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Iranian-Born Artist Shares How Failure and a Beginner's Mindset Shaped Her Career

On March 18, Shirin Neshat shared her life experiences and the background of her latest exhibit, ‘Land of Dreams’

Internationally renowned artist Shirin Neshat visited students from the College of Fine Arts and Communications during a virtual Listen Up! Series event on March 18. The Department of Art and the BRAVO! Series hosted the event while professor Collin Bradford and visiting instructor Tianna Birrell acted as moderators.


Artist Shirin Neshat

Neshat is a contemporary artist known for her photography, video and film work. She was born in Iran and moved to the United States to finish high school. She was encouraged to stay in the US because of the Iranian Revolution, so she enrolled at the University of California at Berkely. She now lives and works in New York, and has been featured at art exhibitions in Chicago, London, Seoul, Mexico City and numerous other cities across the world. Her work has received recognition and awards including the Silver Lion Award from the Venice Film Festival, the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Biennial, The Davos World Economic Forum’s Crystal Award and the Praemium Imperiale award from the Japan Art Association. 

Neshat’s artistic endeavors started with photography before she expanded on her work to include film installations. She has directed two feature-length films and one opera, and she is currently in the post-production stage of a third feature film.

“I am a nomadic artist. I am not loyal to one specific form,” said Neshat. “Regardless of what subject I’m embracing, whether it’s photography or film or video, my art is always about things I’m facing as a human being. I became an artist as a way of creating a visual vocabulary to face existential issues in life, anxiety and separation from my country.”

During the lecture, Neshat explained how her life and experiences have impacted the themes of her art.

“I’ve come to understand that the way my thinking process works is always some form of opposites. Partially because I feel like I’m always conflicted between the different characteristics I have within myself,” she said. “I’m in the U.S., but not quite feeling at home here or in my home in Iran. Duality is central to the core of my work, and that continues to this day.”

History, poetry and politics have also all played a major role in influencing Neshat’s artistic endeavors. “My life is defined by political reality. The revolution separated me and my family for good. Currently, I’m in exile. I cannot and do not have the luxury to distance myself from the political reality,” said Neshat. “In our society, being involved in political issues is not a choice.”

Graphic courtesy of Zoe Zaharis


Neshat shared with students the background and meaning of her most recent exhibit, “Land of Dreams” which is her first exhibit to incorporate all the mediums she uses — photography, film and video. The exhibit shares photographed portraits of over 100 people living in New Mexico, a land that closely resembles Iran but is also the site of US nuclear war development. The exhibit also features a 20-minute film featuring an Iranian woman who interviews people about their dreams.

“This exhibit is what America looks like with all its diversity in culture, background, religion, races, gender, ages and colors,” said Neshat. “I’d never dared to make a project about America before this. But I felt it was time for immigrant artists to take responsibility and share how they feel about America and what they cherish about this country as well as what they are critical of.”

During the discussion with Tiana Birrell and Collin Bradford, Neshat expressed her belief in art not giving the answers to moral challenges but asking the questions.

“There is no way I can control what people take away from my work — a lot of people take away what they want from it according to who they are. But I can leave it where everyone can enter.”

Graphic courtesy of Zoe Zaharis


When Birrell asked Neshat what advice she would give to young artists, Neshat invited students to embrace failure.

“I’m not afraid to fail,” said Neshat. “When I was in school, I barely got accepted to graduate because I was one of the weakest students. For 10 years I didn’t make any art. But I came back to art and came 100%. Going after things you’ve never done is scary. But the reason I am successful is because I’m not afraid of failure. I have made some bad and mediocre work, but it has kept me on the edge to continue to challenge myself and be a beginner and learn new languages of artistic nature. Failure is something to embrace and not be ashamed of.”

As her final departing message, Neshat invited students and artists to pick themselves up when they feel they’ve fallen.

“Being an artist takes a lot of character. I’ve fallen many times, and I’ve learned to pick myself back up. My skin is tough. My philosophy is that if you fall, pick yourself back up.”