When we think of powerful goddesses, the names of Athena, Artemis, Isis, or Kali may come to mind. Much less known, however, particularly to the Western world, are the names of such female figures of Middle-Eastern origin (those of ancient Egypt are a unique exception). This gap in knowledge arrives largely from the lack of easy accessibility to the traditional texts that document and illustrate these goddesses, many of which are written in Arabic or Farsi and are not well-known or distributed online. Attempting to close this gap is new media artist Morehshin Allahyari, whose developing body of work is asserting the roles of these forgotten figures through a feminist narrative that rights our crumbling world.
Allahyari is researching these goddesses while in residency at Eyebeam, and a solo exhibition at TRANSFER gallery in Brooklyn offers a glimpse of her progress and what is to come. She Who Sees the Unknown is an absorbing, exciting preview of how she harnesses overlooked myth to topple contemporary power imbalances between East and West; between men and women. Her research will eventually result in an army of about a dozen 3D-printed female jinns, each accompanied with associated talismans, also 3D-printed. In defiance to conventions of the female, she is focusing on sinister figures, celebrating their strength and unrelenting control.
“I’m not interested in the motherly goddesses,” Allahyari told me. “I’m only interested in the dark ones and the monstrous ones; and the cruelty of each of their powers that will take over something.”
The exhibition presents her first finished sculpture, the three-headed demon known as Huma, who possesses humans and causes fevers. Illuminated in a darkened room of the gallery, which is painted black, she gleams ominously, perched on a pedestal surrounded by three talismans. Allahyari relates the jinn‘s warming powers to global warming and sees her as a poetic representation of those excluded from the Western-dominated conversations of climate change. Huma is reincarnated in weighty, black resin; the entire setup resembles an exquisite shrine to her story, which remains unknown to so many. In the background, a large video flashes portions of the sculpture, with Allahyari telling her re-envisioned narrative of the dark goddess’s capacities. “She restores myth and histories, the untold and the forgotten,” she says. “She is a monster, and should be.”
Throughout her residency, Allahyari will continue researching goddesses whose powers she may relate to other contemporary issues. The Moroccan jinn Aisha Qandisha, for instance, is known for creating openness in men by cracking their bodies; her eventual rebirth may represent a stand against the patriarchy, particularly the dominance of the white male in the tech world. And with the Trump era impending, Allahyari — who was born in Iran — also wants to highlight the trials of being a minority and an immigrant in today’s world.
For Allahyari, the tools of 3D-printing serve as feminist weapons — her command of this innovative technology is not simply a preference of medium but a meaningful assertion of her own creative power and prowess. Each goddess she will make will be her singular vision, with details collaged from various ancient sources such as the Kitab al-Bulhan and transformed by her hand from 2D to 3D, from the screen to the physical world.
Her work challenges the rising trend of digital archaeology projects to “save cultural heritage,” where she sees 3D printing being usurped for neocolonialism: largely spearheaded by Western organizations, these expensive efforts typically simply reconstruct threatened or destroyed artifacts from the Middle East, at times focusing more on the superficial than on their histories. In her exhibition she presents a video recording of her process of 3D-scanning the Huma sculpture; it places the power of the technology back in her own hands and personal realm, representing a decolonizing act.
Allahyari is at the start of a long journey, and She Who Sees the Unknown invites visitors to freely explore some of the concepts with which she is grappling. It hosts a reading room in which you’ll find feminist texts by the likes of Rosi Braidotti and Donna Haraway, with Allahyari adding to the selection over time. You can also browse image files of the illustrations she has researched, uploaded on a computer as her effort to make hard-to-find texts more accessible. She plans to eventually create an online archive devoted specifically to the dark female figures from the Middle East who have been pushed out of history. In time, we will hopefully enter a new exhibition where their sculptural representations confront us in person, each summoned to speak to the injustices of our own time.