Concrete Possibilities: Can Shirin Neshat Balance the Pull of Two Worlds?

The Iranian filmmaker and photographer sets out to capture the still point between anxiety and calm.

Shirin Neshat, Roja, 2016

A woman stands in front of an epic piece of architecture resembling a gigantic modernist spaceship. She stands on paved ground, but the location is unclear, with all signifiers of its real location (Albany, New York) erased. Her dark clothes, too, are ambiguous, with no hint of defining cultural identity. Is she an alien? Has she descended from another planet?

These are questions that artist Shirin Neshat posits and distills in this image, derived from her surreal 2016 film, Roja. While the full 17-minute dreamlike sequence sees the titular character endure a cabaret-turned-interrogation, before attempting to reach a maternal figure across an arid landscape, this particular moment speaks to an uneasy transition.

Roja has just fled the performance venue, where an actor appears to berate and negate her very existence. On leaving the enormous auditorium, she pauses to catch her breath, before beginning the next chapter of her journey.

“In that moment, the exhaustion that spawns from identifying with two cultures is keenly felt”

In that moment, the exhaustion that spawns from identifying with two cultures is keenly felt. This is an ongoing concern for Neshat, who has for decades explored the duality of her Iranian identity and her life in the USA through photography, film and more. However, while Roja’s fight to gain her composure is visible in the film, this static shot evokes contemplation and perhaps even spiritual introspection.

In stillness, she appears self-assured and dignified, commanding the space even as a hulking monolith looms behind her. The shot adds a new dimension to a film which is riven with anxiety. Here, an inherent calm prevails, suggesting that within ongoing tension, balance can still be found.

Holly Black is Elephant’s managing editor


Shirin Neshat

Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, until 18 September