Two compelling photographs from Shirin Neshat’s monumental series Our House is on Fire (2013)—created in the wake of the Arab Spring—were recently given to the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation’s Art as Activist program.
Vanderbilt is one of 33 colleges and universities chosen as a recipient of this gift, which is intended to spark cross-cultural dialogue about international issues and religious and political divides, and to facilitate collaboration between academic departments and university museums and galleries.
Shirin Neshat, an Iranian-born visual artist currently working in New York, has made her home country’s turbulent history the subject of high art. She captures Iran’s sharp contrasts in black and white, and her art is marked by its exploration of gender and violence in society and life in exile. Neshat says her art is about “people who fight power versus people who hold power.”
While these images of Ghada (above) and Sayed (below) from Our House is on Fire, both taken in 2013, at first appear simply to be photographic portraits, highlighting the sitters’ faces against a black background, one will notice a thin, fuzzy surface layer on close observation. Calligraphy is often layered on the people in her photos. Neshat has inscribed calligraphy by the Iranian poet Mehdi Akhavan Sales across the wrinkles and folds of her subjects’ faces as a metaphor for the effect of a national calamity on these individuals’ lives.
Juxtaposed with the poem in Farsi and its English translation, these photographs are on rotating display in less traditional art spaces around campus—Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, Department of Political Science and the Ingram Commons, Vanderbilt’s Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy, and Department of Religious Studies. Here they will best serve their intended purpose—as a means of sparking conversations and reflection on difficult topics in these disciplines and in today’s world.
Although she primarily works in photography, Neshat won the 2009 Venice Film Festival Silver Lion award for best directing in her feature-length film Women Without Men. She was one of four recipients of the World Economic Forum’s Crystal Award in 2014 for her impact and commitment to improving the state of the world through art.