The use of the written word in the art of Shirin Neshat and Lalla Essaydi
While often perceived as a purely aural element, the word is as important a visual tool in politically-motivated art. Shirin Neshat and Lalla Essaydi, two artists known for their use of calligraphy, add linguistic layers of coding to their photographs. Words, marking faces and tracing new cartographies, have featured prominently in their works, sparking a fierce contemporary debate about the role of the Middle East and North Africa in the production of images, while at the crux of both these artists’ oeuvres is a concerted interest in relaying histories of unjust representation. The uniting force between their bodies of work is the mutual recognition – via the use of literature in art – of the ways in which colonialism and 19th Century Euro-American hegemony have shaped traditional understandings of what it means to be Middle Eastern / North African, or to belong to the respective diasporas. The result is an art that speaks back to historic pressures in an attempt at emancipation.
Linda Nochlin, the celebrated historian of early French modernism, on Jean-Léon Gérôme’s celebrated paintings of beautiful bathing Turks and naked young snake charmers, wrote of a ‘politics of vision’ that looked to trap the ‘East’ in a temporality both externally and hermetically sealed off from influence and change. As France’s stronghold in North Africa grew in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, European artists began to show a keener interest in portraying these mythical lands in their works. When imagination became the singular source of inspiration, worlds came to being on canvas that were ‘stuck’ in time and weathered by decrepitude, and debauchery and hedonism became the principal subjects for paintings that reflected artistic reverie more than fact. Through a visual culture propagated by art patronage, an idea of the Middle East and North Africa developed that was ahistorical and skewed, born of a severe imbalance of power that fostered the circulation of imagery produced in Europe; this idea has survived, and continues to insidiously creep into contemporary discussions.
The Iranian and Moroccan artists Neshat and Essaydi are engaged with similar – albeit fundamentally different – political resolutions, namely to undermine one’s perspective of the so-called ‘Orient’. Their use of photography marks a desire to reframe certain ‘truths’. Whereas paint calls for a level of mediation between artist and art, photography distinguishes itself as an art form, which, while prone to manipulation, asserts a presence that is unquestionable and raw. While Gérôme’s paintings looked to employ artifice in search of ‘high art’, Neshat and Essaydi’s photographs instead purport to depict a reality closer to the truth. In their work, the air of mysticism that so often surrounds a canvas is instead relinquished in favour of confessional portraits.
In almost all of Essaydi’s works, most notably in her acclaimed Les Femmes du Maroc series, the artist casts women to appear before her camera with Arabic text adorning their garments, bodies, and environs. Their presence is emphatic: punctuated with illegible stories scrawled along every surface, the bodies of her women speak, despite the stillness inherent in the chosen medium. By situating these women in closed spaces associated with the private feminine sphere (i.e. the harem), Essaydi subverts standard expectations. Instead of assuming passive roles as receptors of a gaze, her subjects stare out at the viewer, beseeching them to come closer, and more importantly, to read. The act of reading here asserts a need to engage in a dialogue with the work, adding a dimension of time into an otherwise static image. ‘Unfreezing’ the Orientalist paintings of the past, she sets cultures in ‘motion’ by activating a conversation in the here and now.
Neshat and Essaydi are harbingers of a new politics of vision, in which the ‘exoticisation’ of the East slowly disappears in the wake of new systems of representation, heralding a turn in conventional practices of seeing
In Neshat’s most recent series of photographs, The Book of Kings (a reference to the Shahnameh, the Iranian national epic composed by the Persian poet Ferdowsi over 1,000 years ago), she reexamines the same iconic aesthetic explored in her Women of Allah series. Here, however, instead of forwarding a singularly feminist message, Neshat unifies the faces of both men and women by imposing the script of the celebrated story over the faces of her subjects. Inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings, this series undermines the silence that has characterised imperialistic representations of the modern Middle East emanating from global media sources. Voices arise out of the text, alighting a dynamic process of storytelling coming out of regions either vilified or forgotten, while the tattoos of Persian miniature warriors serve as potent symbols of devotion to culture amongst a widely-scattered diaspora.
Perhaps what makes the works of these artists inherently political is their use of narrative as a confrontational force. Not only do they question the ability of the ‘Orient’ to speak back and address a systemic denial of expression, but they also contort multiple power relations, often stemming from rigid gender roles. Given its close association with the Koran and calligraphy, writing in the Islamic world is commonly seen as a male practice – a divine gift signifying power and stature; yet, Neshat and Essaydi manage to ‘undo’ this matrix of privilege by challenging understandings of who derives actual benefit from this power. In the works of Essaydi, it is seemingly conferred onto women, who take a feminine medium (henna), and use it to wield a creative energy that is then dispersed over space and the corpus. While Neshat’s earlier work shows much of the same effort, her interest has, in recent years, shifted to underscoring ways in which Iranian and Arab youth carve out spaces for themselves in the international arena. The Book of Kings series establishes a fraught relationship between modernity and authenticity, albeit one in which a negotiation and self-understanding take place that do not rely on colonial impositions to voice themselves, and where language is treated as a medium for projecting meaning to the world from within.
Neshat and Essaydi are harbingers of a new politics of vision, in which the ‘exoticisation’ of the East slowly disappears in the wake of new systems of representation, heralding a turn in conventional practices of seeing. These artists affront their viewers with imploring stares from today’s Near East, asking them to reflect on their own prejudices and inherited assumptions. Photographic portraiture is startling in its immediacy, forcing one to contemplate the distinctions drawn between reality and fantasy. The invocation of literature in art, however, is the bond bringing Neshat and Essaydi together in their struggle to recontextualise views of the region. The written word, with its simultaneous ability to clarify and obscure, becomes a source of confession, disavowal, or assertion here; it is powerful in its ability to undo stagnation, as well as narrate change and transformation. Looking towards a future of refreshing discourses on the Middle East and North Africa, the images produced by artists therein must continue to tell stories of vitality – for this is perhaps the only way in which these regions will truly remain alive in the most global sense.