature film Women Without Men took place in 1953, during the CIA organized coup; the photographic series, Women of Allah addressed the Islamic revolution of 1979; and The Book of Kings dealt with the 2009 Green Movement, which later developed into what we call the Arab Spring. Having said that, the show will also reveal how my approach to history has always remained metaphorical, as I've never felt qualified or interested in making work that is biased, or aims to express a specific interpretation, especially since I've always expressed myself from a distance, the diaspora.

So the museum will not only show my art, it will also display my reference material, including my sketches, studies, and research, as well as borrowing other archival photographs and video clips related to those specific historical periods. So the audience will have a unique opportunity to see how an artist has related to and interpreted history. Obviously this direction seems particularly effective being that the museum is located at Washington D.C.

Shirin Neshat, Soliloquy, 1999. Copyright Shirin Neshat. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

NH: My final question has to do with the art world and the art community. Over your career have you noticed any difference in the way the art world and art institutions have engaged with women artists and artists of color? Have things gotten better, worse, or stayed the same in your opinion?

SN: Well I have to say there have been some positive changes in the art world, for example, how someone like myself has been taken seriously in a field that is mostly dominated by white male, Western artists.  

Shirin Neshat, Soliloquy, 1999. Copyright Shirin Neshat. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

But at the same time I feel that today, the contemporary art world is very much driven by the market, and validates and invalidates art and artists according to their commercial success. So of course this is a pity, because art in the end is treated like a "business."

As for someone like myself, whose work is quite aesthetic, but so politically charged, it has been an interesting challenge to negotiate a balance between the art world and the political reality that very much informs my work. I can say with honesty that I do my best to remain true to my subjects and vision, regardless of whether it will be commercially popular or not.

Shirin Neshat, Nazakat, from The Home of My Eyes series, 2014-2015. Copyright Shirin Neshat, Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.