What does it mean to be an oriental woman in the modern world? What makes men and women so different? How can art help people? What is it, East, through the eyes of one that once and for all shifted clock on New York time? We asked her to tell – and she spoke...

New York, 8:30 am She has long been on her feet...

I'm actually an early bird: my dog and I go out for a walk at seven or half-past seven in the morning. But today is such a busy day... besides, I'm flying away tomorrow...


An American of Iranian origin, a charming petite woman with a sweet name Shirin, is known as a photographer, film director, screenwriter, author of video installations. She has recognisable handwriting – a monochrome, sculptural, and identifiable appearance: a thin profile, a calligraphic stroke of antimony along the lower eyelid, statement-decorations, emphasising the simplicity of the look.

Her exhibitions in Europe and America go to see – honestly see – the beauty of human faces, lift the veil between East and West, and admire the dramatic contrivances of an incomprehensible language. The language of whirling dervishes and explicit lyrics. The language of Rumi, Nizami, Ferdousi, Saadi...

However, her four-legged friend Ashil (the name Achilles sounds in Farsi, Shirin explains) rewards and solo exhibitions of the hostess make far less impressive than the inexhaustible tenderness that shows through in every word and gesture. Soon the tomboy begins to quietly roll the wires into a ball, and the hostess has to send him into the next room to continue the conversation.


She came to America at the age of seventeen. The first impression was depressing...

As a child, like many in the East, I built my image of America based on movies. Hollywood, of course. Therefore, I immediately hated Los Angeles: it was absolutely not what I expected. It almost scared me, because I grew up in a small town, in a beautiful house with a garden, my dad had his own farm... And here people lived quite differently, and I did not like it, I was simply depressed.

And later a revolution occurred in her native Iran, and everything changed in an instant. Secular universities were closed, and the veil was put on women... I returned several times. It is not true that she did not return. But for quite a while I was not there. My work there is controversial...

I have been to Baku twice in the last two years, and what I particularly like here is freedom. Women walk in the streets wearing hijab – but also bare-headed, and even in short skirts! This is the highlight of your city. Religion is here – everyone’s personal choice, you are not forced to do anything. And in general, I am in love with Azerbaijan, it is so modern and at the same time so soulful, it is so breathing with traditions!... As if time had turned back, and I ended up in the old Iran, but I liked the freedom of choice.


Art is not a crime. And not an act of heroism. Her work has nothing to do with politics or with religion: it is about love, about beauty, about humanit...

I most often refer to the image of Iranian, investigate the emotional and psychological aspects of its essence: what is it like to be a woman in Iran? I am interested in everything that happens in it and around it... You know, I never had a particularly reverent attitude to the camera, but I was fascinated by the concept of photography.

Perhaps, for the first time, I seriously thought about photography in 1993, just being an artist and realizing that drawing is not what I need. It does not give that realism, like photography. So I went to a friend of mine, a Brazilian, a professional photographer, and asked him to take pictures of my arms, legs, face... He replied: "Why not?". In general, everything began to turn right then...

Her series of photographs "Women of Allah" has brought her fame, most of which she posed herself. Despite the intimacy of the topic, you will not name a scandalizing series: all Muslim exoticism was reduced to the use of the veil, and the ornate inscriptions that adorn black and white photographs are borrowed from beautiful female lyrics written in Persian at the beginning of the last century.

No one cares about flowers,

Nobody cares about fish

No one wants to believe that

That the garden perishes.


Forugh Farrokhzad, an Iranian Banin and Akhmatova, an enlightened girl who wrote frankly shaky lyrics, accompanies Shirin everywhere. Her poems with enviable consistency appear on the photo and in the video.

The artist quotes them from memory...

I love her poetry. She tells me a lot. It has something of the eternal, and how she builds a metaphor, just delicious!


The artist speaks so much about women and advocates for their rights... Does she have any relation to the popular movement of feminism?

So often they say, but no. I usually answer this way: the fact that I focus on a woman does not make me a feminist. I think in the modern West to be a feminist means to have some definite plan, and I’m just exploring how women live on this planet.

And how does she live?

I do not want to generalize, it differs from country to country. For me personally, this is an interesting time. I feel that my voice – the voice of the artist – is more audible than it could have been before. Just a couple of generations ago it would be much more difficult. And for the women of Iran, the time is now interesting: although religion controls the entire country, they are very active, strong and find ways to express themselves.


But what about the social acuity of "Women without men"?

The irony is that, even though I made this film and touch on the subject of gender, I work mostly with men. This contrast between women and men is amazing, but I see no problem in it. I am fascinated by female psychology, how much it is different from the male.

For example, I am a very strong woman, constantly working on something, but at the same time, I am fragile and very weak sometimes, and very emotional. And I like it in myself. Like to be a woman. Men often hide their emotions, try to control everything, show that everything is under control. Working with men, I sometimes have to act like them and be tough, but at other times I can allow my femininity and fragility to take over. I try to look good, use cosmetics... I do this, the contrast between us is worth saving.


Speaking of Novruz, she returned her thoughts to Baku...

You know, my mom has Azerbaijani roots. We have so much in common... even this holiday! True, my husband and I do nothing – celebrate with friends. But for the previous two weeks, my mother cleans the house and prepares for the holiday. For the last two years, I celebrated Novruz in Baku, and this brought me back to childhood again and again. When opened art center YARAT !, I thought it was necessary to create something special for Baku. And what most admires in Azerbaijan is the abundance of the nationalities living there, this wonderful variety of people, languages, cultures, religions...

Therefore, I created the project The Home of My Eyes, in the center of which is the concept of Home. What comes first to mind when we think about home? I asked this question to everyone I photographed. Then we translated their answers into Farsi, added the poetry of Nizami and put these words in the photograph – on their faces. This is one of the most wonderful experiences in my career. That has nothing to do with politics – I was only interested in the beauty of these people, so different...

Where did the inspiration come from?

I am a person who has not had a House for many, many years, was to some extent a wanderer. For me, this is something of an obsessive idea – to determine what the House is... Perhaps, I was just tortured by nostalgia, so I wrote my own problem in the images of those who posed for me. But then this and other problems that art raises can only be discussed by those who visit galleries and museums. And they relate to a greater extent those who often have neither the means nor perhaps even education...

That's why I went to the cinema. Cinema spreads well. Art is often created for a select audience attending exhibitions, and cinema is more democratic. "Women without men" was watched by many people around the world, even in small Iranian towns. Many of those who watched this film are unfamiliar with my other works. Again, although I don’t shoot commercial films, films in principle find their viewer more often than the same installations.


What will happen to the fine arts of the Islamic East in the 21st century, when hundreds of thousands of emigrants will carry their spiritual traditions to the West?

You know, quite recently I spoke with friends about it... This is a good question, but I don’t have an answer to it. So many years, Europe held the colonies in Asia, and now Asia aspires to Europe, and she often closes the door for her to avoid the huge injections of foreign values. This is one of the most amazing phenomena of our era.

Material published in the twenty-fourth issue.


Interview: Sona Nasibova / photo: press materials