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Shirin Neshat Discusses Death and Gender

Shirin Neshat uses her own life experiences to voice, via female art and identity art, the strife of women not just in Iran, but all over.

Discrimination against women in the Middle East and across the world is so devastating and silencing that even works of female art done by female artists addressing the issue can be a rare discovery. In Saudi Arabia men, not women, have VIP reservations at the front of the line for just about everything. “More than 200 men have been laboring in a factory for eight months to produce the gold-embroidered, black-dyed Kiswa, a silk cover for the Kaaba” (Reuters). Only men are allowed the honor of embroidering the Kiswa, but also considered first for work at all in factories and other industries. It’s almost as if women have some rare child-invented disease that men don’t want circulating the office. “According to the results of the 1385/2006 Iranian census, only 3.5 million Iranian women are salaried workers, compared with 23.5 million men” (Middle East Institute). 23 million men in Iran alone are robbing women of their careers over some ridiculous and unreasonable phobia. In a gloomy work by Iranian artist, Shirin Neshat (b. 1957), this bleak marginalization of women in Islamic lands is publicized.

shirin neshat

Despite an overcast political climate in the West, many female artists feel safer working in the United States compared to the Middle East. As Shirin Neshat’s artwork became critical of the Iranian government, she found her self exiled to the States. She studied at U.C. Berkeley in California. Shirin Neshat, one of the great female artists, works with identity art, particularly identity art concerning Iranian women (Neshat).

See more about Neshat on Wikipedia.

Female Art by Shirin Neshat

Gender in the Middle East is a theme for Shirin Neshat’s film, Passage (2001), on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Passage is an intensely layered eleven and a half minutes of video. The work opens on desolate, arid, ominous, and stark sand dunes with turbulent waves crashing nearby. Four views cut together abruptly and only seem to converge and make sense at the end. There are several men dressed in black solemnly marching across the sandy terrain and eventually inland while those at the front carry a pristine white stretcher. Another view is of several more women dressed in chadors also in black arranged on the ground in a circle and bobbing rhythmically as they chant. One of the female artists, Shirin Neshat, also shows viewers a young girl clearing a site for her newly erected structure of stone and twigs. Finally the views all merge and a triangular arrangement of stone and flames surround all the previous elements. Beautifully suspenseful music heightens the mood of the strange events. Passage is disturbing visually as well as symbolically with allusions to the dark realities of female artists and their identities in identity art.

Female Artists and Identity art

The same oppression women experience in the Middle East is felt via film in Neshat’s somber work of female art. This movie starts as a moving abstract painting. A black mass marches across the screen dotted only with flesh-colored hands and topped with the faces of an all male cast. The abstraction becomes clearer as an all-male procession. Atop the dark mob that is this procession is a clear sign. They are carrying a pure and bright white stretcher with the form of a human wrapped inside. This stretcher is a designation that this is a funeral procession and an honor that is being had only by men. The male figures having the honorable involvement in the funeral procession depicted in a staged movie is a visual copy of the marginalization women face in a very real Middle East where only men have the privilege to participate in honorable ceremonies.

They needed a few destitute women to exploit and do the dirty work in the film though. A second dark clump of black appears. Women disguised by black chadors are burrowing into the dirt and dust of the desert, bobbing, and chanting, “die die die.” There is a moment when the viewer is startled by the fact that the arduous circle of characters in black are indeed all female. One of an increasing number of female artists, Shirin Neshat, is director and empress of her visionary world. Like a sexist king might, she has clearly defined the unfortunate roles of the female cast. Of course only in her films can she call such shots, for gender roles are very much reverse in much of the world. Again the very lucky privileged roles of men and the involuntary deplorable roles of women are depicted in the Neshat’s movie.

Young girls are born into shackles according to Neshat and her movie. Another small and curious scene shows a recent, very young, inmate. The young girl building a tomb in solitude on the crummy ground from rocks with the twigs as its eternal resident shows that not even the young are spared from discrimination. Even the small child is left to toil in the dirt of daily life in Neshat’s visual comparison. This young woman is the newest of generations of women imprisoned by gender roles. Neshat’s film shows in this scene the discriminatory roles where women are forced into monotonous labor and men are allowed more honorable endeavors.

Neshat’s movie becomes more assertive in the end protesting that the sexes should be equal in life as they are in death. Death has lurked around every sand dune and beneath every rock of the film thus far. The wrapped body and the women chanting about dying all allude to the eventual demise of men and women. Frightening images of termination are very apparent. And finally both men and women fight death together in one single hellish image. The male funeral march and the female gravediggers converge in the last scene. The men set the body down in preparation for burial in front of the maltreated gravediggers while the scene is ignited in a fiery pubic triangle. Viewers feel the undiscriminating wrath of death that has already taken the life of the faceless and genderless soul at the same time these privileged men and oppressed women stand together. Shirin Neshat has depicted the marginalization of women while also showing that they are equal in death’s hunt for life.


Admittedly this is a risky description of both Neshat’s dismal work and the current state of women’s rights. Contemporary female art, especially, depends on the viewer’s journey through life. Female art is personal and can mean different things to different people. Varying journeys through life influence a person’s experiences, beliefs, identity (and identity art), and opinions which alters how people analyze art. Perhaps this analysis on Neshat’s pictures is a vulgar mistake. It is certainly difficult for Western connoisseurs of female art, especially those that are male, to even begin to understand hardships women in the Middle East go through. Perhaps the opinions mentioned here will end up being too obscene and only create embarrassing backlash. But these unfair conditions for women are seen in Neshat’s movie, yes, but also on canvas, in the news, and in daily life. Oppression of minorities, especially women, still strives similarly in the United States and across the globe. It is daring and often dangerous to point out this oppression of women. But identity art is what gives people the power to analyze female art, honor everyone’s opinions, and critique female oppression. If one of these female artists, Shirin Neshat, is daring enough to make these visual accusations, then so should others. It is Shirin Neshat’s life experiences, perspective, and identity art in this movie that demonstrate the strife of women all over.

Find more art and culture like this here.


Neshat, Shirin. Shirin Neshat: Art in Exile. TED, 2010.
Reuters. “Kiswa Embroidery: a Makkah factory Secret.” Arab News. www.arabnews.com/news/467540. Accessed 26 March 2017.

“Where Are Iran’s Working Women?” Middle East Institute. www.mei.edu/content/where-are-irans-working-women. Accessed 26 March 2017.


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