Looking for Oum Kulthum
Shirin Neshat is an artist, whose works have played an length role in Faurschou Foundation’s exhibition history.
The film, Fervor, along with its series of photographs, was presented at Galleri Faurschou in Copenhagen in 2001. This was followed by the film series, Women Without Men, in Beijing in 2008-2009. Another exhibition followed from 2009-2010 in Copenhagen, where Shirin’s breakthrough video work, Turbulent, was showcased. Later, her significant photographic works, The Book of Kings, were shown at the foundation’s Copenhagen space during the group exhibition, I Look at Things, in 2012. These works were, once again, exhibited as a solo exhibition, Shirin Neshat: The Book of Kings, in Beijing in 2013.
For me, it all began when I first heard about Shirin Neshat’s powerful solo exhibition, here in Copenhagen, held at Kunstforeningen Gammel Strand in 1996. It took another three years before I finally came across her work, Turbulent, at the Venice Biennale in 1999. The retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 2015, with all of her feature-length gathered in a circular space, made me follow the flow of a never-ending circle in complete enchantment. I experienced myself surrendering to Shirin’s universe—terrifying and beautiful.
Over the years, we became close friends. We travelled to the most diverse destinations, always following in Shirin’s footsteps. From Baku to Doha, to Washington, to New York, to Beijing and, last summer, to Salzburg, where Shirin had co-directed the opera, Aida. It is a great pleasure to bring Shirin back to Copenhagen this time.
Collaborating with Shirin has always led to extraordinary results, and this exhibition is no exception. This year, we are excited to be focusing on one of Shirin’s most recent feature films, Looking For Oum Kulthum. Although Shirin Neshat has reached international acclaim through her black and white photography works, filmmaking has played an increasingly important part in her art. We take this as an opportunity to delve deeply into this genre by not only exploring the content of her work, but also showing the extraordinary process behind it.
In the face of today’s tense political situation, Shirin’s work is all the more timely. As an Iranian artist, she once stated, it is impossible to avoid intersecting art and politics—even more so as an Iranian female artist. As an Iranian living in the United States, Shirin often acted as a translator between two contradictory cultures. Looking For Oum Kulthum, however, goes beyond the mere East/West dichotomy, as it explores the struggles, sacrifices and the price of success as a female artist in a male-dominated society.
Whenever art has a physical impact on me, I know I am looking at something important. Shirin Neshat’s art took my breath away from the first encounter, and, now, her turbulent art resonates in me as strongly as it did in 1999. With subtle, evenhanded power, it tackles the issues that are deeply personal, yet widely universal. I wish we could let everyone experience the world through the eyes of Shirin Neshat. It is certainly a much more enticing and profound experience than seeing the world through the eyes of men in power today.
I extend my thanks to Shirin and Shoja Azari, to Giulia Theodoli and the rest of Shirin’s staff, as well as to everyone behind the production of Looking for Oum Kulthum. I would also like to thank the staff of Faurschou Foundation for their continuous dedication to everything we have achieved together thus far.
Shirin Neshat is unique in that she is constantly seeking new beginnings—she can never stay at any place for very long; she sees challenges as a necessity, and a significant part of her art-making, not an obstacle. In fact, she has often remarked that the absence of struggle would feel like stagnation—a dead-end to her practice. The variety of different genres in Neshat’s art attests to this type of nomadic spirit, as her works have transitioned from photography, video installation, film series, to feature films, over a time span of three decades.
Shirin Neshat’s art has played an integral part in Faurschou Foundation’s history. This exhibition is a particularly strong example of her influence, as it is a privilege to present the artist’s most recent feature film, Looking for Oum Kulthum, for the first time to a Danish audience. In addition, it is also the first time the film is shown outside of a formal cinema-context, in which viewers will be given a detailed insight into the creation of the film. Furthermore, Faurschou Foundation has never before organized an exhibition revolving around a feature film, complete with behind-the-scenes materials, including props, photographs and film clips—making this type of exhibition a first for Faurschou Foundation. Perhaps, this can be seen as a direct influence of Shirin Neshat’s commitment to new beginnings, while not being committed to any artistic form.
Shirin Neshat: Looking for Oum Kulthum is divided into four exhibition rooms, with the “cinema-room,” in which the film will be shown in its entirety, serving as the central node of the exhibition. Each room is dedicated to a different aspect of the filmmaking process, and each is designated with a particular colour to emphasize the differences. The sand-toned colours of the walls also elude to the region of Egypt, which is the origin of Oum Kulthum, one of the main characters of the film.
The first room, which the viewers enter upon arriving at the exhibition, is the green “research” room. This room will give insight into the legendary singer and subject of Shirin Neshat’s film, Oum Kulthum, through a translation of one of her most famous songs, Al Atlal.
Next, the viewer will step into the pink “development” room, which is filled with a number of educational materials to shed light on the evolution of the film, including a huge collage of film materials, as well as a table in the centre of the room, stacked with books and manuscripts. Many of these materials served as inspiration, and even became a basis for the film’s narrative, most notably Shirin Neshat’s so-called “mood books,” which can be found in the form of manuscripts, as well as short films. The mood books were especially relevant, as the short clips served as a means to apply for funding from various entities, in order for the film production to take place. Viewers will be able to explore Neshat’s mood books on one of the two screens, installed on the pink walls. The other screen presents a conversation between Shirin Neshat and the famous Egyptian vernacular poet, Ahmed Fouad Negm (1929-2013), who served as a basis for one of the key characters in Looking For Oum Kulthum.
Visitors will also be given insight into the historical context of the film through real footage of Oum Kulthum, as well as Egypt during that time.
Next, visitors are invited to explore the yellow “production room”, in which some of the most important costumes of the film will be displayed, including the golden performance dress of the character performing as the legendary singer in Looking for Oum Kulthum. This room will also include materials used by the production designer, who sought out various locations for the filming, as well as images from his research, along with sketches and photographs, which served as inspiration for the costume designers. Mirroring the pink room, the yellow room is also equipped with two screens, which will give viewers a unique understanding behind the scenes of the film, by showing both image-slideshows and film footage.
The last space—the black cinema room—presents the entire feature film, Looking for Oum Kulthum, to the visitors as a highlight and final stage of the exhibition. This very last section is preceded by a small room, in which five study-photographs are displayed. These images, all taken during the film production, not only most closely resemble visual artworks, but are also most reminiscent of Neshat’s earlier iconic photography series, Women of Allah or The Book of Kings. As a matter of fact, these fresh new photographs will be covered in Farsi calligraphy, handwritten by the artist. This brings Neshat’s most recent new beginning, the feature film, Looking for Oum Kulthum, back to the earliest beginnings of her art-making in full circle.
Looking for Oum Kulthum
In 2010, after having worked extensively through the mediums of still photography and video installations in the past, I continued my obsession with female strength and artistic expression in the Muslim world by developing my second feature-length film. I based this project on the art and life of the legendary Egyptian singer, Oum Kulthum. Her music and larger-than-life persona has been embedded in the hearts and imaginations of millions of Middle Easterners. I felt strongly that this project could explore the trajectory of an iconic woman artist in a non-academic fashion, as well as offering a glimpse into Egypt’s modern history.
My journey began with research and the collection of images and literature written about Oum Kulthum. I took several trips to Egypt in 2010 through 2014, together with my collaborator, Shoja Azari, and other colleagues, where we conducted numerous interviews with Oum Kulthum’s friends, family members, musicologists and historians.
Initially, the film was conceived as a historical biopic about the legacy and personal life of Oum Kulthum. However, in 2013, after many drafts of the script, we decided to change the direction of the film from a biopic to a personal story, sharing my own perspectives and challenges as an Iranian woman director.
Looking for Oum Kulthum, therefore, reflects my own obsessions, challenges, process, and unexpected self-discovery. By looking into the destiny of an iconic Middle Eastern female artist, I have been able to explore my own experiences, and that of other Middle Eastern women in greater depth. The three main female characters, Oum Kulthum, the Iranian filmmaker (Mitra,) and the Egyptian actress, who plays the role of Oum Kulthum (Ghada), all choose to pursue their passion and a professional career. The narrative of the film reveals that most Middle Eastern women, living in male-dominated societies, face a similar predicament, regardless of generations and cultural settings: Despite the glory of achieving fame and success, they must experience the sacrifice of a traditional family, and an unspoken sense of alienation in the absence of a conventional lifestyle.
Looking for Oum Kulthum was created as a film within a film, navigating between moments of the singer’s private and public life on the one hand, and Mitra’s experience on the other, as she directs a film about an artist she admires, yet has difficulty penetrating.
Published on the occasion of the exhibition:
Shirin Neshat Looking for Oum Kulthum
Curated by Shirin Neshat & Cecilia Pedersen
Organised by: Faurschou Foundation and Shirin Neshat
Presented at: Faurschou Foundation Copenhagen, 20.03.2018 – 07.09.2018
Faurschou Foundation Beijing
798 Art District, NO.2 Jiuxianqiao Road
P.O.Box 8502, Chaoyang District
Beijing, China 100015
Faurschou Foundation Copenhagen
2150 Nordhavn, Denmark
With special thanks to:
Ironflag / Marco Pedrollo
With assistance from:
The team at Faurschou Foundation Copenhagen
The Match Factory
Munken Kristall rough 300 g.
Artic volume white 170 G.
Printed & book bound:
Narayana Press, Denmark
All artworks, texts, and audio recordings by:
Shirin Neshat © 2018 Shirin Neshat.
All rights reserved.
Every effort has been made to clear the proper copyright for the material produced in this book.
Looking for Oum Kulthum
Nadia Ben Rachid
Hair & Make up:
Behind the scenes photography:
Razor Film, Coop99, Vivo Film, In Between Art Film,
Noirmontartproduction, Schortcut films,
Doha Film Institut