Shirin Neshat to President Rouhani: “Take Care of Your Artists”

February 3, 2014

In a speech delivered to President Rouhani and other global leaders at the 2014 World Economic Forum, artist Shirin Neshat praised the importance of culture in times of political crisis, calling on the Iranian president to respect artists’ voices and build a new image for her native country.

Shirin Neshat at Davos

Shirin Neshat accepting the Crystal Award at the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Video of her remarks is available below the transcript.

It’s quite rare for a visual artist such as myself to address such an influential audience like you, and it must be rare for you to hear the voice of an artist whose world is the realm of fiction.

Yes, I am an artist, but as Picasso once said, “Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.”

My work is fictional, but I believe that through fiction we can go deeper into the human psyche, deeper into reality, deeper into the universal plight of what it’s like to be a human being on this planet today.

I tend to consider artists as a conduit, art and culture as a bridge between people and the people of power. I consider art as a form of communication, art as a way to have emotional and intellectual impact on people without having any specific political or ideological agenda.

Now if you have ever doubted the significance of culture in times of political crisis, I beg of you to look at the Iranian culture as an example.

Ever since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, when the Iranian image quickly declined from that rich, ancient culture of poets and mystics to now suddenly the barbaric land of fanatics and mullahs, violence and oppression, it was here, my friends, that Iranian artists and Iranian culture unquestionably became the saving grace of this nation, in respect to both their own people and the world at large.

When Iran was burning inside in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution,

When Iranians were kept hostage by their own government but isolated in the world,

When we suddenly woke up to a country where religion ruled the state,

When our people were massacred for the smallest gesture of protest,

When families began to be separated for good,

When the West decided to take revenge and its embargo hit us hard, collapsing our economy and our medical services,

When our government deprived us of the basic human right, the freedom of expression,

When artists and intellectuals regularly became harassed, arrested and at times executed,

Our artists began to respond.

Musicians, writers, filmmakers, visual artists, intellectuals, all people of imagination worked very hard in light of censorship and all the given boundaries and created the most powerful, imaginative and subversive artistic expressions, which quickly flourished in the world.

Now if I may take this opportunity and give a message to our newly elected president, Mr. Hassan Rouhani, a man whom I respect a great deal and whose initiatives have been much welcomed at home and abroad.

I would ask of the president: if, for the past many decades, Iranian artists and intellectuals have protected and preserved our national dignity in the world, now we pass the torch on to you, Mr. President. It is now your turn to be that saving grace of our nation.

Mr. President, Iranians living inside and outside the country are badly broken, divided, separated, displaced. Show them unity, show them democracy, show them how we are all Iranians despite our class and religious differences.

Mr. President, let us erase the image of a country that fits the description of an “axis of evil.” Let us build a new image of a country that could be a model of peace, democracy and justice.

And at last, Mr. President, this is from me: Take care of your artists, your intellectuals, and accept that art is no crime, that it is every artist’s responsibility to make art that is meaningful, that questions tyranny, that questions injustice. It is the artist’s task to advocate change, peace and unity.

Let me leave you with another quote from Picasso. He said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

Good luck, Mr. President, and thank you all.