Shirin Neshat’s first major exhibition in Canada in 20 years sees the convergence of photography and film, bringing together a range of work in one immersive experience. Stemming from her perspective as an Iranian immigrant living and working in the United States, Land of Dreams focuses on global issues of displacement, migration, and geopolitical conflict.
The exhibition brings together four bodies of work: Roja (2016), Land of Dreams (2019), Women of Allah (1993–97), and Rapture (1999). The selection, made in close collaboration with Neshat, is connected by the prominent use of black-and-white in these photographic and video compositions, and the presence of strong female protagonists. Encountered first in the exhibition, the video work Roja sets the scene for the artist’s recent exploration into dreams, and a more surrealist response to societal and political manifestations and relationships. Roja is part of a trilogy of video installations titled Dreamers and is inspired by one of Neshat’s own dreams where scenes respond to the dark undertones of uprootedness and solitary detachment that result from her choice to remain in exile since 1996.
Roja is a precursor to Neshat’s large-scale and most recent body of work, Land of Dreams. For this expansive project, Neshat travelled across the state of New Mexico in 2019, visiting towns and communities to photograph subjects and ask them to each share a recent dream. The result is an installation of 111 portraits, many of which include illustrations and Farsi texts with the sitter’s name, date, and place of birth. The accompanying two-channel video installation, also filmed in New Mexico, is a narrative diptych that follows an Iranian woman, Simin—Neshat’s alter ego—as she visits a small American community to photograph the local residents and record their dreams. Disguised as an art student, Simin employs a methodology that mirrors Neshat’s own process. Simin then returns to The Colony, an uncanny and secretive Iranian society tucked within a mountain whose members are occupied with receiving, selecting, and analyzing American citizens’ dreams. In hearing the interviewees’ desires and fears—which hardly differ from Simin’s own—cultural and political divisions start to crumble.
Between 1993 and 1997, after Neshat’s first return to Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, she created the series of photographs titled Women of Allah. Minimal and stark, the photographs repeatedly feature four symbolic elements in the foreground: the veil, the gun, the text, and the gaze. Despite the Western representation of the veil as a symbol of Muslim women’s oppression, the subjects in Women of Allah look strong and impressive; the black veil is presented as a uniform transforming the feminine body into that of a warrior—concentrated and heroic.
The final piece in the exhibition is the canonical two-channel video installation Rapture. On one screen, female subjects are transplanted from their customary urban settings to natural environments, and opposite, a group of men occupy a built environment. The “duel” between white-shirted men and black-veiled women serves as an allegory that allows the viewer—who is deliberately situated in the middle of these two screens—to reflect on gendered group dynamics.
The selection of works at MOCA roots the viewer’s experience in some of the artist’s earliest concerns, themes, and compositional devices, as well as her longstanding interest in the ephemeral nature of dreams and the tangible impact of political realities. Through intimate portraits, scenes of vast desert landscapes, and surrealist narratives, Neshat explores her position as a woman in exile living in the United States, displaced yet still precariously connected to her home country.
Curated by MOCA Chief Curator November Paynter
Shirin Neshat: Documentary
This documentary about Shirin Neshat was created on the occasion of her exhibition Land of Dreams. It was produced by MOCA Toronto, directed and edited by Rodin Hamidi and coordinated by guest public programming curator, Farnoosh Talaee. The full film is on view and available to watch at MOCA on the ground floor.