National Museum of Contemporary Art Athens


18/03/2009 - 31/05/2009


Shirin Neshat

Women without Men

Athens Conservatoire

18/03/2009 – 31/05/2009

Curated By: Anna Kafetsi

The new monumental circle of work of Shirin Neshat, titled Women without Men, was created between 2004-2008 and is constituted from 5 videos-sound installations.

Shirin Neshat’s new series of works is based on Shahrnush Parsipur’s novel, which is banned in Iran since 1989. The five video installations (Mahdokht, Zarin, Munis, Faezeh and Farokh Legha) tell the stories of the five female characters in the novel. The total duration of
the films is c. 1 hour 15 minutes.
The novel is set in 1953, the year when the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, vainly tried to avert a coup d’état mounted by American and British forces, whose task it was to reinstate the Shah as an absolute ruler in order to avoid the nationalisation of the country’s oil resources.
In her films, Shirin Neshat retains the magic realism of the novel and allows magic and the supernatural to interact with the realistic story. On the other hand, she deals freely with the novel’s action as she focuses on mood and tone in her work rather than seeking to create a straightforward film
version of the novel.
It is the five main female characters – Mahdokht, Zarin, Munis, Faezeh and Farokh Legha – that Shirin Neshat portrays in a gripping drama about power and powerlessness. The women confront the lives they have lived hitherto in different ways and seek to escape from the city to a garden, where they for a time find a refuge. For these women, life is a struggle for freedom and survival in a society that lays down strict rules regarding religion, sex and social behaviour.
For Shirin Neshat, the coincidence in time between the Iranian people’s attempt to achieve democracy and independence and the women’s fight for survival – through madness, flight, active opposition or conformity – has been the driving force in the creation of her new, fascinating and unforgettable work, Women without men
The monumental series Women without Men will be completed by a feature film screening in film


When, in spring 2003, I invited Shirin Neshat to participate with a new work in the exhibition Transcultures, in the framework of the 2004 Cultural Olympiad, her monumental work Women without Men was just being conceived and the artist was on her way to Morocco, “in search of the ideal garden”, as she wrote to me. The Athens exhibition then served as the occasion for the creation of the first of five parallel stories of women that comprise the most ambitious, to date, synthetic attempt by the international Iranian American artist. It is based on the character Mahdokht. Then came Zarin and by 2008, when the audiovisual installations (initially filmed on 35 mm. colour film) reached completion, the stories of Munis, Faezeh and Farokh Legha.
An extensive intertextuality weaves together the five different stories, in which the audiovisual text is written on another text, Shahrnush Parsipur’s 1989 novel of the same title. The cinematic reading of the novel, which is extensively analysed in this catalogue by two eminent specialists in Iranian literature, Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak and Shouleh Vatanabadi, retains, not without liberties, its main narrative structure and magical realism, an opportune idiom for the interpretation of the realities of characters split from the dominant social body and norm. The novel relates to the lives of five different female characters in oppressive social, cultural and religious environments in Tehran in the 1950s, who seek liberation and salvation in creating their own “exile” community in the closed garden of Karaj.
In order to understand the five works it is not necessary to have read the novel, even though the latter creates a broad interpretative and imaginative horizon, and vice versa, in this open procedure of translation from one genre into another. In reality, the spectator receives the visual narrative through a deeper grid of crossings with and reductions to other works, poetic, visual and cinematic. This could not rule out inner intertextual relations with earlier works and individual images by the artist herself, which have been engraved in us by their rare poetic depth and lyrical finesse.
The dialogue with Parsipur’s novel undoubtedly marks a turning point in Shirin Neshat’s work, although the poetry of the great 13th century mystic Jalal Al Din Rumi or the contemporary Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad never ceased to spurn her creativity and narrative memories after her series of photographs Women of Allah (1993-1997), or the first double projection installation Turbulent (1998). And it is not only her decision to “rewrite” an already existing narrative. It is above all her choice of an expanded and dialogical narrativity that enables her to open herself up – and to open the “domestic” literary text – to discontinuous and different topographies of an essentially “homeless” aesthetic.
In the series Women without Men ideas, landscapes, political and social realities, the psychological situations of the characters, are all represented, interpreted and received through palindromes in, to a greater or lesser extent, known territories, culturally and ideologically defined ones, from 19th century Orientalist and Pre-Raphaelite symbolist painting to cinematic conventions and aesthetics which take us to the poetic glades of Sergei Eisenstein, Andrei Tarkovsky, Abbas Kiarostami, or Theodoros Angelopoulos.
Neshat’s narrative is utterly elliptical and abstract. Always on the verge between the visual arts and the cinema, it makes use of repetition and metonymic fragmentation – the rhetoric patterns of the cinematic language – in order to achieve a rare density, suggestive power and semantic ambiguity in narration, which shifts from the narrator to the spectator. Through his own imagination, his own knowledge, memories and sensibilities, he will seek correlations, meanings and semantic sequences among the projected images; will create one or more of the multiple versions of an infinitely open work. Comparison or mere reduction to the literary source, a text which does not lack in polyphony, either, could by no means exhaust – in spite of specific narrative similarities – the hermeneutic complexity and emotional profundity of Neshat’s video installations.
Contrary to the non-temporal and intensely symbolic character of earlier black and white works by the artist, in which a “geometric choreography” (circle, square, line, etc.) dominates, here Neshat retains and/or emphasizes ¬– with the exception of Mahdokht – the historicity of her narrative material and the individual identities of the characters in a specific time and place. Besides, the greatest change she introduces in the visual transcription is her emphasis on the dramatic political events of the coup d’état in 1953 – the year in which the events of the novel are taking place – and the correlation of the political and the women’s struggle for freedom and independence. The tension, the conflictual relationships between individual and society, male authority and female submission, the social, psychological, sexual dilemmas, taboos and guilt of the female characters, the desire for individual liberation and self-determination, are some of the themes that bring the novelist and the visual artist close to each other.
With slow and poetic camera gestures, Shirin Neshat begins her narration in the garden, with Mahdokht’s manic silhouette dominating in the centre of the triple panoramic projection. She then moves on to public, open and closed, spaces, from a brothel to a women’s hammam and the devotional space of a mosque, where Zarin’s character is built during a desperate escape, wandering and attempt at bodily purification. She penetrates into the privacy of Munis, one step from the free flight/fall, or union with the male dead body, herself, political action in the street, before returning once again in the two last works to the garden, where the heroine is headed with her friend Faezeh. There, she shows us Faezeh in solitary promenades rambling to herself, to dramatically seek reconciliation with her desires and inner traumas, while the older Farokh Legha in the garden house is experiencing fulfilment, but also disillusionment with her social and intellectual concerns, before the work comes to a masterful end once again with entering to the garden. The beginning. The beginning of a self-imposed exile, which, beyond mystical and eschatological pledges, promises a personal rebirth and the hope for a final return to life.
The translation of the literary paradigm into five independent video installations which already appeal to the trans-national public in museums and galleries does not end here. The plan for a genre transcription into a full-length feature film to be screened in film theatres of the cycle Women without Men on show in this exhibition was there from the beginning. Its recent completion will enable us to discover, in a honorary screening shortly before the exhibition closing, new interpretations of the poetic universe of this fascinating work, through Shirin Neshat’s unexpected but equally fertile shifts from one artistic culture to another.
Anna Kafetsi


Editor: Anna Kafetsi
Includes essays by:
Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, Professor of Persian Literature and Founding
Director of the Center for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland, USA, Shouleh Vatanabadi, Master Teacher of Iranian Literature and Gender Studies at the Faculty of Near Eastern Studies of New York University,
Anna Kafetsi, Director of the National Museum of Contemporary Art
133 pages, 30 x 24 cm, Athens 2009
Bilingual (Greek / English)
With reproductions of the works
ISBN: 978 – 960 – 8349 -37 -7
Available for sale: price 20 euro

Catalog in pdf format


Photo: Munis, 2008
Video / audio installation
© Shirin Neshat
Courtesy: Gladstone Gallery, New York and Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont, Paris