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Rebellious Art: Iranian Artists You Need To Know

Shirin Neshat, Grace Under Duty, 1994. Courtesy of the artist.

There is currently a revolution on Iran's streets, led by courageous women fighting for freedom. However, this revolution did not happen overnight, it has been brewing for decades, and we can witness it in the art of female Iranian artists.

The feminist uprising sparked following the murder of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, who was beaten to death by the Morality Police for allegedly wearing her hijab too loosely during her visit to the country's capital, Tehran. Since the news of Amini's death broke out, women have voiced their anger and are protesting on the streets, challenging the country's Islamic dress code and waving and burning their veils. Some have publicly cut their hair as furious crowds called for the fall of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader since 1989.

Women right's have been under attack since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Following the Iranian Revolution, when Iran replaced an authoritarian monarchy with a theocratic republic, women's status in Iran changed dramatically. Laws were written that promoted the oppression of women, such as preventing them from studying in 140 fields in higher education and enforcing full Islamic cover in offices and public places, to name a few.

Despite the Iranian government trying to suppress female voices, women have shown their discontent with the patriarchy through visual art for many decades, proving that Iranian women are anything but submissive. Iranian artists have been at the forefront of this feminist revolution we are witnessing today, and all we have to do is look at their art to know this.

Here are some artists who have been critical of the Islamic republic in Iran and whose art is crucial in understanding the resilience of Iranian women. They explore gender, politics, spirituality, and war, sometimes with humor and open defiance.

Shirin Neshat (b. 1957, Qazvin, Iran)

Shirin Neshat, Women of Allah, 1993-7. Courtesy of the artist.

Shirin Neshat (b. 1957, Qazvin, Iran) is an Iranian-born multidisciplinary artist living in New York. Her work explores issues ranging from memory and identity to the definition of gender roles in Iranian society. Her work, which has never been shown in Iran, essentially declares the female presence in a male-dominated culture. In her films and photographs, the female gaze becomes a powerful and dangerous instrument for communication.

Neshat's first series of photographs, the Women of Allah series (1993–1997), explores gender in relation to Islamic fundamentalism and militancy. In this series, the veiled, gun-bearing women in black-and-white photographs face a viewer with a bold yet vulnerable look in their eyes. Farsi verses are handwritten in calligraphic over the women's bodies; they are quotes by feminist poets and writers such as Furugh Farrukhzad and Tahira Saffarzada. Neshat uses specific iconography to suggest contradictory ideas such as repression, submission, resistance, and aggression to question the role of Muslim Women and the female body concerning the violence they encountered throughout the Iranian revolution. Neshat further explored cultural taboos through video and video installations.

Neshat has had a very successful career since graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, where she completed her BA, MA, and MFA degrees. She has mounted numerous solo exhibitions at museums internationally, including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; the Serpentine Gallery, London; Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, to name a few. She has also been recognized for winning the prestigious Praemium Imperiale award for Painting and the Silver Lion for best director at the 66th Venice Film Festival in 2009 for her film, Women Without Men (2009. In 2010, Neshat was named “Artist of the Decade” by Huffington Post critic G. Roger Denson. She is a critic in the photography department at the Yale School of Art.

Maryam Tafakory (b. 1987, Shiraz, Iran)

Maryam Tafakory, I Have Sinned A Rapturous Sin (2018). Image from a short documentary. Courtesy of the artist.

Maryam Tafakory is an artist-filmmaker based in London. Her work draws on the notion of personal as political in a fractured narrative that involves a subtle negotiation between factual and fiction. It explores allegorical visual history forms, using abstracted, symbolic, and textual motifs and their on-screen representation. Part performance, her work draws on womanhood and rites of passage, interweaving poetry, (self)-censorship, and religion, combining a formal minimalist syntax and figurative mode of representation.

Tafakory's short documentary, I Have Sinned a Rapturous Sin, explores female sexuality in an Islamic fundamentalist society. An essay filmed against the backdrop of lyrical images of feather plucking or drawing with chalk presents the clerical orders of Islamic women and how they rein in their impure desires. As a subversive element of Islamic fundamentalism, the director recites a poem by Iranian feminist writer Forough Farrokhzad titled Sin. The powerful audiovisual piece is both protest and poetry celebrating sensuality.

Tafakory studied for her MFA at Oxford University. Her work has been exhibited internationally, including Rotterdam IFFR; Edinburgh EIFF; Zurich Film Festival; Melbourne MIFF; ZINEBI; Hamburg IKFF; ICA London; BFI London; Kurzfilmtage Winterthur; Ji.hlava IDFF; Barbican Centre London; New York UnionDocs; and BBC Three. She has received several awards for her films, including Best Short Film at Dokumenta-Madrid and the Barbara Hammer Feminist Film Award, amongts others. Tafakory lives and works between Shiraz and London.

Newsha Tavakolian (b. 1981, Tehran, Iran)

Newsha Tavakolian, "Listen" series (2010- 11). Courtesy of the artist and Magnum photos.

Newsha Tavakolian is a photojournalist and documentary photographer. Her work's common themes are women's evolving role in overcoming gender-based restrictions and contrasting Western media stereotypes. Tavakolian has photographed female guerilla fighters in Iraqi Kurdistan, Syria, and Colombia, prohibited Iranian female singers, and the lives of people living under sanctions.

Among her work that explores the gender issues women face in Iran, her "Listen" series (2010- 11) is visually compelling. The series focuses on women singers who are not allowed to perform solo or produce their CDs due to Islamic regulations since the 1979 revolution. The photos are taken of the professional women singers performing in their minds in front of a large audience. In reality, this was taking place in a small private studio in downtown Tehran.

Tavakolian was the fifth laureate of the 2014 Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award and the principle laureate of the 2015 Prince Claus Award. Tavakolian's work has found its place within the private collections of international institutions, including the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the British Museum, the Sackler Gallery, and the Boston Museum of Fine Art. She has worked for Time magazine, The New York Times, Le Figaro, and National Geographic. Tavakolian is a full member of Magnum Photos.

Shadi Ghadirian (b. 1974, Tehran, Iran)

Shadi Ghadirian, Untitled from the Ghajar Series, 1998-1999. Courtesy of the artist and Saatchi Gallery.

Shadi Ghadirian is a contemporary photographer whose work is influenced by her experiences as a Muslim woman living in modern Iran. Her photo-performative works explore themes of modernity, tradition, everyday life, routines, censorship, war, and emotions such as fear, freedom, and solitude.

Ghadirian's series of studio photographs titled Qajar (2020), inspired by the Qajar Dynasty, utilizes black and white portraiture to capture sitters in a purposefully designed studio environment reminiscent of the Qajar Dynasty. The photographs capture the private worlds of Iranian women today, caught between tradition and modernity.

Photographs of the Qajar series feature modern-day restricted items in Iran, such as a CD player, beer cans, bicycles, and TVs, among other things, which the artists use to demonstrate defiance of rules imposed on women by the government. The fact that these women have been photographed holding, posing, and interacting with "illegal" items that many in most western countries deem trivial demonstrates the strength of these women.

Ghadirian studied art and photography at Azad University, graduating with a B.A. in Photography. Today she is considered one of Iran's most celebrated and significant artists. Ghadirian's work has been exhibited extensively throughout the world, including The British Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Smithsonian Museum in Washington, Mumok (Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig) in Vienna, Muséed'Art. She lives and works in Tehran.

Rana Javadi (b. 1953, Tehran, Iran)

Rana Javadi, When You Were Dying 2, 2008. Courtesy of the artist.

Rana Javadi is a self-taught photographer who uses images and objects from across history and combines them into photographic collages. She uses the power of a photograph to create a visual historical record concerning Iran's collective memory of its bygone era of easy living.

Javadi's work includes the series When You Were Dying, in which she takes photographs from famous Iranian photography studios and uses them as the basis for photo collages. The collages involve images of women showing their hair in feminine poses, vintage fabrics, drying flowers, and other traces of contemporary life, creating nostalgia for times when women had more freedom.

Javadi began working as the Director of Photo and Pictorial Studies at the Cultural Research Bureau in Tehran in 1989. From 1997 to 1999, she was a founding member of Askhaneh Shahr, Iran's first museum of photography; she is also on the editorial board of the photography journal Aksnameh. Since 1979 she has participated in national and international exhibitions in Tehran, Paris, Boston, Athens, Rio de Janeiro, London, Dubai, and Berlin. She lives and works in Tehran.


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