Gender Relationships in the Art of Iran

By Cleveland Museum of Art staff

Fig. 1. Fervor, 2000. Shirin Neshat (American, born Iran, 1957). Gelatin silver print; 167.5 x 117.2 cm. Purchased with funds donated by William and Margaret Lipscomb in celebration of the museum’s centennial, 2016.59

The CMA’s 2016 acquisition of Fervor, a striking photograph by prominent Iranian-born American artist Shirin Neshat (b. 1957), was the inspiration for the new thematic installation in the Islamic gallery now on view. An immersive, large-scaled photograph shown to the public at the CMA for the first time, Fervor speaks to gender divisions and strict religiosity in an Iran ruled by clerics (fig. 1).

To contextualize Neshat’s work and present a historically different view of gender relationships, the museum has added paintings, textiles, metalwork, lacquer, and stone sculpture from the permanent collection. In these 22 works of art dating back to 1300, confident, strong women spend time alone or with men, enjoying banquets, hunting, and outings together.

Images courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

Neshat’s photograph was taken during the shooting of her video trilogy — Turbulent (1998), Rapture (1999), and Fervor (2000) — that she produced as she gained global recognition after receiving the International Award at the Venice Biennale of 1999. Her acclaim has only increased since then.

Neshat departed Iran in 1975 to attend the University of California, Berkeley. After the theocratic Islamic Republic of Iran was established in 1979, she chose to remain in America as a member of the Iranian diaspora. In conversation with the reality of women’s lives in Iran today, her work focuses on contrasting the convictions she has developed as an educated American woman and the nostalgic memories of her youth in pre-revolutionary Iran.

Fervor captures an audience of men, seen from behind, separated from women by a tall cloth barrier. The group has gathered to listen to an account of the virtuous prophet Joseph as told in the Koran. In the story, Joseph was purchased as a slave serving the house of Zulaykha, known in the Old Testament version only as the wife of Potiphar, minister to the king of Egypt. Zulaykha attempts to seduce Joseph on multiple occasions, but he repeatedly rejects her so as not to commit the sin of adultery.

Fervor by Shirin Neshat (excerpt). Director of Photography: Ghasem Ebrahimian. Courtesy Ghasem Ebrahimian via Vimeo.

In the video of Fervor, we can see that the crowd faces a preacher, not shown in the photograph, who vilifies Zulaykha as a lustful, sinful adulteress. The photograph, however, features only one face: that of a woman who stands and stares across the barrier and also at us, the viewers. Through this act, she identifies herself as an individual defying the social norms and possibly championing Zulaykha against the skewed misogynist message.

But there is more to Zulaykha’s story: she had seen Joseph in a series of mystical dreams before they even met, and decades later, after the death of her husband and with her love for Joseph still strong, she reunited with him, rid of her old age and cured of her blindness. The woman in the photograph seems to also challenge us to have the courage to stand out from a crowd and question the voice of religious authority.

Adjacent to Fervor in the gallery’s alcove, a double-page frontispiece painting from a 15th-century Timurid manuscript of the Persian national epic the Shahnama (Book of Kings) also shows a segregated group of women and men (fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Royal Reception in a Landscape, double frontispiece of a Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Firdausi (Persian, 940–1019 or 1025), 1444. Iran, Shiraz, Timurid period (1370–1501). Opaque watercolor, ink, gold, and silver on paper; 32.5 x 22.1 cm. John L. Severance Fund, 1956.10.a and Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund, 1945.169.b

Here, though, the women are dressed in colorful ermine-lined robes with elaborate headdresses. There is no wall between the men and the women; instead, a prince reaches out and grabs the wrist of one of the women and offers her a cup of wine. On the opposite wall, a painting of the late 1500s from the Safavid period depicts a Persian princess holding a wine bottle and extending a bejeweled cup (fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Princess with Wine Bottle and Cup, c. 1550–1600. Iran, Qazvin or Isfahan, Safavid period (1501–1722). Opaque watercolor and gold on paper; 37.1 x 24.8 cm. Edward L. Whittemore Fund, 1947.496

The historical subject of women as participants in courtly life contrasts markedly to the burqa-clad adherents to Islamic law in the Neshat photograph.

While the courtly women in the Timurid and Safavid paintings could be viewed as princesses or women of the harem who existed to entertain the men, females in other historical narratives on view in the gallery are depicted as strong-willed and independent.

For example, the Armenian princess Shirin, who lived just before the advent of Islam in the early 600s, was the lover and eventually the queen of a Sasanian king of Iran, Khusrau II (reigned ad 591–628). In a rare velvet fragment dating from the late 1500s, Shirin is shown bathing naked and alone in a forest where she has ridden on her black stallion, a portion of whose muzzle is visible on another section of the textile (figs. 4,5).

Figs. 4, 5. Khusrau Surprising Shirin While Bathing, 1550–99. Iran, Kashan, Safavid period (1501–1722). Silk: velvet, pile-warp substitution; 19 x 15 cm. Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund, 1944.499.1–2

Independent and intelligent, she is unafraid to hunt and ride on her own. Khusrau comes across her while bathing, and he is depicted biting his finger in astonishment, amazed at her beauty. Years later, after many tragedies and adventures, they marry, and in a painting from the mid-1500s, they appear together sharing wine, figs, and pomegranates in a royal tent pitched by a stream, a cypress, and a flowering tree (fig. 6).

Fig. 6. An Episode from the Story of the Sasanian King Khusrau and His Beloved Shirin, from a Khamsa (Quintet) of Nizami (1141–1209), 1540–70. Iran, probably Shiraz, Safavid period 1501–1722). Opaque watercolor, gold, silver, and ink on paper; 21 x 13 cm. Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund, 1947.500

This classic Persian tale has been told and retold in the Shahnama and other subsequent works of celebrated lyric poetry, and Shirin Neshat, probably not coincidentally, shares the name of this queen.

Shirin is not the only strong woman in the literary treasury of Iran. Azada, often shown riding a camel while playing the harp, was the lover of the hero Bahram Gur in the Shahnama. In a scene pictured in one of the works on view, Azada challenges Bahram Gur to a seemingly impossible feat as they hunt: to shoot a donkey in both the foot and the ear with one arrow. He meets the challenge by throwing a rock at the donkey’s ear, causing the animal to scratch his ear with his hoof, at which point the hero lets fly his arrow. In the painting, Azada wears a splendid riding tunic and trousers as well as a headdress adorned with a golden crest (fig. 7).

Fig. 7. Bahram Gur and Azada, from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Firdausi (940–1019 or 1025), 1500s. Iran, Tabriz or Qazvin, Safavid period (1501–1722). Opaque watercolor and gold on paper; 17.4 x 11 cm. Gift of the John Huntington Art and Polytechnic Trust, 1915.597

Women feature prominently on lacquer mirror cases and pen boxes of the late Safavid and Qajar periods, works that are on view for the first time in a newly installed display case in this rotation. Confident courtly women are shown riding or alone in a landscape (figs. 8, 9), sitting with a prince in a garden where women dance and pour wine (fig. 10), in a tender embrace with a lover (fig. 11), or minding a child (fig. 12).

Figs. 8, 9. Octagonal Mirror Case with Lid, 1800s. Iran, probably Isfahan, Qajar period (1779–1925). Varnished lacquer and opaque watercolor over papier-mâché. Gift of Mrs. L. E. Holden, 1918.785
Fig. 10. Mirror Case with Lid, 1800s. Iran, Qajar period (1779–1925). Varnished lacquer and opaque watercolor over papier-mâché; 24.4 x 16 cm. Gift of the Estate of Mrs. Jacob Perkins, 1932.13
Fig. 11. Pen and Ink Box with Lovers in a Landscape, 1667–98. Iran, probably Isfahan, Safavid period (1501–1722). Varnished lacquer and opaque watercolor over papier-mâché, ink, and copper alloy; 3.6 x 22.3 x 4.2 cm. Bequest of James Parmelee, 1940.689
Fig. 12. Pen and Ink Box with a Family and Pair of Rabbits, 1800s. Iran, probably Isfahan, Qajar period (1779–1925). Varnished lacquer and opaque watercolor over papier-mâché, ink, and copper and iron alloys; 3.9 x 22.3 x 2.7 cm. Gift of George W. Bierce, 1942.854

In the context of works of art made in Iran from 1300 to the 1900s, the vision of women in Neshat’s photograph seems incongruent. Through its strict, conservative adherence to Islamic law, the current theocracy in Iran has created a society and a set of social values that are not seen historically in Iranian or Persian art and literature, where women play and interact with men in the world or stand independently on their own — not as part of a colorless, faceless crowd passively absorbing the misogynist messages of a fervent preacher.