The Download: Feature Articles
Morehshin Allahyari: Creating Art from Politics, Jinn, and Tech
By Victoria Lubas | February 14, 2020
Using 3D Printing to Explore Iranian Culture and Folklore
Throughout her artistic life, Morehshin Allahyari's¹ work has focused on using technology to create political artwork that is infused with history and research. From inspiring others to use 3D printers in artistic ways, to revisiting ancient stories and histories with an active voice and renewed relevance, Allahyari's work and artistic mission center around a goal of combining the digital and physical realms in powerful ways.
As a teenager growing up in Iran, Allahyari entered the art world through creative writing. Persisting through the aggravations of dial-up internet in Tehran, she appreciated the access to knowledge and possibilities made attainable through the Web. During her undergraduate and graduate years, she studied digital media and new media art, expanding her existing interest in the ways technology and culture influence each other. Allahyari said she continues to be "fascinated with the space between physical and digital" and explained that "3D printers and scanners allow going back and forth between [those] spaces."
She Who Sees the Unknown: An Archive and Artwork
Allahyari's most recent project, She Who Sees the Unknown, was completed using the 3D printing resources available at NYU's LaGuardia Studio. The piece consists of five parts, each employing her creative writing and digital art background to achieve her goal of creating art that is both poetic and political. She began work on the project in October 2016, which depicts the female, queer, and genderless characters that are prevalent in Islamic and Persian stories but often lost in the shadow of male figures. Each of the five components focus on a different jinn—monstrous, genie-like, hybrid beings of Middle Eastern origin that can be good or bad. To begin the project, Allahyari collected mythical Islamic images and texts to create the first-ever archive of Islamic monstrous figures.
The first jinn Allahyari designed and printed was Huma, who is known to bring fever and heat to the human body. Created with resin, Allahyari used ZBrush to create the sculpture's design. She wrote accompanying text that compares Huma's heat-bringing abilities to the concerns surrounding global warming, which she explains are "still very focused on the Global North" and ends with "Huma bringing justice with equal temperature around the world." Allahyari's second project, Ya'jooj Ma'jooj, consists of two multi-headed sculptures based off of illustrations from 1203 AD, as well as a VR experience, created with Maya, where the viewer enters a dark shrine and sees a large-scale Ya'jooj and Ma'jooj. In the Qur'an, Ya'jooj and Ma'jooj represent chaos and are detained by an iron wall, which Allahyari compared to the United States’ Muslim travel ban.
The third component is a 3D printed resin statue of Aisha Qandisha, a jinn who possesses men and exposes them to demons. In an accompanying video, Allahyari relates Aisha Qandisha to toxic masculinity and emotional abuse, emphasizing the experiences of women of color.² The Laughing Snake, the fourth installment in She Who Sees the Unknown, represents the destructive jinn who was defeated when an old man held up a mirror to her and she laughed at her own reflection until she died. This installation features a large-scale 3D printed sculpture in a room of mirrors and is accompanied by a hypertext narrative that reimagines the story of the Laughing Snake as one of control over her image.³
The fifth and final installation of She Who Sees the Unknown, Kabous The Left Witness, and The Right Witness finished showing at New York art space The Shed in January 2020 as part of the Manual Override exhibit. For this installation, Allahyari recreated her childhood bedroom in Iran. The viewer lies on a bed underneath 3D-printed statues of The Left Witness and The Right Witness, beings who accompany Kabous, a jinn known to bring nightmares and sleep paralysis.
The viewer wears a VR headset and enters a dream-like simulation depicting a hammam—a bathhouse that functions as a social space for women and is thought to be visited by jinn. Inspired by her grandmother's frequent trips to social bathhouses, the experience portrays "four generations of women—[Allahyari's] grandmother, mother, [her]self, and an imagined monstrous daughter." These visuals are accompanied by her mother's voice reading her diary entries from her pregnancies with Allahyari and her sister during the Iran-Iraq War. Allahyari describes the piece as focusing on war, childbirth, and the feeling of kinship and birthing that can be felt in other ways aside from traditional childbirth.
Material Speculation: ISIS - A Call to Activism through Art
Allahyari has been creating 3D work since 2012 and says she has "always been fascinated by the possibilities 3D printers offer" to work between the physical and digital realms. Prior to She Who Sees the Unknown, Material Speculation: ISIS embodied Allahyari’s goal of exploring politics and technology by offering a way to regain the art and history destroyed by ISIS in 2015. Allahyari researched the destroyed artifacts, then selected 12 to re-design and 3D print; not to act as replacements, but as an archive that would preserve their memory. After printing the recreations, Allahyari saved all her research on flash drives that are stored inside the 3D printed "artifacts" as a form of preservation and released the print file for the statue of King Uthal to the general public.
Material Speculation: ISIS stems from Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke's 3D Additivist Manifesto, which defines the term "additivism" as "a portmanteau of ‘additive' and ‘activism.'"⁴ Allahyari explained that 3D printers have been around for over 30 years and now that they are finally becoming more accessible they are at a greater risk of being put to "banal and boring uses." To combat this, Allahyari and Rourke created the Manifesto, which Allahyari says "came from the idea that we need text and thinking around digital fabrication and additive digital fabrication."
As She Who Sees the Unknown developed, Allahyari became increasingly familiar with large-scale installations, which she had not worked with much before Huma. These installations helped her establish a sense of environment, further emphasizing the relationship between the digital and the physical. Now that She Who Sees the Unknown is complete, Allahyari will be releasing her archive of female and genderless Middle Eastern figures, the first of its kind, publicly on the internet.
- Morehshin Allahyari, Wikipedia
- She Who Sees the Unknown: Aisha Qandisha
- "Morehshin Allahyari: She Who Sees the Unknown," Brooklyn Rail
- Morehshin Allahyari, Artworks: The 3D Additivist Manifesto