LONDON - As a student I was a great fan of Edward Said’s Orientalism and used to feel offended by the vague, notional stereotypes that the West held about Middle Easterners. That sensitivity has been turned on its head in recent times with Middle Eastern artists ready to invert the very elements and aspects that used to caused offence.
Take Shirin Neshat’s series of Stills from her film Women Without Men. The other day I was arrested by a print from the series hanging on the ground floor at Sotheby’s New Bond Street. Zarin, the subject of the film, lies crumpled in the foetal position, her anguish contrasted and witnessed so poignantly by the Western icons that surround her.
A detail of Shirin Neshat’s Zarin in Bedroom.
Her exotic-looking bedroom could be a Moroccan or even Ottoman brothel, although it actually references Tehran’s seamy ‘shahr-I naw.’ While the images of Elvis Presley and Deborah Kerr evoke so many layers of meaning!
Images of Elvis Presley and Deborah Kerr hang on the wallls of the bedroom.
For those of us who remember the smoke-filled cinemas of Tehran or Cairo or Baghdad, these actors were not brands the way film stars are today, but larger-than-life characters that symbolized the golden era of Hollywood. I simply love what Shirin has achieved in this series, and totally covet the one that hangs in the study of my good friend Layla Diba in NYC. Just the other day Susanne, another friend who collects Iranian art, showed me the image of her latest acquisition and yes, it was one of these and yes, I felt a pang of envy!
This morning I call up Shirin who, amazing and dear friend that she is, was willing to talk about her work despite being in Paris for the opening of Iranian Arts Now and having just learned that her mother is ill in hospital in Iran. Of course, my first prayer is for her mother’s recovery. She kindly took the time to tell me how in this series she deliberately took the clichéd Orientalist image of a voluptuous woman and injected the dark suffering of Zarin’s anorexia. A space associated with extreme pleasure becomes transformed into an ambience of extreme pain. And therein lies the artist’s ability to have the final word: she makes nonsense of the cliché of Oriental exoticism. Edward Said rests in peace.
Shirin Neshat’s Zarin in Bedroom hanging in the New Bond Street galleries.