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Viewpoints: A Conversation with Shirin Neshat and Shahzia Sikander

Aug 15, 2008

Shirin Neshat and Shahzia Sikander are two critically acclaimed Asian American artists whose work examines, among other things, the themes of gender, Islam, tradition and identity. The two artists spoke with Vishakha Desai, the Asia Society’s Senior Vice President and Director of the Galleries and Cultural Programs, in a program called Viewpoints in December 2000.

Shirin Neshat has emerged in the international arena in the last few years as a major artist working in the media of photography, film and video. Born in Qazvin, Iran, Shirin Neshat came to the US as a teenager. She studied painting at the University of California at Berkeley, where she earned an MFA. After a decade-long hiatus from the art world, she emerged again as photographer and filmmaker in the late 1990s. Her solo exhibitions include shows at the Serpentine Gallery in London, the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as the Wexler Art Center in Columbus and a number of other institutions. She has also participated in a number of group projects. Her work has appeared in biennial shows in cities around the world, including Sydney, Istanbul, Venice, Johannesburg, and New York, where her film “Rapture” was one of the highlights of the Whitney Biennial. She has also shown her work in the Project 70 series at MOMA and at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Shahzia Sikander has been recognized as one of the most exciting young artists to emerge on the national scene. She was born in Lahore, Pakistan, where she received her BFA at the National College of Lahore. She moved to the United States to attend the Rhode Island School of Design, where she earned an MFA. She works both in painting, as well as in installation forms. Her solo exhibitions include “Acts of Balance” at the Whitney Museum at Phillip Morris, “Directions” at the Hirschorn Gallery in Washington, DC, as well as a very important show at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. Her work has also shown in group exhibitions, including the Whitney Biennial. Additionally, Shazia Sikander will be featured in an upcoming Asia Society exhibition entitled "Conversations with Traditions" in October 2001.

Vishakha Desai explains, "You might ask why we've thought about pairing Shirin and Shahzia…. Often times they are described as artists from the Islamic world who have really made it big in the New York art scene, as well as the international art scene. They are both artists who, in a way, force us to go beyond the kind of binaries that seem to emerge when we talk about contemporary art; binaries such as tradition versus modernity, cultural specificity versus the international art arena. They are artists who also think about these kinds of issues, both in their work, as well as in the way they approach their work." Below are excerpts from a discussion with the two artists.

Vishakha Desai: Sometimes when I have asked [artists] to do something at the Asia Society they have been reluctant and have said, "Well, I don’t want to be ghettoized. I don't want to be seen in just a strictly Asian context." But both of you agreed to come. How do you define yourselves, since you are women artists from the Islamic world? How do you think of yourselves in the context of the international art scene? Where would you put the emphasis in terms of self-definition?

Shahzia Sikander: Well, I think for me it's constantly shifting because a lot of it is about self-discovery. For me, the challenge is always to find myself in all these categories and then discard the categories. So in a sense, it's again creating this dichotomy of experience where it's something that defines you and then you try to defy it. In that respect, it doesn't really matter whether one is being shown in the context of being Asian or Asian-American or Pakistani or American. They all have something to add in the larger picture.

Vishakha Desai: So although you might say that it doesn't matter or it all matters, there is definitely a responsibility to all the aspects. Shirin?

Shirin Neshat: I think it would be very difficult for me to deny, since all of my work is about women and it's entirely about my country. I feel very proud that the work that I'm producing very much corresponds to the emotions of a woman. It's very important for me that people are aware of it.

In terms of the cultural specification, I think that I'm very much interested in the dialogue that it creates, so part of the work is very analytically approached. It becomes quite abstract and poetic, yet it really is meant to create discussion. So I'm very open to all possibilities that come from that.

I'm afraid though sometimes as I go along I find that conversations and discussions sometimes trivialize the very depth, the meaning of the work. Sometimes it's good to keep some mystery to the work, where not everything has to be defined and explained. So that's the only thing that makes me hesitate about really breaking down every single meaning of my work.

Vishakha Desai: I find that for all of us who have been born in one place and then move somewhere else, this notion of shifting the sense of who we are is so very important in the way we live. I was very aware at the time that you were talking about so many of your relatives who are now going back to Iran to live permanently. What does that mean? When I'm in India, I'm much more Indian than I am an American, but then when I'm here, I'm more American than Indian. I'm wondering if that's partly what happens to your work as well.

Shahzia Sikander: I haven't been back [since I moved to the U.S.]. So that would be something that I am looking forward to, specifically how I'm going to react, and also how people are going to react to my work. But I think that one thing that I'm sure of is that the individuality in the larger collective context is always an issue. One has become used to having the liberty to have all the time to devote to work here, whereas I think back home, always there was more to juggle.

Vishakha Desai: You mentioned "back home" and "my country." Is this notion of who you are and which one is your country shift for you as well, depending on where you are?

Shirin Neshat: Well, my situation might be a little different because working in my country is a little bit tough. So although I have been able to travel there, there are a few things I have decided on. Although the subject of my work is specifically about Iran, it's not always filmed in one nation. I work in Morocco for the most part. So for me, that's been a very interesting experience, and a way of developing a relationship with another country that is Islamic. But that's been an interesting process for me. Even though the subject is about Iran, I don't make my work in Iran.

Vishakha Desai: Is America ever a home?

Shirin Neshat: Yes. Absolutely. At this point, I have been here many years. I feel that I am very comfortable. I feel that I am American and at the same time Iranian. I'm allowing myself to travel around the world as I like and feel comfortable where I go.

Vishakha Desai: Speaking of home, I thought we might want to talk a little bit about your background. Clearly, for both of you the situation is quite different. But I was wondering if you could talk about when you knew you were going to be an artist, or what was it like for you in the early years pursuing your creative endeavors? For you [Shahzia], it was in Lahore. What was it like when you lived in Lahore?

Shahzia Sikander: I think that a lot has to do with self-expression. I found that being creative was definitely something that hadn't happened throughout school. I was interested in art, but it had never been consistent. It was a regiment, so it was very lukewarm as such. So I decided to go into an art school much later. I was already studying French literature. I wanted to just let go of that and move in another direction. So it was very much in the application. It was a very formative stage, and then sort of putting all the effort towards achieving it.

Vishakha Desai: You hadn't actually done anything before that time?

Shahzia Sikander: Not really. I had taken some classes and took the merit exams they had, and I went into a national college of art. Since then, it was always a very conscious decision.

Shirin Neshat: I had the opposite experience. Actually, no one in my family had ever been artistic. When I grew up, I had some artistic interest, and when I came to the United States, I decided to go to art school, but I was one of the worst students. I went to UC Berkeley. So when I graduated, I actually decided to stop being an artist. By the time that I graduated, I came to the conclusion that what I was doing wasn't really worth pursuing, or I didn't have the sense of maturity or purpose.

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