She Who Sees The Unknown is a site of devotion to the dark feminine, the monstrous other, the non-binary and all who exceed populist acceptance. This exhibition offers shrines to three figures — Huma (( هوما ), Aisha Qandisha عيشة قنديشة) ), and The Laughing Snake ( (مار قهقهه — drawn from Morehshin Allahyari’s ongoing research project into female and gender non-binary monsters and jinn of Middle Eastern origin (commonly referred to as genies in the West). Each figure is accompanied by a narrative adapted from established mythologies and legends.
Allahyari re-ignites this traditional wisdom, ensuring it is alive and relevant for our tumultuous present while honouring the source material of this unique piece of Middle Eastern history. While each shrine can be appreciated for its own unique beauty, Allahyari’s complex layering of process, material, narrative and atmosphere can also create new ways of understanding how we carry cultural memory in our artifacts, archives, and bodies — particularly within current digital contexts. Her choice of subjects challenges us to reconsider our relationships and reactions to those who society has traditionally deemed monstrous or unworthy of worship/divinity. Allahyari champions individual and collective sovereignty as a radical and transgressive act that makes way for new cultural realities.
One of the main terms that I have developed in relationship to this body of work is Re-Figuring, as a form of feminist and activist practice. Re-figuring is about activation and preservation. It is an act of going back and retrieving the past. How can we re-imagine another kind of present and future through re-articulating the past—especially the kind of past that is forgotten or misrepresented? The stories of these jinn portray monstrous figures who are powerful but have taken a back seat to male mythical figures and have had their power increasingly presented in a negative light over time. Through embracing the “monstrosity” of these figures, I hope to give birth to new beings and becomings that are able to challenge and change the power structures that exist in our political and social realities. She Who Sees The Unknown reflects on the effects of historical and digital colonialism and other forms of oppression and catastrophe, in a practice of Re-Figuring forgotten figures and re-situating their histories.
In Islamic culture and teaching jinn are known as supernatural creatures. According to the Quran, jinn are 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 honoured. My upbringing in Iran was full of ancient mythical narratives, all involving extraordinary and supernatural beings. The childhood bedtime stories, told to me by my grandmother, were about her memories of encounters with jinn, usually in the public bathouse of her village. When jinn possess humans, they guarantee an utter openness. A new kind of entrance, portal, and arrival to the outside. For me, this is what makes them attractive candidates for an act of Re-Figuring. When thinking about technology, potential futures and new worlds, it is perhaps time to think outside of Donna Haraway’s concept of the “cyborg” (hybrid machine-human beings) in order to stretch our imagination to a new set of figures that do not come from white/Western knowledge structures. If Haraway claimed to be “a cyborg rather than a motherly/earthy goddess,” I claim to be a jinn rather than a cyborg.
Aisha Qandisha (ع�شةقند�ش)
Aisha Qandisha is one of the most honored and fearsome jinn in Islam. She is known as the opener. When she possesses a man, she does not take over the host but opens them to an outside storm of incoming jinn and demons; making them a traffic zone of cosmic data. Aisha never leaves; she resides in the man to guarantee their utter openness. The only way to stay sane when possessed by her is to submit to her. If one does not open up for this process of destruction and rebuilding, it will result in incurable delirium and madness. In this video, Morehshin Allahyari uses Aisha Qandisha’s power and possession to revisit a personal love story, as a process for opening, closure, revenge, healing and forgetting.
Huma is a Jinn known in various Middle-Eastern tales and myths as a demon who brings heat to the human body and is responsible for the common fever and other figures. She is pictured as a demon with three heads and one or two tails. In this video, Allahyari tells a story where Huma’s power of bringing heat is interpreted through the lens of one of the greatest horrors of our time: global warming.
The Laughing Snake (مارقهقه)
The various myths told about The Laughing Snake depict a monstrous figure (some believe a jinn), who has taken over a city and its lands, murdering its people and animals. Over the years there were many attempts at destroying this jinn, but none were successful. One day, an old man living in a cave comes forth with a revelation: the only way to kill the snake is to hold a mirror in front of her. When they do so, the snake sees her own image in the mirror and starts laughing. She laughs for days and nights until she self-destructs and dies. In Morehshin Allahyari’s re-telling, she reflects on a series of personal and imagined stories of hysteria, delirium, sexual abuse, impositions of morality, and the experience of living in a female-designated body in the Middle-East. Allahyari wants to reconsider the snake’s laughter as a position of power with self-destruction as an act of ultimate agency over her own body and image.