Art | Iran

The body as a battleground

The artist Shirin Neshat has long been concerned with the role of women in Iran. Her work has never been as topical as it is today

“Daniela” from the series “The Fury”, 2023


“Female bodies have long a battleground and they form the centre of my work,” says the artist Shirin Nashat. Hailing from Iran, Nashat, has lived in the U.S. for her adult life, closely tracking the tumult underway in her home country, a theme that she has zoomed in on again and again in her black and white photography and film installations.

Speaking from her home and studio in New York where she has been based for decades, Neshat leans towards the camera, arms gesturing while she describes her new work The Fury, her eyes lined with her trademark black kohl.

The installation is currently on show in Berlin. With two big screens, viewers find themselves caught between a man in military uniform smoking a cigarette and staring intently at a vulnerable young Iranian woman on the second screen. Charting the emotional fallout of sexual abuse, the piece ends, with the disorientated protagonist walking through New York streets, as local bystanders dance in support of her plight. 

Film still from the installation “The Fury”, 2023


Politics, brutality and resistance are familiar territory to Neshat who made it big with her Women of Allah (1993), showing how female bodies are "a tool for the men’s rhetoric and ideology”. With its close ups of veiled Iranian women, often holding rifles, their faces decorated with Farsi calligraphy, her photo series sparked shock, was banned in Iran, and also made her name in the international art scene.

She created it after returning to her homeland after completing a degree and living in the US. Visiting in 1990, she was shocked at the extent of repression in the Islamic Republic following the 1979 overthrow of the monarchy, not to mention the pervasive controls of the “morality” police. “It was a different country.”

“You always get attacked when you’re telling sociopolitical stories”

The themes running though The Fury are both specific to Iran - with its Iranian protagonist - but also tragically universal, Neshat explains. “When making this, I wanted to be clear that abuse of power and sexual violence by men in uniform is everywhere. Yes, it’s in Iran, but also in Egypt, Israel, Ukraine, or South America and beyond.” 

Alongside the stark double video, the show contains black and white photographs of women titled only by their names—Flavia, Marry, Seema and others— referring to Iranian female political prisoners.



Tortured, sexual assaulted, and raped while imprisoned, many committed suicide after being released. By depicting naked bodies, a woman's pained gaze, or a single foot adorned with Farsi poetry, the shots are disarmingly personal. Their large scale, meanwhile, leaves viewers nowhere to hide from their hard-hitting subject matter.

The Fury was first shown in the US in 2023 shortly after the rise of the Iran Women Life Freedom protests following the death of in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. As the images and outrage circled the world, Nashat herself faced fierce online criticism. “It was almost uncanny how my work resembled what actually happened. People accused me of being opportunistic - even though the video was shot long before the protests,” she said.

“My work refuses to just be pinned down to one culture”

Controversy has long been Nashat’s shadow, ever since her Women of Allah series. “You have a sharp knife when you're telling sociopolitical stories,” she said. “It’s so easy to step over boundaries and you always get attacked.”

In response, she and her team, many of them Iranian, spend months investigating the possible meanings and the symbolism of her work. “I think we are really careful about making sure that we are authentic and not just running after what is topical.”

The Fury, for example, was inspired by her “obsessive” following of a trial in Sweden of a notorious Iranian prosecutor Hamid Nouri in Sweden. Neshat watched victims and their families’ testimonies online, hearing how he and other men in his position were involved in the massacre of thousands of young, political prisoners. Many who survived described how they were repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted.  

[Translate to English:] Nach vorne gebeugter Körper von der Seite



And despite the piece’s initial criticism from “her critics and enemies,” Neshat’s work also garnered positive reviews and sparked debate. “In the end, I am glad that the work came to be understood within its own parameters and wasn’t not reduced to a commentary on Woman Life Freedom,” she said. “After so long living outside of Iran, these days my work refuses to just be pinned down to one culture.”

The exhibition “The Fury” is on view at Fotografiska Berlin until 9 June 2024

Translated by Andreas Bredenfeld