In 1975, Neshat left Iran to study art at UC Berkeley and completed her BA, MA and MFA. Neshat graduated from UC Berkeley in 1983, where she soon moved to New York City, it was there she quickly realized that making art wasn’t going to be her profession at the time. After meeting her Future husband, who ran the Storefront for Art and Architecture, an alternative space in Manhattan, she dedicated 10 years of her life to working with him at the storefront, which was where her true education began.
During this time, she did not make any serious attempts at creating art, and the few attempts were subsequently destroyed. In 1990, she returned to Iran. "It was probably one of the most shocking experiences that I have ever had. The difference between what I had remembered from the Iranian culture and what I was witnessing was enormous. The change was both frightening and exciting; I had never been in a country that was so ideologically based. Most noticeable, of course, was the change in people's physical appearance and public behavior."
Since her first solo exhibition, at Franklin Furnace in New York in 1993, Neshat has been featured in solo exhibitions at the Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City; Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2002); Castello di Rivoli, Turin; Dallas Museum of Art (2000); Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Serpentine Gallery, London; Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León, León; and the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin (2005). In 2008, her solo exhibition “Women Without Men” opened at the ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Denmark, and traveled to the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, and to the Kulturhuset, Stockholm. She was included in Prospect.1, the 2008 New Orleans Biennial, documenta XI, the 2000 Whitney Biennial, and the 1999 Venice Biennale. In 2012 Shirin Neshat had a Solo Exhibition in Singapore, Game of Desire at Art Plural Gallery. A major retrospective of Neshat’s work, organized by the Detroit Institute of Arts, was scheduled to open in 2013.
Cindy Sherman was the first person to buy Neshat's work, at Annina Nosei Gallery in 1995.
When Neshat first came to use film, she was influenced by the work of Iranian Director Abbas Kiarostami. She directed several videos, among them Anchorage (1996) and, projected on two opposing walls: Shadow under the Web (1997), Turbulent (1998), Rapture (1999) and Soliloquy (1999). Neshat's recognition became more international in 1999, when she won the International Award of the XLVIII Venice Biennale with Turbulent and Rapture, a project involving almost 250 extras and produced by the Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont which met with critical and public success after its worldwide avant-première at the Art Institute of Chicago in May 1999. With Rapture, Neshat tried for the first time to make pure photography with the intent of creating an aesthetic, poetic, and emotional shock. Games of Desire, a video and still-photography piece, was displayed between September 3 and October 3 at the Gladstone Gallery in Brussels before moving in November to the Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont in Paris. The film, which is based in Laos, centers on a small group of elderly people who sing folk songs with sexual lyrics - a practice which had been nearing obsolescence.
Neshat was Artist in residence at the Wexner Center for the Arts (2000) and at MASS MoCA (2001). In 2004 she was awarded an honorary professorship at the Universität der Künste, Berlin. In 2006 she was awarded The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, one of the richest prizes in the arts, given annually to “a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.”
In 2001–02, Neshat collaborated with singer Sussan Deyhim and created Logic of the Birds, which was produced by curator and art Historian RoseLee Goldberg. The full length multimedia production premiered at the Lincoln Center Summer Festival in 2002 and toured to the Walker Art Institute in Minneapolis and to Artangel in London. In this collaboration, as well as her other projects that incorporate music, Neshat uses sound to help create an emotionally evocative and beautiful piece that will resonate with viewers of both Eastern and Western cultures. In an interview with Bomb magazine in 2000, Neshat revealed: "Music becomes the soul, the personal, the intuitive, and neutralizes the sociopolitical aspects of the work. This combination of image and music is meant to create an experience that moves the audience."
Neshat was profiled in The New Yorker magazine on October 22, 2007.
In July 2009 Neshat took part in a three-day hunger strike at the United Nations Headquarters in New York in protest of the 2009 Iranian presidential election.
In 2010 Neshat was named Artist of the Decade by Huffington Post critic G. Roger Denson, for "the degree to which world events have more than met the Artist in making her art chronically relevant to an increasingly global culture," for reflecting "the ideological war being waged between Islam and the secular world over matters of gender, religion, and democracy," and because "the impact of her work far transcends the realms of art in reflecting the most vital and far-reaching struggle to assert human rights."
In 2013 she was a member of the jury at the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival.
In 2015 Neshat was selected and photographed by Annie Leibovitz as part of the 43rd Pirelli Calendar which celebrated some of the world's most inspiring women.
Dirimart is pleased to announce DREAMERS, an exhibition by Shirin Neshat, curated by Heinz Peter Schwerfel. The show will include 2 video installations; “Roja” (2016) and “Sara” (2016) in addition to a series of new photos titled “Dreamers”. Each video revolves around single female protagonists whose emotional and psychological narratives remain on the border of dream and reality; madness and sanity; and consciousness and sub-consciousness as they each face their own distinct inner anxieties.
At the 2017 Salzburg Festival Neshat directed Giuseppe Verdi's opera Aida, with Riccardo Muti as Conductor and Anna Netrebko singing the main character. Asked by the festival organizers about the particular challenge for an Iranian woman to stage a play that deals with the threats of political obedience and religion to private life and love, Neshat said "Sometimes the boundaries between Aida and myself are blurred.”
These beautifully shot, black and white films share similar surrealistic and dreamy visual effects. Based on aspects of the artist’s own recurring dreams, memories and sense of longings; Neshat manages to achieve a haunting quality through simple, nonlinear narratives and effective use of subtle camera techniques. In all the works, natural landscapes and distinct monolithic architecture become dominant aspects of the brief narratives, which indirectly investigate issues of gender, power, displacement, protest, identity, and the space between the personal and the political.