Morehshin Allahyari: She Who Sees the Unknown
24 May to 25 August 2019

Organized by the MacKenzie Art Gallery

Curated by John G. Hampton

The MacKenzie Art Gallery is pleased to announce Morehshin Allahyari: She Who Sees The Unknown, the most comprehensive exhibition to date of the New York-based Iranian artist’s ongoing research project into female and gender non-binary monsters and jinn, of Middle Eastern origin. Using a four-part process involving research, 3D-modeling and printing, storytelling, and community involvement, Allahyari re-creates jinn figures and uses the traditions and myths associated with them to explore colonialism, patriarchism, and environmental degradation in relation to the Middle East. Curated by John Hampton, Director of Programs at the MacKenzie Art Gallery, Morehshin Allahyari: She Who Sees The Unknown is the first exhibition to bring together the three figures known as Huma, Aisha Qandisha, and The Laughing Snake, and will be on view from May 25 through August 25, 2019.

Started in October 2016 as part of Allahyari’s residency at Eyebeam in New York City, the She Who Sees The Unknown project is part of a process Allahyari refers to as ‘refiguring,’ or the act of going back into the past to retrieve elements that have been forgotten or misrepresented over time, in order to help reimagine another kind of present or future. In this case, Allahyari revives the stories of various jinn who were seen as tremendously powerful figures but either came to be seen as negative, or have been written out of the canon of largely male “superhero” stories. Allahyari embraces the monstrosity of these figures and resituates them in contemporary narratives where their powers can change perspectives on the present and the future. For Allahyari, ‘refiguring’ is a ficto-feminist and activist practice that challenges today’s power structures and social realities.

Allahyari begins her process by researching and collecting an archive of images and texts relating to each jinn figure. Following this, she 3D models—or scans—and prints an image of the jinn, modeling them on various ancient illustrations. Allahyari then creates new narratives for these figures in time-based medium, using storytelling to ‘refigure’ the figures into a new set of imagined possibilities for time and space. Finally, she animates them through a series of Ha’m-Neshini (Sitting Together) and Fabulation Stations: intimate public performances, events, and discussions that bring together fiction, theory, and activism in collaboration with artists, scientists, and activist women from the Middle East.

At the MacKenzie, the three figures of Huma, Aisha Qandisha, and The Laughing Snake will each occupy their own site-specific shrine-like new media installation. Huma, a jinn known for bringing heat to the human body and who is responsible for the common fever, will be exhibited among 3D-printed mashed-up versions of talisman sourced from Allahyari’s research. Aisha Qandisha, a jinn known for possessing men and completely opening them to the outside world, will be displayed as a vertical projection in a reflecting pool of blood-like liquid. The Laughing Snake originates in the myth of a monstrous snake-like figure who takes over a city and begins killing animals and people, causing chaos until someone suggests the only way to kill a snake is to have it look at its own reflection in a mirror. Rather than dying, the snake laughs unstoppably for many days before self-destructing. The Laughing Snake will be displayed suspended from the ceiling in a room filled with mirrors.

For each of these jinn, Allahyari has reappropriated the traditional mythologies and ‘refigured’ the jinn into new stories in the form of poetic spoken and video narratives. For example, Allahyari uses the concept of The Laughing Snake and the mirror to consider the laughter of the snake as a position of power, and her self-destruction as an act of agency over her own body and image. Each installation is intended to create a space of reverence for the “monstrous other;” recasting the supposedly negative and often misrepresented female figure into sources of strength, new balances of power, and ideas for alternate futures.

Alongside these three installations, the MacKenzie will be displaying the first stages of Allahyari’s growing archive monstrous and jinn figures in a research-oriented reading room. Since no such archive currently exists, Allahyari is undergoing active research with collaborators and first-hand texts and objects, which will eventually be compiled into a book that will be freely distributed through a web archive. Visitors to the MacKenzie will be able to explore this archive on iPads provided in the reading room.

The MacKenzie Art Gallery acknowledges with appreciation the support of the South Saskatchewan Community Foundation, Canada Council for the Arts, SaskCulture, City of Regina, University of Regina and the Saskatchewan Arts Board.