Malala Yousafzai by Shirin Neshat

  • View larger image
    Malala Yousafzai,    by Shirin Neshat,    2018,    NPG 7052,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Malala Yousafzai, human rights activist for female education and the youngest person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Malala Yousafzai
by Shirin Neshat
archival ink on gelatin silver print on fibre-based paper, 2018
60 in. x 40 in. (1524 mm x 1016 mm) overall
NPG 7052
© National Portrait Gallery, London
On display in Room 30 on Floor 1 at the National Portrait Gallery

Malala Yousafzai (born 1997) is an activist who campaigns for female education around the world.

In October 2012, she was shot and seriously wounded in her hometown in Pakistan, after speaking out against the ban on girls’ education by the Taliban. After a long recovery, she founded the Malala Fund, supporting education for women and girls around the world, and became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize The Nobel prizes are awards given every years in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace. They are awarded to people "who have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind" in the previous 12 months. .

Analysing the portrait

  • View larger image
    Malala Yousafzai,    by Shirin Neshat,    2018,    NPG 7052,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Malala Yousafzai, by Shirin Neshat, 2018

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a whole minute. What can you see?

    • Malala Yousafzai is shown facing forward, looking straight at the camera and at us.
    • Her Gaze The relationship of looking between sitter, artist and viewer. is steady and warm. She isn’t smiling but looks relaxed and calm. We have the impression of a confident young woman.
    • The mood of the portrait is calm.
    • But the dark background, the shadows down one side of Malala Yousafzai’s face and the text that overlays her face add a sense of drama to the portrait.
    • Malala Yousafzai is shown close-up. The Composition The arrangement of people or objects in a painting or photograph. is cropped so that only her head and shoulders are visible.
    • This type of composition and Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits in order to be painted, drawn or photographed. is used in photographic identification documents (ID), so that a person’s features can be clearly seen by officials. The artist is perhaps reflecting Malala’s willingness to face scrutiny for her activism and for standing up for the rights of women and girls.
    • The artist has chosen to create a black-and-white portrait and has photographed Malala against a black background. Her black Hijab A piece of clothing that covers the head, worn in public by some Muslim women. blends into the background which makes her face stand out in stark contrast. This adds to the power of the portrait as we are drawn to look at and engage with Malala’s face and eyes.
    • Malala Yousafzai is lit slightly from one side so, although her features are clear, there is shadow down the left-hand side of her face.
    • The shadows emphasize the forms of her face and help to make her features stand out against the flatter, dark background.
    • They also add to the dramatic quality of the portrait.
    • She is wearing a Hijab A piece of clothing that covers the head, worn in public by some Muslim women. , a head covering worn by some Muslim women. It reflects the fact that she is a practicing Muslim and that her faith is an important part of her cultural identity.
    • Islamic head coverings come in many forms, but a hijab is usually a piece of cloth wrapped around the head and neck, covering the hair but leaving the face visible.
    • The ink hand-written text is a poem, Malala II, by Rahman Shah Sayel. It was written in 2011 and is in Pashto, a language spoken mainly in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Both Sayel and Yousafzai speak Pashto. Yousafzai met Sayel when she was a young girl.
    • The poem draws connections between Malala of Maiwand, a national folk hero in Afghanistan, and Malala Yousafzai, who was named after her. It praises them both.
    • Notice the eyes have been left clear of writing in the portrait. This perhaps symbolises her clear sighted-ness and vision for the future. It also makes us aware of her fearless Gaze The relationship of looking between sitter, artist and viewer. and invites us to engage with her and with the issues that she feels strongly about.
I hope [the portrait] impresses young people when they see a young person in this Gallery, that they can also become changemakers, advocates and activists ... especially young women and girls.
Malala Yousafzai, 2023

Who is Malala Yousafzai?

  • Malala Yousafzai was born in Mingora, Pakistan.
  • The Pakistani Taliban The Pakistani Taliban is made up of a number of extreme Islamic groups with the shared aim of overthrowing the Pakistani government and establishing a strict Islamic one in its place.   controlled the area between 2007 and 2009, when Malala was a young girl. They had strict religious views. They banned lots of things such as owning a TV or playing music. They also banned girls from going to school.
  • In 2012, when she was 15, Malala Yousafzai spoke out publicly about girls’ right to education. This marked her out as a target for the Pakistani Taliban, which were still present in Mingora. She was shot and seriously wounded on her way home from school.
  • Malala Yousafzai remembers nothing about what happened but woke up in a hospital in England 10 days later.
  • After months of surgery and treatment in hospital, in Birmingham, she was reunited with her family. They chose to stay in Birmingham.
  • Yousafzai set up the Malala Fund with her father. The Fund is a charity dedicated to supporting education for girls around the world.
  • In 2014 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize The Nobel prizes are awards given every years in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace. They are awarded to people "who have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind" in the previous 12 months. for this work, the youngest person ever to receive the award.
  • In 2020, Malala Yousafzai graduated with a degree from Oxford University.
  • Today she continues her activism, influencing the lives of girls and young women across the world, using their voices to fight for equality.

Who is Shirin Neshat?

  • Shirin Neshat is an internationally recognised artist.
  • She was born in Iran in 1957 and migrated to the USA in 1974.
  • Her work carries strong messages about the female presence in male-dominated cultures.
  • Much of her work has featured veiled women in Iran, examining the physical, emotional and cultural aspects of their lives in relation to Islamic culture, and their collective strength and resilience.

Why is this portrait significant?

  • This is one of a pair of portraits of Malala Yousafzai by Shirin Neshat. They were both commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery.
  • It is an important pairing between an artist and sitter, both known for addressing issues relating to women and girls in Islamic culture.
  • Neshat recalled: ‘I knew of Malala as an extraordinary young woman ... her fierce fight for women’s education and for winning the Nobel Peace Prize The Nobel prizes are awards given every years in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace. They are awarded to people "who have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind" in the previous 12 months. , all before she turned twenty years old ... To this day, when I look back on our encounter, I am left with impressions of humility, wisdom and a rare sense of inner beauty.’
  • Malala Yousafzai has said: ‘Shirin cared about the message that I carried with me …’ She also said ‘[Shirin Neshat] is an advocate for gender equality — we had a lot in common in terms of our values’.

Questions

  1. What do you think is the main message of this portrait? Why?
  1. How do you think the inclusion of the hand-written poem adds to the overall message?
  1. Why might Shirin Neshat have chosen to compose the portrait in a similar way to a photograph in an identity (ID) document?