MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
An art museum on the National Mall here in Washington is turning its gaze to Iran. For her first exhibition, the Hirshhorn's new director has decided to focus on a woman who's made her home country's turbulent history the subject of high art. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more on the artist Shirin Neshat.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: She's the most famous contemporary artist to come from Iran. And right now, she's playing with her puppy in her airy Manhattan apartment.
SHIRIN NESHAT: Ashi. Ashi...
ULABY: The puppy is a rambunctious black lab. The apartment is white - white floors, bookshelves and a long, white leather couch. Neshat's most famous images contrast women in black chadors with men in crisp, white cotton shirts. Neshat left Iran as a teenager in 1974 to attend school in Los Angeles. She did not return until 1990, 11 years after the Islamic Revolution transformed her country.
NESHAT: When I went to Iran, I was not an artist yet.
ULABY: Culturally, politically, visually, Iran was completely different. Men no longer made eye contact. Women who'd worn miniskirts had become black shadows in the streets. Neshat processed her complicated feelings through a series of striking staged photographs of veiled women, some holding guns.
NESHAT: It's about this dichotomy between religion, politics, violence and feminism.
ULABY: Neshat collaborated with others to take the pictures, but she conceptualized, directed and appears in many of them. Curator Melissa Ho picked one as the show's opening image.
MELISSA HO: And it's this stunning close-up of her eye with calligraphy written on it.
ULABY: Calligraphy's often layered on the people in Shirin Neshat's photos. It falls over them like veils or it tattoos their skin. Text, says Ho, gives these silent faces a kind of voice.
HO: Shirin really believes in the power of the artist's voice to enact change, to unsettle the powerful.
ULABY: And to protest. Iran's revolutionary history defines Shirin Neshat's life and much of her art.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WOMEN WITHOUT MEN")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As protesters, chanting in foreign language).
ULABY: That's from a movie Neshat directed called "Women Without Men." It follows four Tehranian women it from very different class backgrounds in 1953 when the CIA helped overthrow the country's first democratically-elected leader. The movie earned Neshat the top directing award at Venice Film Festival in 2009 and helped cement her reputation in the art world.
HO: She's a big art star (laughter).
ULABY: Hirshhorn curator Melissa Ho.
HO: It's not every artist who's featured, you know, in Harper's Bazaar looking incredibly glamorous.
ULABY: Neshat is a master of image, says Ho. She points to one of Neshat's works of video art in the exhibition. It's two screens. You stand between them. On one, a woman's on stage in a completely deserted theater. The other shows a theater filled with applauding men.
NESHAT: A man comes in, a typical Iranian man with white shirt, and he sings this very passionate classic music.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "TURBULENT")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).
ULABY: When he finishes, the woman on the other screen starts singing in her empty theater.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "TURBULENT")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing).
ULABY: Her music lacks language. It's wild and guttural. Women are not allowed to sing in public in Iran. The men on the other screen seem completely stunned.
NESHAT: Her music and her presence in this room, it represents something rebellious by having a voice that is victorious to the man. So to me, this is kind of indicative of how I feel about women in Iran and the way that they're so far against the wall, but they're far more resilient and protesting, and they're much more of a fighter than the men because they have much more at stake.
ULABY: Women in Shirin Neshat's work are the nonconformists, says Melissa Ho.
HO: Sometimes only quietly or maybe out of sight, but they resist, and they sort of take control of their story, and they decide to defy the rules.
ULABY: Much like Shirin Neshat. Her art at first was made just for her, a bridge from a place of exile.
NESHAT: And I never imagined that my work someday would be looked upon as a form of dialogue larger than my own personal life.
ULABY: Instead, it's found audiences across countries and ideologies. That's why the Hirshhorn Museum's new director, Melissa Chiu, chose Shirin Neshat for Chiu's first major exhibition.
MELISSA CHIU: This idea of being born in one place, living, working in multiple places - that is a condition which will only increase.
ULABY: And Neshat's take on globalism, gender and power makes a statement about Chiu's vision for the Smithsonian Institution's home for contemporary art.
CHIU: In order to be a truly 21st-century museum, we have to think about the world in different ways.
ULABY: Even though Shirin Neshat's artistic path was sparked by a response to theocracy, Chiu says she doesn't see Neshat as an Islamic artist. Shirin Neshat agrees.
NESHAT: I am not a practicing Muslim. I am a - consider myself a secular Muslim. I do have my faith, and I do have certain rituals that I do. And I go to the mosque when I can when I'm traveling in that part of the world.
ULABY: A recent series shows simple, shattering portraits of working-class parents in Egypt whose children were killed or arrested during the Arab Spring.
NESHAT: It's really about the question of people versus tyranny and people who fight power versus people who hold power.
ULABY: Shirin Neshat wants to leverage her power in the art world to bring more voices from Iran and the Arab world into global conversations. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
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