In her long-term research-based art project She Who Sees the Unknown, Iranian artist Morehshin Allahyari reanimates stories of monstrous female/queer djinn that have seldom been told or forgotten in Islamic culture. Since she began the project, in October 2016, she’s combed through libraries from New York to Tehran and interviewed scholars around the globe, collecting and digitizing historical Islamic texts and images. She combines this research with findings from contemporary scholarship and, in doing so, builds a new record of the past. She calls this process “refiguring.”
She Who Sees the Unknown has been exhibited in galleries, at universities, and in museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York City. It is built of five separate immersive, mixed-media experiences, which draw upon various artistic media (sculpture, 3-D printing, virtual reality, video, projection, hypertext narrative). Each installation is created using different technologies and centers on a different djinn, which, in pre-Islamic and Islamic theology is a term used to describe an intelligent spirit made of smokeless fire, a shape-shifter somewhere between an angel and a demon. Each djinn’s name doubles as the title of its respective installation. It includes Huma (حوما), the three-headed djinn responsible for heat and fever in the human body; the Ya’jooj Ma’jooj (یاجوج ماجوج), djinn of chaos and mischief, whose final release will signal the end of days; and Aisha Qandisha (عيشة قنديشة), the “opener,” and the djinn of rivers. Before seeing the piece we discussed—Kabous, The Right Witness and The Left Witness—my favorite piece in the series had been the Laughing Snake (مار قهقهه), which one can experience through a hypertext narrative on Artport, the Whitney’s online exhibition space.
Kabous, The Right Witness and The Left Witness is the final work in the series. Kabous is a powerful djinn of sleep paralysis and nightmares. To create this installation, Allahyari received a commission from the Shed, in Hudson Yards in New York City, where it was installed this winter as part of Manual Override, a showcase of five artists engaged with emerging technology. Both times I experienced it, there was a two-hour wait.
Allahyari’s list of accolades includes commissions from the Whitney and the New Museum, and residencies at Pioneer Works and Eyebeam. Foreign Policy magazine named her a Leading Global Thinker of 2016.
We sat down together in her studio in Industry City, Brooklyn, to talk about Kabous, The Right Witness and The Left Witness and the process of creating a long-term research-based art project. Her refiguring of Kabous invokes kinship, legendary science and technology scholar Donna Haraway, and intergenerational notions of birth justice. In the course of discussing these subjects, we also talked about the politics of paying people, quiet activism, and—finally—what it felt like for Allahyari to pay off her mother’s car loan.
—Katie Peyton Hofstadter
THE BELIEVER: Can you describe the VR experience of Kabous?
MOREHSHIN ALLAYARI: Yes. You begin in a dark room, a re-creation of my bedroom in Tehran. Above you hang two djinn figures—I call them the Right Witness and the Left Witness—who are known to accompany a djinn named Kabous. But you don’t see Kabous.
A guide asks you to lie down on the bed and gives you the VR headset. As soon as you put it on, you are in this black VR space. Now you see the eyes of Kabous. As I introduce her—she is made of smokeless fire and causes nightmares and sleep paralysis—her eyes start to disappear, and you see the hashti, which is the entrance to the hammam, where djinn are known to appear. As you’re lying down in bed, you see, via the VR goggles, a creature come and sit on your chest, invoking sleep paralysis.
The djinn lifts, and you can move through the hammam again. You hear the voice of my mother, who is reading from her diary. She’s pregnant with my sister during the Iran-Iraq War, and she’s saying that she’s not sure if it is the right decision to give birth to a human without asking their opinion. She promises she will provide a good life, and she hopes her future child won’t tell her it was a cruel choice.
The Left Witness and the Right Witness and Kabous descend again. The time changes from day to night, and I tell a story about my grandmother. She is in a hammam when she sees a figure, which at first she thinks is a person. Djinn are shape-shifters, so they can look like humans, but they don’t have human feet. They have hooves. That’s when she knows she has encountered a djinn.
That’s the same night that Iraq bombs her hometown. In scene five, my mother is reading from her diary again. She’s tired of war, and everything feels dark and sad and depressing. She hopes her child will not see days like this.
You keep moving through the hammam. The soil is very red, so it looks like blood dripping from the ceiling. If you turn your head to the left, you hear women singing. When you turn your head back to the right, the singing fades out. Suddenly you’re flipped upside down. You’re flying.
Now I am speaking, summoning each of these djinn. I call on the Right Witness, and I tell her a story about my mother, who was a flight attendant for Iran Air for twenty-eight years. Due to US sanctions on Iran, it was not possible to easily buy new parts to repair the planes, which caused technical failures and plane crashes. I have so many memories of my sister and myself in the kitchen, behind the window, waiting for my mother to come home.
I tell the Left Witness about mothers who can give birth to monsters. I’m thinking about the intergenerational trauma built within war and blood memory and DNA.
Finally, I call Kabous. I call her “the monstrous daughter.”
In the last scene, you hear the voice of the monstrous daughter herself. The audio is edited to sound like a voice that’s somewhere between that of a djinn, an adult, and a child. It starts with:
To heal my mother
our mother’s mothers
our mother’s mother’s mothers
our mother’s mother’s mother’s mothers
to become other
and alter our daughters
our daughter’s daughters
our daughter’s daughter’s daughters
our daughter’s daughter’s daughter’s daughters
I’m talking about healing our ancestors to alter our daughters, altering this idea of birthing and what birthing can be. I’m talking about birth justice: Who, when, and where you give birth. I added another component: what. What we can birth.
At this time, you’re in a space that is the most dreamy and disorienting. You are still in the hammam, but seeing it in a new way. At the end, you are left with this idea: that only in the future, you will know.
BLVR: OK, there’s a lot here. I want to come back to that last scene. But first, I want to talk about the process of creating a long-term research-based art project like this. I’ve seen your research folders. They look like crime scene investigation files. You once told me you work less like a painter and more like Agent Cooper in Twin Peaks.
MA: Yeah. So my new joke on my Instagram and Twitter bios is “artist/private investigator,” because that’s what I feel like when I’m working on these projects.
Researching forgotten stories is complicated because the information that survives is hard to find. Some aspects of Kabous are more known, but Ya’jooj Ma’jooj, Aisha Qandisha, and the Laughing Snake are not well known. What’s out there is unorganized, or its locations have been forgotten. It is definitely not digitized. I was sending my cousins and my mom to libraries and bookstores in Iran to gather material for me, asking friends to help. I was doing fieldwork at the Morgan Library, at the Met.
BLVR: When I try to look into those stories, what comes up is you. You have become the reference.
MA: Right. That was the promise of the work: that my archive would be published at the same time as the finished She Who Sees the Unknown series. It contains not just the stories but my research as well. For example, with Kabous, I’m looking at the scientific phenomenon of sleep paralysis and how it is linked to stress and trauma. What happens in our brain, in our body? I read a lot of work by Dr. Baland Jalal, an important scientist in sleep paralysis, and we exchanged emails. I researched sleep paralysis in refugee camps, and looked at studies comparing people in Denmark with people in Turkey.
I’ve experienced sleep paralysis twice and it is so scary. It’s completely different from a nightmare, because in a nightmare your body is involved. With sleep paralysis, your brain is awake and your body is numb. That’s a very strange connection between mind and body. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced it.
BLVR: Wow. I haven’t. Was that what drew you to choose Kabous as the final figure in the series? And how did you go from all of this raw information to a final artwork?
MA: When Nora Khan (who was the curator of the Manual Override exhibition) commissioned me to be in the exhibition at the Shed, I was trying to come up with the last figure. I had found these illustrations in my research; I’d read about sleep paralysis and knew it would be Kabous. It was one of the figures that I kept in my head with me.
With Kabous, I thought, There’s a lot I can explore: Feeling numb. Feeling paralyzed. That’s how things begin, usually: I sense there’s room to explore. From there, I start gathering material, what you saw in those folders.
Next, I put it all in a Google Doc. There’s links, sections that I copy-and-paste from articles that I think are related. My mind, at that point, is all over the place. That’s the brainstorming section.
Then the writing part comes in. In this phase, I’m also sharing my mom’s diary. She records it on her phone and, ha ha, she sends it to me as a WhatsApp audio recording. So yeah, me and Prince Harvey, who is my partner and the project’s sound designer, had to do a lot of cleanup.
I wrote the first three, four scenes, then we started building the VR. Prashast Thapan, who works with Pariah Interactive [an independent game development studio], helped me generate the VR coding. We would meet at his studio and I would bring sketches of what I wanted in the space. At the beginning, there was no final audio. I just had to read everything out loud.
As we created the code, I would be writing the next scene, the next scene. At this point, we’re two months till the exhibition, and we still don’t have the sound composition, which is a really important part of an immersive virtual space. If you watch this piece without the music composition, it’s so different.
BLVR: Right. I know you work very collaboratively. What is that like?
MA: It is intense, but it is also amazing. When I’m developing a work, there are definitely moments when I think, This is just not working. The whole project suddenly sounds stupid.
I have this group of women friends who know me well, and I trust them. I have two friends, Emily Martinez and Sally Glass, who were really involved in this project. I’m a pain in the ass, messaging them, “I need to talk about this piece.” It’s really empowering. I want to show you a text.
Here it is: I said to my friend Emily, “Do you think people are going to hate me for making this? I’m scared of white mom feminists.” Because there is a difference between white feminism struggles and WOC [women of color] feminism, and those very experiences (race, cultural backgrounds, et cetera) make a difference in what challenges people face, including the choice to give birth. Emily said, “If this upsets someone, you may be touching on something in their subconscious [that] they don’t want to see. I wouldn’t worry about who might not get it. It’s not for them or about them. For the rest of us, we will have this gift, so thank you.”
She has done projects with AI and intergenerational trauma, so that’s another reason I knew she could help me make this work.
The passage about birth justice actually came to me after a phone conversation with Emily. I was like, “I know what I want to say, but how do I frame it?” We were talking about intergenerational trauma, and I said, “How do you bring justice to this experience? It’s like birth justice,” and Emily was like, “Yeah, birth justice. That’s what it is.” I looked it up: What is the definition of birth justice? It is having the choice about with whom, where, and when to give birth.
BLVR: You added “what.”
MA: Yes. Right. The idea of rethinking the other possibilities of birth.
I was so unsure about that last scene. What is this monstrous child telling us? Until the work was finished, I didn’t know that was how it would end.
BLVR: In the last scene, you say, “Only in the future, you will know the only future you will know, you will know.” What’s this knowledge that’s so central to the piece?
MA: The whole body of work is called She Who Sees the Unknown because they are djinn and they have an awareness of the future. They are in the future already. There may be a time when birthing has many other shapes. Like the way Octavia Butler imagines it in “Bloodchild.” A human and an alien mate and have a child; a man gives birth to a nonhuman thing. Butler thinks about other species and about kinship and adoption. That’s what I hope is the future: thinking there are other ways to take care of one another; there are other ways to love.
BLVR: What was it like collaborating with your mother’s journal? Did your understanding of her history change over the course of the project?
MA: I’ve had access to her journal since I was sixteen, seventeen. It’s probably fifty, sixty pages. Toward the end, she’s writing less and less and less, and eventually she stops.
When she’s pregnant with my sister, she’s twenty-eight, and it’s the second year of the war. Nobody knows how long it’s going to go on for, and it lasts eight years, which is a fucking long time. During the war, there was a very high birth rate in Iran. I’ve always given parents in Iran a hard time—mine included. It’s crazy. Those eight years, people were just having babies. I’m very close to my mom, but I was also like, “Why? Why would you have kids if you’re in a war? That’s selfish.” I remember one time my mom was like, “It was our only hope.”
For me, that space has been complicated. What does birthing mean at this time when we’re experiencing real issues in terms of global warming? Many countries are moving back toward fascism. I talk to women who grew up in Iran or other parts of the Middle East and Africa, who experienced the trauma of war or slavery. When you experience those things, it gets harder to make these choices.
BLVR: In the virtual space, we hear these words from her diary: “I don’t know if it’s right that humans bring a child into this world without asking the child for its opinion.” Then she wonders if you will condemn her for it one day. It’s pretty wrenching. How does that compare with your ideas about birth justice today?
MA: I’m talking about a slightly more futuristic version. When she’s talking about birth justice, she’s hoping that her decision will not be wrong. The unknown is what’s really scary to her, which is that we are in a war.
This project also made me see the ways my mom could be me in 2019 and I could be her in 1982. My parents gave me the space and opportunity to be, think, and act differently (we can also call it being radical), but she didn’t have those opportunities. I think this project really made me understand that. So much of her journal is about feeling lonely in a new town [Qorveh, Kurdistan] and an unfamiliar culture. On page 1, she writes that that’s why she is starting her journal. She complains about not having friends and not understanding the language. She is mentally vulnerable and questioning her choice to give birth. It always meant a lot to me that she questioned it.
I feel that place of vulnerability in other ways. I think: I don’t have my own shit figured out; how can I give birth to another person? That’s in the mind of so many people around me. Especially for immigrants, who don’t have the same structure that somebody who was born and raised here has.
Let’s say you’re an Iranian person whose parents are in Iran. They can’t come to the United States to take care of you, even for just a few months, because there’s a travel ban. Sanctions mean financial instability. So does having an identity that has been banned and rejected.
You have to work so hard just to survive on your own. If you give somebody else a life, you have to figure out how they will survive too. That’s why having the option to give birth can be about having certain privileges. A part of it is that.
This is hard to say, because I appreciate motherhood. I love children and my friends’ kids. But I worry about what a child I give birth to might experience in this world. My choice of not birthing a child in many ways comes from this feeling: to want to protect that child. Although I have never shared it with my mom, I wished for protection sometimes when I was younger.
Growing up, I remember my mom was like, “Oh, now you’re just twenty. In your thirties you’ll change your mind.” But I still have a hard time with it. I’m more interested in kinship, more interested in adoption. Rather than saying, This is the thing I must do because I’m a woman, I’m interested in rethinking what else we can do.
BLVR: Do you have any words of advice for other artists on how to manage a complex research-based creative project?
MA: Two things. First, I always start with some structure—and I do keep some structure throughout the whole work. But I also begin with a lot of not-knowing. Donna Haraway talks about leaving the edges open, and I think about that often. How do you leave the edges open and what does it mean in your practice? I think what it means is trusting the process and being OK with not knowing how it’s going to end. That’s something that can drive a lot of people crazy, especially when you’re younger and you don’t have the same confidence. That can cause people to just stop, because they’re like, I have no idea what I’m going to do with this project.
I was so unsure about the last scene. What is this monstrous child telling us? How am I going to write that?
Sometimes I’m in my head so much—I’m here in this room, I’m writing, I’m going to a studio. I’m collaborating with this person on the VR recording, but I’m not talking about concepts with them. At some point, I’m like, I need to speak these words because when I speak them, something else happens. So that’s the second piece of advice I have: Talk through your work. Not through a public talk or random studio visits, but with people you’re close with and who know you. And that will also change the way you’re telling the story. Because I had a friend who had worked on something aligned with this project, I knew she had enough knowledge to understand it, and I could call her and talk through the piece.
BLVR: This has returned in a beautiful circle back to the first story you told me when I got here—about the hammam as an intimate space for women, where your grandmother would go to be with her female friends to talk about what mattered to them.
MA: Yes. That same kind of hammam space in which I imagine my grandmother, my mom, and myself as the daughter also extends as an analogy to the space of my female friendships now. This is where I can imagine the story of the monstrous daughter being told.
BLVR: You received a commission from the Shed to help create this piece. Can you talk about that process?
MA: It was twenty thousand dollars, the most funding I have ever received to create a work. Just to have money to pay people! It was my goal to make sure this money went to people of color and also to people in Iran. Not just 3-D printing the sculptures (which is pricey) but also hiring Prashast, who gave me a crazy discount, and I’m very grateful. He is brilliant, and he said, “I really like your work. I’ll just work with your budget.” But I could also pay the singers in Iran in dollars, which is a nice way of spreading this money that was coming from a politically problematic place. Remember when this thing happened with the Shed where they were saying one of the main board members was a big Trump campaign supporter?
MA: Three or four journalists emailed me asking for comments, and I didn’t answer. I had a couple of conversations with different people who were like, “Oh, well, I think withdrawing is the only way to show you’re not supporting this.” I wrote about this on Twitter a bit. I hate how trendy this notion is, that activism is only about going to protests or withdrawing from things. Obviously, I withdraw from things. I’ve said no to so many things I’m uncomfortable with or politically against.
For me, first of all: This is the first time in my whole art career of working my ass off that I’ve had access to this much money—which is still not that much money—to develop an artwork for an exhibition.
Second of all: I’m going to take half this money and pay artists of color who have contributed to the project. Especially for artists in Iran, who are suffering under sanctions, this payment actually influences their lives. But some journalists want me to say, OK, I’ll give this back—so that what happens? Using the same exact money, I can actually be very purposeful in what I do with it and how I spend it.
He’s not on the board anymore. He left, so it worked out.
I just hate the fact that some people think being loud is the only way of doing activism. Just going to a street and protesting against war. That’s legit, but it is not the only way to show that you are an activist. Often, I feel quiet activism can be really important and help bring actual change in people’s lives.
BLVR: Can you give other examples of quiet activism? I agree that we shouldn’t expect everyone to ask for change in the same way.
MA: It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. Paying people in Iran who are under sanctions. The very person that board member supports, Trump, is influencing the lives of people in Iran by creating those sanctions, and that means everything is way more expensive in Iran because of the dollar-to-toman exchange. Someone living in a small town in Iran can use that money in their lives, as opposed to me getting twenty articles in Artnews announcing, “This artist withdrew.”
I didn’t answer any of the emails these journalists sent me, because I didn’t want my decision to be motivated by people who needed clicks on an article. If I withdraw, who’s going to get this money? Somebody who doesn’t care and is going to spend the money who knows how? The money’s not going to the same places I want it to go to.
When you’re young and when you’re a person of color and when you’re an activist, people constantly expect you to be on the front line of everything. Much of this project is about my mom. I said, “I want to use part of this to pay off your car.” Obviously she didn’t expect me to do that, but it is hard for her to pay it off—because of the sanctions, her savings mean nothing now. She still works, but she could use that support.
She’s so cute. When the last letter came from her that showed that her car loan was paid off, she sent me a text with a picture of it. If it wasn’t for sanctions, she would have an income from twenty-eight years of working in Iran. Because that exchange means literally nothing now, it’s so much harder for her to have a sustainable life. That’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about, that I really want to write about one day.