Woman, Life, Freedom: four Iranian artists on identity, gender and revolution

Shirin Neshat, Soheila Sokhanvari, Shahrzad Changalvaee and Hadi Falapishi discuss art and activism in response to the women-led revolution in Iran

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This spring, Christie’s hosted Say Her Name: Iranian Women Artists and Revolution. Convened by the renowned curator and scholar Layla S. Diba, the panel discussion at New York City’s Rockefeller Center featured four Iranian contemporary artists: Shirin Neshat, Soheila Sokhanvari, Shahrzad Changalvaee and Hadi Falapishi. 

They spoke about their work in relation to the national protests that have erupted in response to the death of Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman who died in police custody after she was arrested and detained by Iran’s morality police. 

Widely shared images of Amini ‘stirred the conscience of the world and launched the revolution, a revolution led by young women and girls, perhaps for the first time in history,’ said Dr. Diba. ‘Anthems and symbols followed: the beautiful song Baraye by Shervin Hajipour, the chants Zan. Zendegi. Azadi. Woman, Life, Freedom and Say Her Name.’ Art and creativity have played an integral role in the responses, from protest posters to graphics shared on social media to large-scale public installations. 

Representing a wide range of perspectives and working across many different mediums, the artists on the panel offered their own unique experiences and perspectives on Iranian identity in the 21st century. Each expressed deep solidarity with the struggle for freedom led by the women of Iran.

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Shirin Neshat with her artwork Eyes on Iran, New York, 2022. Photograph by Eugene Gologursky via Getty Images for WomanLifeFreedom.today

‘This is an historic moment, one that Christie's felt compelled to shed light on through the lens of the arts and through the voices of artists. We celebrate these artists, who each in their own way are contributing to a contemporary cultural and artistic legacy,’ said Dr. Ridha Moumni, Christie’s Deputy Chairman of Middle East and North Africa, who co-moderated the evening with Dr. Diba. 

Dr. Diba, who became Iran’s first woman museum director in 1975 as the founding director and chief curator of the Negarestan Museum in Tehran and later served as the Brooklyn Museum’s Curator for Islamic Art, contextualised the current revolution led by women and girls in Iran. 

She situated the movement within the long historical legacy of Iranian feminist heroines — from Qamar-ol-Moluk Vaziri, the celebrated songstress who was the first to sing for a mixed audience without a veil, to Táhirih Qurrat al Ayn, the Bábí poet and theologian who was executed for advocating for women’s rights, to the legendary Scheherezade of One Thousand and One Nights, who with courage and cunning conquered a violent king with her enthralling storytelling. ‘Scheherezade’s story reminds us of the power of women and the power of words, both leitmotifs of the current revolution’, said Dr. Diba. 

Each panellist spoke about their work in relation to different sites for contestation and disruption that Iranian women and artists have explored over the past six months of resistance. Guided by their lived experiences, the artists each expressed their unique relationship to activism. 

Shahrzad Changalvaee — activist art in person and online 

An artist and activist who was born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Shahrzad Changalvaee highlighted the history of gender-based discrimination and the politicisation of the hijab under the Islamic Republic, providing examples of the imagery in advertising and propaganda that has been used to promote the subjugation of women in society. 

Changalvaee’s talk dealt with projected identities and the challenges faced by Iranian women, particularly the post-1979 generation who grew up under the highly religious-political ideologies of the Islamic Republic regime. The artist highlighted how under the regime women are represented visually and artistically using elements that are tools of systematic discrimination and gender segregation, such as the hijab and other ‘women only’ signifiers.

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Shahrzad Changalvaee. Photograph courtesy of the artist

Brave women in Iran have stood up for their rights, including rejecting forced hijab, risking arrest and violence. Sharing photos, graphics, and videos on social media has helped spread their message both within Iran and throughout the world. 

Viral posts — ranging from agitprop designs to performance art documentation — have become sites of collaboration. For example, artists and activists including Changalvaee built on and amplified a viral graphic by the Tehran-based artist Rahele Mahouti illustrating the evolution of forced hijab after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran. The graphic became a rallying image of the #No2Hijab campaign. 

Changalvaee co-founded and co-directs from: Iran platform, which disseminates ‘independent, intersectional feminist, radical, artist-led visual stories.’ The artist spoke about her performance work, which often resists or upends expected signifiers of Iranian art such as Persian script. In her work Everything In Its Place (2019) the artist read the names of arrested protesters while chewing clay, obscuring the words and language from the audience. ‘I had to drag the attention of the audience from my exotic language or the script to something else,’ she said. 

Shirin Neshat — historical narratives in a new context 

A recipient of the Venice Biennale’s prestigious Golden Lion Award, Shirin Neshat is one of the most widely recognised and celebrated Iranian artists living today. She spoke about two recent public installations, which presented her past works in a new context amid the ongoing protests in Iran. 

For four days in October 2022, the work Moon Song from her Women of Allah series (1993-1997) was broadcast across Europe’s largest screen, Piccadilly Lights, and at The Pendry West Hollywood, along with the words WOMAN LIFE FREEDOM. The image depicts two hands that posit the duality of Iranian identity, from the history of ancient Persia to the contemporary reality of post-1979 Iran.

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Shirin Neshat. Photograph by Rodolfo Martinez, image courtesy of the artist

The installation ‘was enormous, and it was one of the earliest large-scale visual statements in support of what was happening,’ said Neshat. The artist noted that while the image was created in the 1990s for a different context, it has become a living work, altered and adapted for the circumstances. 

Neshat was also part of a group of Iranian artists who collaborated with French artist JR and the For Freedoms art collective, founded by Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, to present Eyes on Iran in Four Freedoms State Park on Roosevelt Island. The public art installation, which took place across the river from the United Nations headquarters, featured a wheat-pasted photograph by Neshat of an eye inscribed with calligraphy. 

The project was in support of a group of Iranian women, human rights activists and lawyers who published a letter in the New York Times asking women all over the world to demand the removal of Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women. ‘I was very impressed by this group of ladies,’ said Neshat. 

Soheila Sokhanvari — a temple of contemplation 

October 2022 saw the opening of the multimedia artist Soheila Sokhanvari’s first major UK commission, Rebel Rebel. The site-specific installation at The Curve, part of London’s Barbican Centre, included 27 intimate portraits of feminist icons from pre-revolutionary Iran, such as the modernist poet Forugh Farrokhzad and the intellectual and writer Simin Dāneshvar. 

‘They became some of the first mothers of the revolution,’ said Sokhavari. ‘They were censored or banned from their platforms. After working so hard to reach stardom, they were forced to sign a letter of penitence, and then forced into silence, exile or prison.’

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Soheila Sokhanvari at the Rebel Rebel installation, New York, 2022. Photograph by Lia Toby via Getty Images for Barbican Centre

Sokhavari’s exhibition celebrated the cultural contributions and bravery of these feminist pioneers of Iran. Current events added a further layer of meaning and urgency to the installation. 

‘The exhibition opened on the 6th of October, just under three weeks from the death of Mahsa Amini and the start of the protests in Iran. So, it was very timely and the title Rebel Rebel and the theme of the show captured the imagination of the media as well as the public,’ said Sokhavari. ‘Many people attended more than once and it became a sanctuary or a temple of contemplation for many Iranians who found it moving and hopeful.’ 

Hadi Falapishi — reclaiming visibility 

Since he moved to the United States nine years ago, Hadi Falapishi has become known for photographic works drawn using a flashlight in a darkroom. These works contained cartoonish imagery and offered a humorous look at New York life. The artist intentionally avoided visibly Iranian tropes and motifs. ‘As a political choice, I had chosen to refuse to make work that showed any sign, any signifier of where I'm from,’ said Falapishi. 

When he was offered his second show at New York’s Andrew Kreps Gallery, he initially planned to expand on this body of work. But the events of September 2022 changed his approach: ‘I thought I may have made a mistake by repressing and hiding who I am and where I'm from. If my art is truly a language and extension of my beliefs, then it has to be in relation to what I feel right now,’ he said.

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Hadi Falapishi. Photograph courtesy of the artist

The resulting exhibition, Almost Perfect, opened in February and featured deeply personal works that weave together the artist’s complex relationship to his native Iran and his adopted home of the United States. A painting of two female Iranian activists eating with their hair exposed in a café references a photo of Donya Rad and her friend that was shared widely on social media after the two were arrested for being unveiled in public. 

In Falapishi’s rendition of the scene, the artist has painted himself into the background. ‘As Iranians I think we all wish that we could be in Iran in the last six months to help and be part of this revolution,’ said Falapishi. ‘We can't wait for this to come to fruition and to see all of Iran free again, hopefully very soon.’ 

Employing different approaches across various venues — from social media and performance to public installations, museums and galleries — the four artists on the panel have each responded to the rallying cry of Woman, Life, Freedom with a unique perspective based on their own experiences. 

The evening underscored the power of art to communicate, to connect and to promote social change: ‘Through their creativity and their work, by being vocal and visible in society, these artists have shown bravery,’ said Dr. Moumni.

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