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In the “transnational art world of today,”i many artists would balk at being

essentialized by art historians and critics identifying them with their geographical origins,

ethnic backgrounds, gender performances or any other mostly uncontrollable external

marker of identity. Non-western artists, especially, are victim to this process of

identification by western viewers and critics of art. Placing the artist within a specific

social, political or cultural frame is limiting in a globalised art world where artists wish to

be seen as artists, foremost. Defining an artist as a “woman-“ “Chinese-“ “middle-

eastern-“ artist, or any other essentializing label, is promoting a neocolonial agenda

which prevents artists from transcending their local context and being considered as equal

participants in the global art world.

With this caveat in mind, I here present three artists: Shakir Hassan Al-Said,

Shirin Neshat and Shahzia Sikander. Although these are three artists which are grouped

together based on geography, religion and similarities in cultural background, my

intention is to present them individually each as artists active on the global stage creating

work that transcends boundaries, especially that between local and global. Although they

are influenced by their local context and much of their work is deeply relevant to those

situations, at least two of the artists (Neshat and Sikander) have spoken about the primacy

of the personal in their work over the social or political.ii While they do not deny the

political or cultural implications of their works, as Neshat has said it “has very much been

affected by personal experiences.”iii This focus on personal experience attempts to place

their work in the frame of human experience rather than culturally specific experience. It

makes the work more accessible to people unfamiliar with the context of its production in

an un-exoticizing way.
In a global world where east and west are more and more aware of each other,

drawn closer together, the constructed differences seem to be amplified by this nearness

of difference. All three artists discussed here span cultures and represent distinct hybrid

identities which draw them out of their specifically local context. Whether they intend to

or not, the works of these artists all address issues of identity and difference, focusing on

the “shifting nature”iv of the boundaries which define these differences and help to

construct local as well as hybrid identities. All three also make use of traditional modes

of visual expression (especially calligraphy), but by modernizing these traditional forms

they even articulate the border between the traditional and the avant-garde. Their use of

calligraphy as a signifier of visual rather than linguistic meaning places their works

within the ‘anti-writing’ school.

The three artists exhibited here are originally from Iraq (Al-Said), Iran (Neshat)

and Pakistan (Sikander). Despite significant differences, these three countries share

important cultural facts. Most notable is that all three nations are primarily Islamic, if not

officially Islamic. Although three different languages are spoken in these three countries

(Arabic in Iraq, Farsi in Iran, Urdu in Pakistan), the Arabic script is used for writing all

three languages. This has to do with the holy text of Islam, the Quran. The Quran is

written in Arabic and is considered the very word of God, imbued with a religious

significance beyond that attributed to the Christian bible. Officially the Quran is not to be

translated into any other language than Arabic or it loses its holiness. For Muslims

speakers of other languages, then, the Quran is often recited without any understanding.

In fact, even for native Arabic speakers, the Quran is often not understood since it is

written in a 1500 year old fossilized version of the language, radically different from the
varieties of Arabic spoken today. For people in these cultures, then, the written word

represents something both very religiously important but also unaccessible to most

people. Since most people are unable to understand the literal meaning of the text, the

written language takes on a separate visual meaning. The script is a powerful signifier of

religious and cultural identity. In Pakistan, especially, this power of the written language

is invoked to distinguish Urdu from its nearly identical sister Hindi in neighboring India.

In Pakistan Urdu is written in the Arabic script while in India Hindi is written in the

Devenagri script.

In their work these artists commonly draw on this powerful function of the written

language to signify identity and difference. By further stripping the script of any

linguistic content they reaffirm its sole function as expressing visual meaning. They are

following a long tradition of calligraphy which “transforms brushwork from a signifier of

literary meanings to a signifier of visual meaning.”v They are actually completing this

transformation, totally removing any literary meaning and focusing only on the symbols

as “signifier[s] of visual meaning.” Sikander, for example, fills her works with

beautifully painted but meaningless lines of Arabic and Devenagri script (see figure 1).

These vary from recognizable characters and what appear to be legible words to brush

strokes which only resemble calligraphy in their shape, but which in fact are not clearly

letters at all. By repeating these lines of script she strips away all linguistic meaning and

reinforces the “visual meaning.” The script here serves as a signifier of Pakistani/Islamic

identity vis a vis Indian/Hindi identity. By taking away any real linguistic meaning,

Sikander transforms the written language into a new type of symbolic language. Along

with other repeated images in her work (cowboy boots, soccer balls, etc.), the repeated
lines of script are used to “write” in this new “language” about the “shifting boundaries”

that define cultural difference.

Both Al-Said and Neshat also make use of the Arabic script. Just like Sikander,

they make use of script as a series of linguistically meaningless but visually meaningful

symbols. Figures 2 and 3 show representative works of the two artists in which they make

prominent use of the script.

In the work in figure 2 Al-Said minimally inscribes two symbols, the letter ba’ (b)

and the number 8. On the surface this combination makes no clear linguistic sense, and it

is easily interpreted as only some symbol of Arab/Iraqi/Islamic identity. When the letter 8

is understood as its literal equivalent, ha’ (h), the two symbols together form the word

hub, ‘love.’vi This does not seem to have any clear significance in the painting, however.

More significant is that the mixing of numerals and letters here “obscures the word being

conveyed . . . elminat[ing] the semantic meaning of his work.”vii Unlike Sikander’s use of

Arabic script, however, Al-Said’s use does not seem to be such a strong signifier of

identity. According to Byrne, the aesthetic form of the letter and numeral are valuable

aside from any literal or symbolic meaning. Her claim is that Al-Said wants to draw the

viewers attention to the beauty of the form “as it is, rather than what it represents.”viii It is

difficult, though, to deny any symbolic meaning related to Arab-Islamic identity.

Whether this was Al-Said’s intention or not, especially for a western viewer the Arabic

letter and numeral immediately elicit ideas of the exotic middle-east.

Figure 3 shows a photographic self-portrait of Neshat. Here she has inscribed her

body with Persian poetry written in the Arabic script. Although this is actually legible

script, unlike the totally illegible script in Al-Said and Sikander’s work, for most viewers
of the work who are western non-Farsi speakers the poetry is unintelligible and “literally

marks the body as an exotic ‘other.’”ix From the point of view of a western non-Farsi

speaking viewer of this work, the use of script is the same as Al-Said and Sikander’s in

terms of written language stripped of linguistic content. The focus here is again on form

rather than content. While the script screams ‘other!’, the artist confronts the viewer, gun

in hand. This gun contrasts with her veil which also marks her otherness. It literally

divides her face in two, representing her split identity as American and Iranian, and

pointing toward the dichotomies of “conformity and revolt, passivity and protest,

submission and resistance.”x She presents her conflicted, hybrid identity this way in an

attempt to “De-orientalize” Iran.xi

Similar to Neshat’s use of veil and gun to draw attention to false binaries used to

construct cultural difference, Sikander and Al-Said both in their own ways draw attention

to boundaries and borders between ‘us’ and ‘other’. Through repeating images of both

eastern and western cultural icons (soccer balls, Hindu gods, cowboy boots and hats,

Arabic and Devenagri script, etc.) Sikander develops a symbolic language to articulate

the “shifting boundaries” of difference.xii Al-Said, on the other hand, makes use of wall

cracks to focus our attention on depth rather than length or width.xiii This crack

“incorporate[s] Iraq’s history”xiv by referring to changes in the surrounding walls which

must have occurred to create the crack. It can also be understood metaphorically as a

reference to the gaps that create and the walls/boundaries that reinforce difference. His

use of the crack, like Sikander’s use of her constructed symbolic language and Neshat’s

juxtaposition of paradoxical cultural symbols, expresses the deeply embedded problem of

difference which is always at play in our constructions of identity.


Historically, literacy has only been enjoyed by the very privileged elite of most

societies. This has caused “writing … [to] inevitably become a privileged means for

power and dominance; its form and content are constantly manipulated for such

purposes.”xv The artists exhibited here are attempting to re-appropriate and use writing to

resist the power and dominance of the west. By focusing on the symbolic significance of

written language to express religious, political and cultural identities and juxtaposing

these symbols with western iconography (Sikander) or non-stereotypical behavior such as

the direct gaze and gun (Neshat) these artists are resisting the colonial attempt to

exoticize. They are attempting to “de-orientalize” themselves and their language with an

artistic expression of difference and the boundaries that define it.


i
Shahi, Kimia. “Shirin Neshat: Images of Identity.” 2008.
ii
Desai, Veshakha. “A Conversation with Shirin Neshat and Shahzia Sikander.”
(http://www.asiasource.org/arts/Viewpoints1.cfm)
iii
Ibid.
iv
http://www.irobase.com/slingshotproject/v2/?ikId=2076
v Wu Hung, “Anti-writing,” Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century,

Chicago: Smart Museum, University of Chicago, 1999: 36-41.


vi
Byrne, Kelsey. “Inspiration from Tradition.” 2008.
vii
Ibid.
viii
Ibid.
ix
Shahi, Kimia. “Shirin Neshat: Images of Identity.” 2008.
x
Ibid.
xi
Ibid.
xii
Williams, Nicholas. “crossing boundaries, constructing language.” 2008.
xiii
Byrne, Kelsey. “Inspiration from Tradition.” 2008.
xiv
Ibid.
xv Wu Hung, “Anti-writing,” Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century,

Chicago: Smart Museum, University of Chicago, 1999: 36-41.