The Personal is Political: Shirin Neshat, Faith Ringgold, and Yoko Ono
“Art is our weapon. Culture is a form of resistance.” – Shirin Neshat
Perhaps Iran’s most famous contemporary artist, Shirin Neshat fully embodies art’s capacity to bring about social change. But her artistic career did not begin with a vision to inspire socio-political dialogue; it began with the innately human desire to make sense of her personal experiences.
Returning to Iran in 1990 after twelve years of studying and practicing art in California, Neshat came home to be with her family and reconnect with her roots. But in the wake of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 the nation had transformed. The long-reigning Persian Pahlavi dynasty had been overthrown and replaced with an Islamic Republic ruled by the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Neshat, eager to make sense of this cultural shift and find her own place in it, focused her art on how Iranian women embodied this transformation.
Gelatin silver print and ink
Creating this type of work was at once both deeply personal and relevant in a more broadly political sense; her work deals with questions of martyrdom, faith and violence. As Neshat’s practice developed she found a more acutely critical voice which resulted in her being forced out of Iran as a political exile. Her photography and film completely disregarded existing norms and cultural barriers to reveal the determination, resilience, strength and complexity possessed by the women of Iran, both as a necessity for survival in an oppressive patriarchy and as a fertile foundation for a more just society.
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Like Neshat, Faith Ringgold’s practice of artistic activism began with the need to tell stories that were important to her and her family. Ringgold grew up in Harlem, New York in the 1940’s in the historic neighborhood of Sugar Hill. She received her BA in Arts Education and her masters from City College while she worked as an art teacher in New York City public schools. Though most famous for her narrative quilts, Ringgold’s art career began with oil paintings and sculptures in the 1960’s speaking out emphatically in support of the civil-rights movement.
Like all black women making art at the time, Ringgold’s work was excluded from the city’s major galleries and museums and she responded by organizing protests against the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art. Ringgold’s style combined folk art techniques with modernist images and content inspired by her contemporary outspoken social critics like James Baldwin, Lo Roi Jones and Amiri Baraka.
Through her career as an artist, teacher, activist and author she visualized the human experience from a black feminist perspective in a variety of ways. Her first story quilt, “Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima,” transforms the derogatory stereotypes surrounding Aunt Jemima by depicting her as a beautiful, successful black business woman. She used narrative quilts to imagine and depict liberation for black women, to explore her African ancestry, and to pay tribute to those who paved the way for her.
“Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima” 1983
Acrylic on canvas, dyed, painted and pieced fabric
Click here for more on Faith Ringgold and her work.
To blur the line between participation and performance is to provide viewers of an artwork an opportunity to look self-reflexively at deeply ingrained habits and ideas. Few artists have used this tactic as effectively as Yoko Ono. Ono’s artistic practice includes film, text, music, sculpture and performance art; her diverse arsenal of media reflects her deep-seated drive to communicate a message of peace to the world at large.
Yoko Ono was born in Tokyo, Japan in 1933 with a certain proclivity for kindness and imagination. When asked about the first piece of art she ever made in a Guardian interview, Ono reflects:
“I remember, when we were evacuated during the war, my brother was really unhappy and depressed and really hungry because we did not have very much food. So I said, ‘OK, let’s make a menu together. What kind of dinner would you like?’ And, he said, ‘Ice-cream.’ So, I said, ‘Good, let’s imagine our ice-cream dinner.’ And, we did, and he started to look happy. So, I realised even then that just through imagining, we can be happy. So we had our conceptual dinner and this is maybe my first piece of art.”
Ono and her family left Japan following World War II and relocated to the New York City area. As a student at Sarah Lawrence College Ono relished the community of poets, artists and activists that the liberal arts campus afforded. Her time at Sarah Lawrence also brought her into avant-garde spaces in New York City and gave her early work exposure art galleries and artists’ hangouts around the city.
“Cut Piece” 1964
Throughout Ono’s career her work has been met with outrage, mockery and derision from many different sources. This has had little effect on her drive to create and has in fact solidified her legacy as a pioneer of activism through art. Her groundbreaking 1964 performance “Cut Piece” implicated her audience in the issue of women’s objectification as viewers were invited to approach her and cut away her clothing. When the piece was first performed it pushed the boundaries of feminist activism as well as performance art as a medium. Sixty years later “Cut Piece” remains prominent in the canon of feminist art.
It is difficult to generalize about Ono’s massive body of work, but one theme that resurfaces over and over is the importance of remembering and bearing witness to the consequences of violence. Whether that violence is cultural, personal or historical Ono’s work forces her audience to incorporate that memory into the thoughts and decisions that are made every day. She brings political concerns into the realm of the personal, mirroring Shirin Neshat and Faith Ringgold’s practice that moves from their personal experiences into broader struggles for justice. The effect is the same: viewers of their artworks have the opportunity to think critically about how their life and their choices fit into cultural, systemic, and interpersonal injustice. This work is imperative in bringing about true social change and the practices of Shirin Neshat, Faith Ringgold and Yoko Ono exemplify the role of artists in such work.