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Iranian-American Artist Revives Islam’s Apocalyptic Goddesses

How Morehshin Allahyari is using new technologies to reclaim an ancient feminist narrative.
Images courtesy of Morehshin Allahyari.

Mystical goddesses and warnings of the end times are reimagined with digital technologies in the new work by Iranian-American artist Morehshin Allahyari, She Who Sees the Unknown. Taking images of supernatural female figures found in Islamic mythology—Ya'jooj and Ma'jooj—Allahyari has created a digital video artwork using 3D techniques to bring their cautionary stories to life, and reinterpreting them in what the artist calls, "a feminism activism practice."


"I find these figures and then reappropriate," Allahyari tells Creators. "I find them from different images, choose a selection, and then 3D model, print and scan them. I write narratives about them in relation to the power that they have, putting them in context to current forms of colonialism and oppression. So these female powers come to fight these current systems, going against them in a way."

A folio from Ajayeb al Makhluqhat, Unknown, Persian School.

She Who Sees the Unknown

She Who Sees the Unknown

Presented on the Media Wall at The Photographer's Gallery in London, Allahyari's first solo UK show expands on themes found in her previous work. Her continued series Material Speculation, for example, sees the reconstruction of ancient artifacts destroyed by ISIS in 2015, questioning the issues of ownership and access to data that arise with the new technologies that she uses.

"I'm specifically interested in tools like 3D printers and 3D scanners," she says. "And how these tools are marking this new era of digital colonialism and data colonialism. You can think about a certain technology as a metaphor and use it to talk about other issues in a poetic way. I'm interested in that relationship."

Using this as a point of departure, Allahyari turns her attention to the tale of Ya'jooj and Ma'jooj—dark female representations of chaos that come to Earth to create mischief. The digitally recreated figures running on the Media Wall are accompanied with a narrative written by Allahyari, where the audience learns how the people of Earth ask an almighty Figure to build a wall between them and Ya'jooj and Ma'jooj for protection.


Iskandar (Alexander) builds a wall to seal Yajujand Majuj; here aided by dīvs (demons)

"The narrative writing was actually very complicated because I didn't want it to end up being a black-and-white thing, where there are these good people and these bad people," explains Allahyari. "So, as the story develops the people who ask this wall to be built between them and Ya'jooj and Ma'jooj become Ya'jooj and Ma'jooj, and Ya'jooj and Ma'jooj become the people. Who is chaos to who?"

During Donald Trump's initial executive order aimed at banning Muslims from seven Middle-Eastern countries, Allahyari found herself stuck in Berlin, unable to return to her home in the US due to her Iranian passport.

"Obviously for someone like Donald Trump, or some of his supporters, chaos are the immigrants, are the Muslims, are the brown bodies," she says. "For immigrants, or some of the people against Trump, Trump is the representation of chaos. Who gets to be on what side of the wall and what does that mean?"

She Who Sees the Unknown

She Who Sees the Unknown

Noting the work of Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti, Allahyari believes that digital spaces also offer opportunities to create new gender-driven narratives.

"It's about bringing these female powers out, these forgotten figures and histories," she says. "There are a lot of these female figures in Arabic and Persian narratives and we don't talk about them. It's the same thing with Western history, as soon as you talk about superheroes and figures with amazing skills, it's mostly men. It's about taking these female powers and using them as a way to decolonize these conversations and spaces."


She Who Sees the Unknown is on at The Photographers Gallery in London until July 16, 2017. Allahyari will also present performances of this work alongside other artists during the Re-figuring event at Eyebeam in Brooklyn on May 27, 2017. See more from Allahyari here.


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