This Iranian Artist Is Spotlighting Female Jinn Figures In Her Latest Solo Show

Jinn, Art Exhibition, Iranian Artists, Morehshin Allahyari, History
MacKenzie Art Gallery
Morehshin Allahyari’s new exhibition is a fresh look at the origins of the mythical jinn, whose stories have been misrepresented throughout history

When you think of jinn, what springs to mind? Aladdin’s Genie, perhaps? Abu Hastin in The Thief of Baghdad? Johnny Thunder and Jakeem Thunder in DC Comics? Djinn in Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or even Wizards of Waverly Place? What you may not have known: jinn and other similarly powerful supernatural creatures originating in myth are not exclusively male. Tehran-born artist, activist and educator Morehshin Allahyari is challenging cultural norms and reclaiming the narrative of these ancient mythical figures with her She Who Sees The Unknown series, currently on display at MacKenzie Art Gallery, Canada. Three installations explore the stories of three female jinn figures: Huma, Aisha Qandisha, and the Laughing Snake. BAZAAR caught up with the artist to hear about the original jinn tales, the importance of storytelling and why technology and art go hand in hand.

Harper's BAZAAR Arabia: What sparked your interest in jinn figures and the myths and traditions associated with them?

Morehshin Allahyari: Jinn is a creature that is spoken about in the Quran. In Islamic culture and teaching, jinn are known as supernatural creatures, shape-shifters made of smokeless fire, occupying a parallel world to that of mankind. Together, jinn, humans and angels compose the three sentient creations of Allah. Unlike angels who have no ability to obey or disobey, jinn have the power of choice and will. In Iranian traditions, jinn are fearsome and honored. My upbringing in Iran was full of ancient mythical narratives, all involving extraordinary and supernatural beings. Childhood bedtime stories, often narrated by my grandmother, were about her memories of encounters with jinn, usually in the public bathhouse of her village.

Morehshin Allahyari, She Who Sees The Unknown: Huma, Installation with 3D printed black resin sculpture, clear resin talismans, and HD Video. 2016. Photo by Don Hall, installation image at MacKenzie Art Gallery 2019.

HBA: What has your research for She Who Sees the Unknown required? Where did you look to find out about these figures?

MA: The research involves books, documents and material from the pre-Islamic and Islamic world, accessed with the help of family and historian friends back in Iran. There’s also online research involved, which can be a challenge in terms of determining authenticity of sources and accuracy of translation from Arabic to English, for example. One of my favorite resources, though, is ‘Ajā'ib al-makhlūqāt wa gharā'ib al-mawjūdāt’ (Marvels of creatures and Strange things existing), an important Arabic cosmography work dating from the 13th century.

Morehshin Allahyari - Reading Room, Installation with books, articles, images on iPad, carpet, cushions, and archival images on vinyl, courtesy of artist and Upfor Gallery, 2016-Ongoing. Photo by Don Hall, installation image at MacKenzie Art Gallery 2019.

HBA: How did the jinn figure evolve into a male, superhero-like character in popular culture?

MA: My first guess is: Patriarchy. In the West and the Middle East, most superheroes or figures that are powerful and immortal are male. But then when you look at a lot of stories that are untold or forgotten, which is what I’ve been doing in my She Who Sees The Unknown series, you can find many jinn or generally monster-like figures that are female. On multiple levels, these stories have been forgotten, made invisible or been misrepresented through time.

HBA: Why is 'Re-Figuring' an important practice for you today?

MA: Re-Figuring for me is about activation and preservation. It’s an act of going back and retrieving the past. How can we re-imagine another kind of present and future through re-imagining the past—especially the kind of past that is forgotten or misrepresented? The stories of these jinn portray monstrous female figures who are powerful, but over time their power is either increasingly presented in a negative light, or they are not taken as seriously as a lot of male superhero-type mythical stories that are more common both in the Middle East and the West. She Who Sees The Unknown is a practice of Re-Figuring forgotten figures and re-situating their histories.

Morehshin Allahyari and her work

Morehshin Allahyari, She Who Sees The Unknown: The Laughing Snake, Installation with 3D printed plastic sculpture, mirrored room, and interactive hypertextual narrative, 2019. Photo by Don Hall, installation image at MacKenzie Art Gallery 2019.

HBA: How did you choose to present the story of the Laughing Snake recently at the Whitney Museum?

MA: I came across the story of The Laughing Snake and Mirror in The Book of Felicity and The Book of Wonders. The illustration shows a female snake in a beautiful landscape looking at a group of men who are holding a mirror in front of her. But unlike the myth of Medusa, who turns into stone when she sees herself in the mirror, the Laughing Snake dies from seeing her reflection in the mirror – laughing at it hysterically until she self-destructs. I wanted to turn this story around, to embrace the monstrosity, to change this image and the structure. So in my new story about the Laughing Snake, I chose to show that she isn’t laughing at her own reflection, but rather at her reflection within the world she lives in. Her laughing and her death are powerful gestures to take her reflection back. And I use that to tell real personal stories about the past and present of my life and an imagined future. The power of this work is to remind women, the people of the Middle East, that our figures and our stories, fictional and actual, matter.

Morehshin Allahyari - Reading Room, Installation with books, articles, images on iPad, carpet, cushions, and archival images on vinyl, courtesy of artist and Upfor Gallery, 2016-Ongoing. Photo by Don Hall, installation image at MacKenzie Art Gallery 2019

HBA: An interesting part of your process is storytelling and community involvement - why is that important to you?

MA: I come from a creative writing background, so in general, fictional writing has always been an important part of thinking and creating for me. I think fictional storytelling allows for certain kind of imagination. How can storytelling help us connect and understand each other from new and old positions and experiences? I think we need stories that connect us and build a sense of collective belonging and healing.

Morehshin Allahyari, She Who Sees The Unknown: Huma, Installation with 3D printed black resin sculpture, clear resin talismans, and HD Video. 2016. Photo by Don Hall, installation image at MacKenzie Art Gallery 2019.

HBA: What possibilities does technology offer art?

MA: I think new technology has so much potential compared with more traditional media. I am a big advocate for asking why, how, when, and in what context we should use the digital tools around us and how that might impact the current dialogue. I want to make the kind of work that thinks beyond ‘technology for technology’s sake’ and is serious, radical and poetic (think the opposite of Silicon Valley). I also build communities and platforms that can influence more critical ways of using these tools. For example, alongside art exhibitions and screenings of my work, I also like to curate and organise events, conversations, readings rooms that build spaces for certain demographics to participate in the world of new media art. So whatever I do as an artist, I want to make sure that it is not just a solo practice, but is collaborative and involves other women.

Lead image: Morehshin Allahyari, She Who Sees The Unknown: The Laughing Snake, Installation with 3D printed plastic sculpture, mirrored room, and interactive hypertextual narrative, 2019. Photo by Don Hall, installation image at MacKenzie Art Gallery 2019.

Morehshin Allahyari: She Who Sees the Unknown is on view at MacKenzie Art Gallery until 25 August

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Jinn, Art Exhibition, Iranian Artists, Morehshin Allahyari, History
MacKenzie Art Gallery