In 1975 Shirin Neshat’s parents sent her from Iran to live with her older sister in a cramped Westwood apartment. She immediately fell into depression. Then only 17, she didn’t speak a word of English, and her Iranian American peers at West L.A.’s University High School were either too political or materialistic for her more introverted, intellectual sensibilities.
“I didn’t really relate to anyone, and all I remember was being in the car constantly and being in school and feeling really alienated,” says Neshat, who is now based in New York.
She begged her parents to let her return to the family farm, but they refused. Instead, her older sister went back in 1979, just before the revolution, leaving Neshat on her own. She didn’t see her family for 11 years, and when she returned to Iran in 1990 for the first time since the shah’s overthrow, she was shocked to see all the women in veils and how conservative her home country had become.
“The characters, the narratives in my work are based on that experience I had,” says Neshat, who has a large retrospective of her work opening at the Broad museum October 19. “Exile is a big part of it, a sense of abandonment. There’s always these contradictions: nostalgia but also a lot of rage.”
The exhibition, called I Will Greet the Sun Again after a Forough Farrokhzad poem, opens with an untitled 1993 photograph showing Neshat dressed in a hijab and her skin covered in calligraphic Farsi depicting Farrokhzad’s verses. The image graced the poster for Neshat’s first solo show, in New York in 1993. From there the retrospective continues with images previously unseen in the States, including four photos, all taken in Iran, from Women of Allah, Neshat’s first (and most iconic) body of work, comprising stark black-and-white images shot on film capturing chador-clad women (including herself) armed with guns, their faces and hands inscribed with Iranian women’s poems from before and after the revolution.
“There’s so much work that’s never been seen in U.S. museums, so I think people will have a lot to reflect upon that they wouldn’t have had the chance to experience before,” says Broad curator Ed Schad.
Also on display is a new commission for the Broad, an immersive video-photo installation titled Land of Dreams, derived from a feature film that Neshat spent the last two years writing with Jean-Claude Carrière, the Oscar-winning French novelist known for his work with Luis Buñuel.
In the museum videos, a California-based Iranian art student, played by Sheila Vand (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), goes door-to-door in New Mexico, snapping portraits and recording the recent dreams of various locals, including a Navajo woman haunted by a lizard, a World War II veteran still having nightmares about the atomic bomb, and a vivacious blond Trump supporter who imagines her husband trapped in a dark pit after a bus crash. Vand’s character takes the recordings back to a secret Iranian spy lair inside a mountain and stores them amid countless dossiers. “All these men in uniforms we expect to be creating atomic bombs are interpreting people’s dreams,” explains Neshat.
“There are aspects of the story that feel like Kafka, aspects that speak to Orson Welles, aspects that feel like allegory,” adds Schad.
The surrealistic film is Neshat’s first work focusing on America, and its goal is to humanize the diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and Iran, the immigration issues plaguing the U.S.’s Southwestern border, and the effects of nationalism on Eastern and Western regimes.
“It was never a strategy, but I knew this was the right time,” she says. “All of these experiences are sort of collapsing into each other.”
In other words, in Neshat’s American life she can, at long last, go home again.
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