Regina, SaskatchewanMacKenzie Gallery
May 24 – August 25, 2019
Radical empathy has emerged as a strategy to reorient a culture of systemic disaffection created by the alienation of capitalism. In general, radical empathy means primacing the experience of other people, other animals, other organisms and plants, internalizing the interplay of complex biological systems in order to place the self within a complex array of dependencies. Morehshin Allahyari’s exhibition, She Who Sees the Unknown in Regina, Saskatchewan at The MacKenzie Gallery showcased a different kind of radical empathy, one that empathizes with the marginalized and urges a usurpation of the forces that dissimilate to, as Allahyari says, “colonize the colonizers.”
She Who Sees the Unknown includes three of Allahyari’s jinns: Aisha Qandisha (2018), Huma (2017), and The Laughing Snake (2018). The MacKenzie is a collecting museum with around 4,000 works in the provincial capital of the Canadian prairies and a new mission to bolster their indigenous collection (800 works), present new and challenging work to their public, and develop a narrative of cultural engagement that reflects Canada’s diverse population. To move towards these ambitious goals, they tapped John G. Hampton, former resident of Regina, Chickasaw Nation member, and up-and-coming curator to become the McKenzie’s first Director of Programs. It makes sense then to turn to Allahyari, an Iranian artist who resides in the United States, whose work refigures power relations, reactivates archives, and shifts expectations of what new media work can do.
Jinns, popularized in the West as genies, are something like spirits or naiades, causation for maladies or inspiration for gladness, conditions of the environment. Their lore has survived monotheism and their analog in English is hard to pin down, but something close to the cause of a cause, like the hunger that drives the mosquito to bite.
She Who Sees the Unknown opens with a small library of texts, Reading Room (2016-ongoing), a practice of critical contextualization that began in 2016 with the first iteration of She Who Sees the Unknown at Transfer Gallery’s former space in Brooklyn. Donna Haraway’s Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with the trouble sits next to Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia, resting on top of Rammali (The Science of Geomancy). These contextualizations allow for deep engagements with the conceptual underpinnings of the work, or, at least, the titles serve as invocations to frame the work to come: Cyborgs or Goddesses? / Power and Protection / Madness and Civilization / Speaking of Us / The Monstrous Goddess.
Entering the gallery, Aisha Qandisha stands on a plinth in a reflecting pool, in the glory of expectant adoration, arms out, welcoming in to a yonic yawn between wide hips and falling hair that flows down to camelid feet. Allahyari once told me her grandmother would tell her stories of encountering jinns in the bathhouse, “they like it where it’s warm and moist, dark.” There’s an aspect to jinns that remind me of the microbial world, an unseen vastness that is constantly working around us, farming the world to produce the raw nutrients of life.
The gallery is dark except for a spot light on the idolized jinn created out of white resin, and a projection behind that shows renderings of Aisha Qandisha standing on modeled wavelets that then reflect off a shallow pool on the floor. She is the entry point, a Morrocan jinn of the water who plays a role akin to the siren of Greek mythology, luring men into the abyss. Here, Aisha is used to tell the story of a romance left behind, a relationship gone awry, where the man is left wounded, open, and grasping at the connection that once filled the lacuna in the boundary of the self. There is power in that, Allahyari intimates, a power without regret or remorse at the strength of a bond removed. The words “you are in the past and I am heading into in the future” cross the screen.
Across the gallery, Huma squats in adlocutio, her right hand open palm forward, the other grasping at the air. Her three feline heads look forward and to the sides and a twin tail with bovine heads arcs out from under a skirt. The 3D-printed icon in polished black resin sits atop a translucent plexiglass cube plinth, an alter. Three talismans inscribed on clear resin tablets hang in front of a black wall: Invocation, Fevered Skin, Madness. To the right a bench sits in front of a large projection of Huma, the words “She, Huma, who shatters the unjust subject,” begin the video that most clearly makes the case for Allahyari’s usurpational empathy. Usurp, to illegally take power, is the correct term as the legal system maintains a system of unjust relationships, reifies positions of stolen ownership, has become a tool for the powerful wielded against the poor and powerless. So yes, to “shatter the unjust subject” will be an illegal act.
Huma causes fever and eventually madness, she is heat, bubbling up from within, she is the fire that cooks to nourish and burn the soul. Allahyari connects this jinn to climate change, to the madness of our current position. As I sat watching the projection, a slow rumble built below the bench, bass fluctuating out like the gurgles of a roiling pot. “She is a monster, and should be,” says the artist. Power is frightening, and should be. Power should not be wielded lightly but it must be to re-figure an unjust world. If Huma tells us that we must become comfortable having power in order to decolonize ourselves, then the final jinn in the exhibition develops a strategy for confronting the monstrous centers of power.
The Laughing Snake spirals out in space, her grinning face looking back over her smooth, coiled body styled after a representation of the jinn found in The Book of Wonders, an illuminated manuscript from 1582. Based on the fable of a monstrous creature, a serpentine mass, who terrorizes towns, swallowing cattle and people, impossible to kill until a hermit shows a mirror to the creature. The Laughing Snake hangs suspended in a dark, mirrored room, trapped, laughing and laughing until she self-destructs. A screen on the right tells a story of Allahyari’s experience growing up in a female-designated body in Iran, stories of coercion, abuse, and moral enculturation. The Laughing Snake, a project that Allahyari first debuted on the Whitney Museum’s digital platform, Artport, as an interactive hypertext fable, is spoken of by the artist as a reach for agency in the moment of self-destruction.
The cultural bounds that determine and subjugate the individual, the invisible powers of the human system within which we live, are coiled and byzantine, seemingly impossible to defeat. They reside within ourselves as well. When anger and malice show no effect, are met with escalation, laughter can loosen the coil, can strip the reifying structures of control to reveal the agency latent in the ascription of meaning.