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The issue of orientalism is a relevant theme in scientific circles. Orientalism is present in world politics and culture since the Renaissance, since a period of Western domination over the rest of the world. The understanding of this phenomenon was defined only in 1978 by Edward Said, in his book ‘Orientalism.’ This man is deservedly considered as the founder of this theory. Orientalism still is present in many spheres of our life – politics, culture, media and even in education. Orientalism, according to art, culture and the Orientalists, is a very special certain style, thanks to which the features of the culture of Eastern civilization (life, art and culture) have been transferred, and as a result introduced into the Western civilization (Said). Arab East, with the emerging Islamic culture, still remains for many to be a very distant and mysterious. However, it ceased to be distant in terms of understanding of their culture, way of life and art. East culture was revealed through Orientalism.
Orientalism is in the broadest sense of the word the description of the East and Islam from a certain point of view, which contains the certain amount of subjectivity and does not always grasp the true state of affairs, and often distorts the reality. Orientalism considers Islam and all its derivatives - culture, civilization, geographical area as a kind of an accident, as something that does not fit into the understanding of a man with a rational, pragmatic mindset peculiar to the West especially after the Reformation (Said).
Orientalism is the use of motifs and stylistic tools of the Oriental art, as well as stories, stories of life of the Eastern European art and culture in general. In the era of the great geographical discoveries and colonial expansion, Orientalism had predominantly a plot character. The greatest influence on Orientalism was made by North African Maghreb culture (which all North African countries to the west of Egypt belong to, for the Arab world it is the West, by definition) (Peltre).
Thus, Orientalism means the use of the motifs and stylistic tools of Oriental art in the cultures of the eastern European type. Orientalism, according to some researchers, is not only the Oriental studies, but, first of all, is the ‘thinking style’ of Western intellectuals, based on the ontological and epistemological distinction between East and West. Secondly, Orientalism means the dominance of the West over the East by a certain discursive practices (Nochlin).
Orientalism is also a definite trend in the manifestations of a particular cultural tradition (literature, art, historical and ethnographic concepts, and so on), based by a number of grounds on the most exotic features regarding this tradition characteristic to the Eastern worldview in various forms (Peltre).
As the unique phenomenon Orientalism appears in countries that are geographically, historically and ethnographically combines many cultural traditions in their general, single development, which is reflected in the various integrated or independent their manifestations: from linguistics - to architecture. There are certain stylistic features, which are still present in the form of various manifestations of art in Spain, which is caused by a certain period in the history of this country (Nochlin).
The examples of Orientalism can be the movement in painting, using themes, symbols, motifs, say, of the Middle East or China (chinoiserie). The dominance of the Eastern influence is often contrasted with the values of European cultural traditions, having separate origins. Therefore, an excessive enthusiasm for exotic, which, ultimately, Orientalism is, in Europe, in particular, has been criticized.
This criticism is accepted by some Eastern art, culture researchers and historians, due to the fact that the passion of exoticism, in their opinion, has no relations with a true understanding of the culture of the East - it is only the external signs up copying, at the superficial understanding of the hidden symbols and forms (Peltre).
Scientific definition of Orientalism (from the word «oriental» - east) is very difficult. In short: it is a passion to the culture from North Africa, from Egypt, from the Middle East. This addiction has affected the entire Western culture and art: literature, painting, architecture. It is impossible to say when it started, because the moving from West to East and back began long before the historical times (Peltre).
However, in those days (and sometimes completely wild) there was not printing or media. And intellectual movement had a small-town character: in one place it was born one school, in another – it appeared philosophers and grew cultural traditions. But for the transfer of these cultural traditions from one place to another it was required carriers. There were few such carriers, because not everyone knew something that can be moved from place to place, there was even less people who could write something. And they traveled slowly and in small quantities. However, in Western culture it became to appear the oriental elements: clothing, architecture, literature, painting, elements of art (Peltre).
And then it became the time of Orientalism. Scientists began to study oriental doctrines, writers began to write imitating the Oriental poets, and architects began to build buildings on the eastern manners. Artists also wanted something oriental. But one thing is to learn and then to apply. And the other thing is to hear and fantasize. By the way, for the artist it does well, because he needs a fantasy, he needs freedom (Said). However, in the case of Orientalism it appeared the fantastic mix of desires of artists with almost absolute ignorance of the eastern reality. Orientalists in art are good artists, their color has canvases, their women excite, their works is asking for the home environment (Peltre). But their paintings sometimes are the most accurate witnesses that the authors (with rare exceptions) have never been to those places which they portrayed.
Bright colors, beautiful women, the sea outside the window, ivy in the window opening – the painting breathes by peace and tranquility. There is no passion, there is no eastern attributes, there is no drama or intrigue - and the picture attracts to enjoy. There is no doubt that the woman's body was in the East. There is no doubt that no artist could not penetrate into the harem and see wives and concubines. There is no doubt that the artists created their oriental paintings. There is no doubt that these pictures were bought, because it was a window into the world of passion, hot women, shrouded in legends unfamiliar world of something east, even absolutely fantastic. In one word it is – ‘Oriental’ (Nochlin).
Shirin Neshat As an Orientalist
If we talk about the art of the Middle East, the first thing, which comes to mind, is the classic art - Persian miniatures, Sufi poetry, arts and crafts. However, at the same time contemporary art of the region is actually a kind of Terra Incognita (we mean not for specialists, but most of us). Of course, there are a few names that are at the hearing, but the exception only confirms the rule. There are many truly world-class artists. Some of them prefer, however, to live in the US or Europe, but it does not matter - because their roots remain to be, ancestry and upbringing affect the individuals and their art in one way or another. To these great masters it can be rightfully attributed Shirin Neshat (Nochlin).
Today she is one of the most famous Iranian artists. She exhibited worldwide, her works are in the collections of the major museums and galleries, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Tate Britain Gallery Serpentine, etc. She is extravagant and relatively traditional; her works are available to the public and at the same time mysterious. Her works are full of Islamic symbols and myths, but they are cosmopolitan by the means of expression, they are provocative and revolutionary (Peltre).
Shirin Neshat was born in 1957 in the Iranian city of Qazvin in the pro-Western family of doctor and a housewife. After graduating from Tehran Catholic schools in the 1979, parents sent her to the University of California at Berkeley to study the history of art. The Islamic Revolution and the establishment of a fundamentalist regime in Iran made Neshat to be forced emigrant, she was able to visit their homeland only in 1990.
The trip aroused strong impressions: in 20 years the country has changed dramatically. Shirin says: ‘We used to live in an open and free society, being somewhere between East and West - in appearance and lifestyle. When I came back, everything was different. Fewer colors are dominated by black and white. All the women wore the veil. I was in shock.’ Shirin’s works in general can be defined by her own words as the ‘naive view of the artist living abroad, returning and very sincerely tried to understand’ (MacDonald and Neshat).
The result of the trip to home was a series of works that has brought the worldwide fame to Shirin – ‘Women of Allah.’ The model of these photographs became the artist herself, dressed in a hijab. Her exposed parts of the body were covered by the graceful Arabic calligraphy, containing a Koranic suras and fragments of the militaristic and erotic women's poetry in Farsi.
The only accessory, besides calligraphy, became rifle, symbolizing the impossibility of separating of the religion and spirituality from the politics and violence. The very black-and-white series gives the impression of the documentary photography, creates the illusion of Chronicles (Peltre).
‘Women of Allah’ is an offer of dialogue and understanding, but in any case not a call to action. ‘There is a stereotype that all oriental women are submissive victims, but this is not the case. I subvert this statement, as thin as possible and sincerely showing how strong they are,’ - says the author. Shirin is experimenting with her own body, seeking expressions of the personal experiences and feelings, bifurcated between hate and love, rebellious and servility, femininity and courage. According to some critics, this sadomasochistic duality, mutual fascination with the rapist and the victim was the main intrigue of the entire work of the artist (Vitali).
As it has been said, the main character of black and white photos is the artist herself, exposed areas (face, hands, feet) of her body are decorated by the female militarist poetry and sacred texts of the Koran in Persian. The only ‘accessory’ of Shirin in this session, in addition to Persian ‘tie,’ became a gun, which is harmless as earring, peeping from behind the ear (‘Speechless,’ 1996); menacingly aims at viewer, sandwiched between the feet (‘Allegiance with Wakefulness,’ 1994), then, like a cross or sword swipe-to-head symmetrically divides the body into two halves (‘Rebellious Silence,’ 1994). Black and white, highlighted mean and strict image creates the illusion of the documentary military chronicles. Cathartic effect is achieved by the experiment of Shirin, referred to the own body (Vitali).
The next step was the creation by Shirin Neshat of video projects and video installations with the oriental character. The trilogy of video installations in the form of double video projections develops the themes of her pictures. Three film Turbulent (1998), Rapture (1999) and Fervor (2000) are devoted to the opposition of male and female roles in the Islamic society. Video works, according to the author, are focused on the study of the Islamic cultures, as well as express the ideas of loss and memory. Her films, as the artist says, ‘ offer a very realistic image of our society, our culture, our religion, our politics. But at the same time they have an emotional level and mystical level, revealing another layer the idea of poetry and beauty, which is also one of the aspects of this culture, but underestimated for many, many years’ (MacDonald and Neshat).
The work ‘Turbulent’ brought to the author the First International Prize at the Venice Biennale and international fame. The film ‘Turbulent’ appeared as a reaction to the fact that in Iran women are forbidden to perform and record music. ‘If the music is an expression of mysticism and spirituality, - says Shirin Neshat - then wonder why men are allowed to get a similar experience, and a woman are not?’ In this film, she breaks all the rules, first appearing in the theater, where she is not allowed to be, then - singing a song, in which there are no words, and that is pure improvisation. She's single, her actions can not be approved by the society, in which she lives, but at the same time we're talking about a particular form of freedom that is achieved by this woman, about how rebellious and unpredictable a woman can be in a society, where men are destined to live in the certain traditions manner (MacDonald and Neshat).
Video works of Shirin Neshat are minimalistic in their artistic decision like her photographs and in black and white. Costumes and symbols are associated with the religious and social codes of Islamic society, are metaphorical and make the fascinating impact on the viewer. The contrasts in views on the role of men and women in Muslim countries are underlined by the contrasts of colors. In each film a universal value is revealed through the story of the private sector. In these stories, there is no dialogue; the author uses the language of poetic images.
Most recently, Shirin returned to the visual arts, presenting last year her new project ‘The Book of Kings,’ inspired by the Persian epic of XI century ‘Shahnameh.’ According to her, this series contains several main themes: courage, patriotism, love, affection, and betrayal, cruelty, suffering, and finally death (Vitali). The series focuses on events in Iran in 2009, which was attended by hundreds of thousands of men and women out on the streets to protest against the corrupt government. And in fact it is the dedication to the countless array of unknown citizens who courageously sacrificed themselves for justice in the Middle East and the Arab world. Also Shirin is working on her second feature film on the life and works of the famous Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. And there is no doubt that the work will be successful and oriental.
Thus, Shirin Neshat is the Iranian photo artist and filmmaker, living and working in the United States. Her world fame was brought by the photographic series ‘Women of Allah,’ in which the author explores and breaks stereotypes about the lives of women in the Muslim world. Although the works of Shirin Neshat affect important political and social aspects of Iranian society, she considers herself first and foremost as an artist, not an activist. Greatest paradox of works by Shirin Neshat is that, in her opinion, the best sense of ‘Women of Allah’ can be understood only by the people of Iran, but in Iran the works of Neshat are prohibited (Vitali).
Her works are considered to be controversial and mysterious, oversaturated by the symbols and codes f the culture and universal myths, parasitic on the themes of political correctness and feminism. She is called as an outstanding artist, the Bilingual bearer with ‘exilic’ mentality, an American of Iranian origin, ‘double agen’ and revolutionary. In translation from Farsi her name sounds like ‘sweet.’
Focused more on the Western values artist could not accept the adopted in her country oppression of women and the ‘infidels,’ repression, the power of emotions (fear) over the mind. Women's veil, previously perceived as the subject poetry and symbol of protest against the stereotypes of female beauty imposed by the bourgeois world, in the modern context has become like a prison uniform, denying even a hint of the sexuality and personality of the individual. Black and white ‘medieval’ Iran: white houses painted by lime and veiled women in black - that's a strong visual impression that Shirin took away with her to the United States.
The trip to home, on the one hand, restored the lost connection with the spiritual culture of the East close to the artist, but on the other hand, destroyed the illusion of an Islamic welfare and has become a major source of inspiration for all further creativity of Shirin - a kind of therapeutic act, which gave the opportunity to express her experienced shock (Peltre). The specifics of Neshat’s paintings are the followings: color minimalism, a carefully chosen soundtrack that enhances the visuals, extremely metaphorical, built on the hard contrast images. Like the heroine of her paintings, Shirin Neshat makes the rebellion against the detachment of the world, which in its unbelief is not much superior to the world of Islamic fanaticism.
She is one of the few contemporary artists who dared to extol the beauty of the faith and heroism, turning to her national and gender identity, without the alienation and shame. Joan of Arc of modern art, Neshat manifested herself in the post-industrial world of the sterility and rationality with her slogan of the super-rational, mesmerizing, natural art of memory accesses and the archetypes of all mankind. Several years after the debut of the artist, Shirin Neshat style became fashionable and widely replicated. Numbness of the crowd was replaced by a storm of applause. Despite the criticisms of individual critics and the ban on display in Islamic countries, Neshat continues to win (Vitali).
The furious images of femininity were created before as the Islamic East became totally associated with terrorism and suicide bombers belts. In order to explain the works of Shirin Neshat, critics immediately focus attention on the obvious things - on the paranja. How to treat it? Should it be considered as the infamous robe, which the man's society clothes women with? Or as to the voluntary gesture in defense of the traditional values (family and honor)? Or as an object of erotic games and fantasies? Depending on how you answer these questions, you will be able to perceive the art works and Shirin Neshat – with the merciless criticism of religious fanaticism or with lyrics in the tradition of Persian love poetry (with the obligatory anguish). In other words, Neshat merged all of these signs and symbols of the alluring and frightening East.
All further works of the artist (mainly video installations) are built around the eastern myths and stereotypes - on the opposition of ‘male’ and ‘female’ beginning. The man is the open, organized, well-proportioned and clear world, the woman is a volcano, bubbling inside of black clothes and blank walls, ready to burst out in a fit of passion or madness. Neshat uses such visual contrasting tools as black/white, male/female, empty/full theater, traditional/non-traditional music, society/privacy and rational/rational communication. Through these opposites the orientalist explores the intricate psychological and social aspects of the Islamic culture and the lives of Muslim women (Vitali).
The works of Shirin Neshat are the endless arguments about women in the Islamic world, and not critical, but lyrical with elements of provocation. The figure of the heroine of her photo series is hidden under the black robe, but the exposed parts of the body are covered with Arabic script - erotic, but insidiously. After all, this erotic is the visibility, in which there is a doubt: those Europeans, who do not read Arabic and do not know the Quran will see only what they wants to see.
Shirin Neshat is the Iranian artist-orientalist, who almost entire adult life spent in the West. She studied in California, lived in New York However, most of her works are devoted to Iran, East, Muslim culture and the situation of women in it. She is sometimes called as feminist, but it is not entirely correct: Neshat never yells ‘free women!’ She sees the deep cultural codes in the black paranja and respects Islam. In her work there is something more subtle - she talks about the natural power of a woman and her male opposition to the traditionalism, and believes that women will be able to change the situation in her native and beloved Iran.
On the example of the works by Sherin Neshat we can easily see how the figure of oriental woman, in ‘Women of Allah,’ intertwined the problems posed by, on the one hand, women as the oppressed, and orientalization of the East - on the other. Neshat’s strategy is to introduce the Iranian woman, to talk about her dumbness, show her concealment. Only in this way, on the other side of Orientalism, it is possible to imagine the oppressed status of women. Unfortunately, the paradoxical nature of the works of orientalist lies in the fact that, in the region, where they can be understood and read (i.e. Iran), they can not be shown (because of the extreme conservatism of Iranian society in matters of sex) whereas, where they can be displayed (in the liberal West), they can not be read, which is why, are reduced to the ornamental calligraphy and are perceived as oriental arts.
MacDonald, Scott, and Shirin Neshat. 'Between Two Worlds: An Interview With Shirin Neshat'. Feminist Studies 30.3 (2004): 620. Web.
Nochlin, Linda. "The Imaginary Orient." Art in America, Vol. 71, No. 5, May 1983, pp. 118-131, 187-191.
Peltre, Christine. Orientalism. Paris: Terrail, 2004. Print.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979. Print.
Vitali, Valentina. 'Corporate Art And Critical Theory: On Shirin Neshat'. Women: A Cultural Review 15.1 (2004): 1-18. Web.
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