Portrait in focus: Malala Yousafzai by Shirin Neshat

Join activist Malala Yousafzai and artist Shirin Neshat as they explore the creation of Malala’s portrait and the importance of representing her powerful story.

Malala Yousafzai is an activist who campaigns for women and girls’ education around the world. Artist Shirin Neshat talks about the creative decisions behind making a portrait of Malala and meeting the important challenge of showing who she is and what she represents. Malala Yousafzai reflects on her feelings about having her portrait made, the importance of including portraits of women and girls from different backgrounds in the National Portrait Gallery, and the powerful stories they can tell.


  • My name is Shirin Neshat, I’m an Iranian-born artist living in New York.

    I think my passion and real serious urge to become an artist began when I moved to the United States and art became a sort of a tool to really cope with my own life and find a way of creating a dialogue with others. I guess I’m really, really interested in human emotion and how human portraiture is endlessly interesting in being so expressive.

    I was not really sure if I could deliver a portrait of Malala that would be very distinct. As you can imagine, Malala has been photographed a million times, and how could I possibly capture this personality, this monumental, iconic figure in a way that sheds yet new light in terms of who she is and what she represents?

    I really felt that my approach could be to really go under the skin of Malala as a human being, as a young woman who has been so fortunate and unfortunate due to political reasons. And I just wanted to show her as being a human being.

    My name is Malala Yousafzai. I am girls’ education activist, and my activism started with my own story, where girls in my hometown were stopped from going to school. But today, I am here advocating for the rights of millions of girls who do not have access to education, they do not have access to schools. And I want to advocate for a world where every girl has the opportunity to get safe, quality and free education.

    It was a huge honour for me to be working with Shirin Neshat. She is a determined artist who brings her values into her artwork, and she believes in gender equality and justice. And I had full faith in her that she would be able to tell my story in such a way that reflects my values as well.

    Shirin really cared about the message that I carried with me. She knew that we need to reflect the message of activism and speaking for truth in these pictures.

    But we also need to show this person’s story and background and where they come from. So, I wrote in Farsi language, we had the poem translated, but I tried as much as possible, for the accents over the words, because I’m very big in using accents, which are often not even Persian or Farsi, but I like the way they look, so I try to use these exaggerated accents that were not really related to Farsi language, that only the Iranian and the Pakistani communities could really relate to it and understand the difference.

    I think my relationship to portrait is really very specific to the gaze of my subjects and simple body postures, and as you know, a lot of my subjects are Islamic, so within the limitation of what can be exposed, how much the body can express itself.

    It is a huge, huge honour for me to have my portrait in the National Portrait Gallery.

    We do need more representation of women and girls in galleries because when young people visit these places, they try to see themselves in those stories and the more women and women of colour we have in the museums, a lot of kids would be able to relate to them.

    They would also see a true picture of the world rather than a very incorrect image of the world.

    We live in a very diverse world where people come from different backgrounds, and they all have a story. They all have a unique, powerful story. So, we need to show young people the true picture of the world, that there are advocates and activists from around the world, including women and girls, you know, from far away valley in, you know, in the north of Pakistan as well, who are leading a fight or a campaign for change.

    My advice to young people is to believe in themselves, their leadership, their potential. You have so much energy and enthusiasm for creating a better, more equal, peaceful, cleaner world. Continue with this energy because you are the future leaders. You are the changemakers. So, we need you. The world needs you. So, it’s important for you to never give up. And that is something that I sometimes remind myself as well. I asked the younger version of me and she’s committed, she doesn't give up, and I’m like, I need to follow that energy.

Learning objectives

  1. Understand who Malala Yousafzai is and why she is significant.
  1. Explore the multiple meanings and messages in a portrait.
  1. Understand some of the creative decisions taken by a portrait artist.

Watch and discuss

  1. What challenges did Shirin Neshat face when she was commissioned to create this portrait of Malala Yousafzai?
  1. Why do you think it was so important to Malala Yousafzai to work with an artist who brings their values into their artwork?
  1. How did Shirin Neshat bring aspects of Malala’s identity into the portrait?
  1. Have you visited a museum or gallery that reflects your image of the world? Where do you go when you want to see yourself and people like you represented?