At The Broad, Shirin Neshat’s Work Explores Alienation and Exile

Shirin Neshat: I Will Greet the Sun Again features more than 230 photos from the last 26 years. 

For photographer and filmmaker Shirin Neshat, feeling disconnected from home has been a thread of her life for decades. Born in Iran in 1957, Neshat first came to the United States in 1975 to study at the University of California, Berkley. Eventually exiled from Iran due to the 1979 Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq War that followed, she did not return until 1990, only to find the country vastly different than the one she remembered.

That sense of displacement guides her artwork. A new show at The Broad museum collects 26 years of her photography series and films. Shirin Neshat: I Will Greet the Sun Again opened on Oct. 19 and runs through Feb. 16 in the museum’s ground-floor exhibition spaces. Tickets to the exhibit cost $20.

It’s Neshat’s first major exhibition on the west coast and the new survey traces the evolution of her style and fascinations over 30 years. I Will Greet the Sun Again also features a new multimedia work, “Land of Dreams,” in a debut showing. In the piece, Neshat addresses the status of the modern United States for the first time.

In total, the entire exhibit contains more than 230 photos of varying sizes, plus eight videos.

Neshat’s work is about finding a home outside of political and social constraints, according to The Broad’s Publications Manager Ed Schad, who curated the exhibition for The Broad. Her work, he said, is at once “Iranian, Islamic, Persian and American.

“Her work at the heart is an encounter with individuals. It’s the direct portraiture that only enhances that,” Schad said at a media tour of the exhibition. “While some of her films can focus on large groups of people, like ‘Tooba,’ or ‘Rapture’ which focuses on a large group, she always goes back to these intense personal encounters.”

Much of Neshat’s work is built around ideas of alienation and how people interact with a wider identity. The compositions and portraits, according to Joanne Heyler, the museums’ founding director, “make as paradoxical as possible images of people who have experienced exile.”

The exhibition is arranged chronologically starting at 1993 and running through the present day; it borrows its name from a poem by Iranian writer Forugh Farrokhzad. Visitors start by walking through three rooms displaying Neshat’s breakthrough series, Women of Allah, made during return visits to Iran from 1993-1995. The piece is split into three parts, the first of which, dubbed “Unveiling,” showcases what’s become her signature style: stark, black and white close up portrait photographs of women or hands, with calligraphic poems or images imposed over them.

The second part, “Martyrs,” places women alongside guns and rifles, creating striking imagery. I Will Greet the Sun Again also includes the series’ rarely seen third part, the “garden series,” capturing women in an Iranian garden, framed by flowers and vines.

Located next to Women of Allah is another series of images called “Soliloquy,” which stands out for featuring mostly color images. The works in the space are wide, moving away from portrait shots to capture women against looming architectural works.

Three video screening rooms are also set up throughout the exhibition, each one alternating between two of her works. These immersive works are projected on two screens, facing each other. Viewers must take in both for the full effect, such as the interpretive movement in a hillside garden in “Tooba,” depicted in close up and wide shots.

Land of Dreams

The exhibition takes a turn halfway through. The first few gallery rooms focus on works Neshat made while visiting Iran. After her long-term exile, she turned to works made exploring diaspora. Many of the motifs remain the same — graphics or text overlaid over portraiture, but with new subjects and approaches.

The 2012 series “Book of Kings” shows Iranian activists with images from the titular Persian folklore book imposed over them. Neshat’s 2013 follow-up “Our House Is on Fire” looks at impoverished Egyptians who took part in the 2011 democratic revolution.

Turning a corner, visitors find themselves in “The Home of My Eyes,” a densely packed set of portraits shot in Azerbaijan. Once again the works feature poetry placed on top of the images, but here each Azerbaijani person captured in the picture stands with arms folded or hands clasped, with a reflective look on their faces.

“She was inspired by the people of Azerbaijan but also religious painting,” Schad said. “I like to think of this like an iconostasis wall you’d find at an Orthodox church. We installed it that way.”

The last portion of the space is dedicated to a new work commissioned by The Broad. Land of Dreams is a multimedia work, comprising a series of new portraits and a two-part short film, each screened in a separate room. In the film, Neshat explores 2019 America by photographing people across the American Southwest.

The accompanying two-part films “Land of Dreams” and “The Colony” follow Iranian photographer Simin (actress Sheila Vand) as she travels through the Southwest taking the very pictures in the gallery. She’s not quite a full stand-in for Neshat, as the films quickly veer into a fictional narrative about studying dreams and hidden bunkers, with a tinge of science fiction and dystopian motifs.

The videos touch on modern U.S.-Iranian tensions, as well as poverty, tribal struggles on Native American reservations, and the current immigration debate.

The Broad is also hosting a series of programming events tied around the exhibition. Each Thursday, the museum will host an evening of poetry readings and performance art inspired by the themes found in I Will Greet the Sun Again.

Shirin Neshat: I Will Greet the Sun Again runs through Feb. 16 at The Broad, 221 S. Grand Ave., (213) 232-6350 or thebroad.org.

nslayton@timespublications.com.