New Mexico may be known as the Land of Enchantment, but to Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat, it represents the Land of Dreams.
A New York-based photographer, videographer and filmmaker, Neshat traveled the U.S. before focusing her work on New Mexico’s people and landscapes. The results can be seen in her solo exhibition “Land of Dreams,” open at SITE Santa Fe through Jan. 16, 2023.
The show features a selection of film, video and photography centered on a series of portraits created in New Mexico in 2019. “Land of Dreams” is a multidisciplinary project that combines the artist’s unique approach to portraiture with an imaginative yet documentary-like journey through the subconscious mind.
The exhibit showcases 111 portraits of New Mexico residents, embellished with Neshat’s signature Farsi calligraphy.
The project marks the first the artist has related to the U.S.
“It’s a conceptual portrait of the U.S. from the perspective of an Iranian immigrant,” Neshat said in a telephone interview from Santa Fe.
The artist traveled across the country before deciding on New Mexico as her base. The terrain reminded her of home.
“We fell in love with New Mexico both for its landscape and its people,” she said.
A two-channel video installation accompanies the portraits set against New Mexico’s cinematic landscape. The first video follows a young Iranian photographer who is traveling door-to-door, creating portraits of strangers and collecting their dreams. The second video transports the viewer into a sterile bureaucratic setting where the dreams she collects are logged and analyzed.
“I have been paying attention to my own dreams,” Neshat said. “I’ve noticed I have a lot of recurring dreams. Often my mother, who is still in Iran, appears in them.”
Neshat set up her camera in pizza parlors and hotels around the state, asking residents permission to take their portraits, then questioning them about their dreams.
“Dreams are often about people’s fears and anxieties,” she said. “It could be the loss of a loved one, death or abandonment.”
Some of the people Neshat spoke with were immigrants and some were homeless. Some were Native American, some were Hispanic. Some were middle class.
“You could see how people shared similar nightmares and dreams,” she said. “Dreams cross borders.
“I really got to know wonderful people,” she continued. “They were all so welcoming to me.”
Neshat left Iran in 1975 to study art at the University of California, Berkeley.
“Soon after I came, there was the Islamic Revolution in 1979,” she said. “I became separated from my family. I’m in self-imposed exile
“We have a dictatorship,” she continued. “We have a very oppressive government. We’re almost on the verge of a revolution made by a woman. It’s very exciting and also scary because people are getting killed.”
That oppression kindled a series of demonstrations in September following the death of Mahsa Amini, who died after being in police custody and having been beaten by the Guidance Patrol following a violation related to an “improper hijab.” Protesting students were tear-gassed and shot by pellet guns, paintballs and rubber bullets.
Neshat’s mother and sisters still live there.
“They cut off the internet, but you can call the landline,” Neshat said. “I talked to my mother this morning. They’re very shaken and angry at the government. The U.S. doesn’t give visas to Iranians. They don’t want to leave; it’s their home. They want the government to leave.”