Zoba’ah (زوبعة): The Whirlwind, 2022
How can we participate in creating the world we want to see and live in? To download artist Morehshin Allahyari’s sculpture Zoba’ah (زوبعة): The Whirlwind you have to agree to a set of ‘terms and conditions’ written by the artist and answer how you will take small actions to change the world in the bigger picture. In this way, you summon Zoba’ah (زوبعة), a creature from the Islamic world, who always brings about sudden change.
Based on drawings of the jinn Zoba’ah (زوبعة) from the 14th and 16th centuries, the Iranian-born artist Morehshin Allahyari has 3D modeled the sculpture Zoba’ah (زوبعة): The Whirlwind for the Museum of Contemporary Art’s virtual collection. In pre-Islamic and Islamic theology, a jinn is an intelligent spirit known as a shape-shifter created from smokeless fire, who exists in a parallel world. Along with humans and angels, the jinn are one of Allah’s three sentient creatures. Nevertheless, in contrast to angels who exclusively obey, jinn have their own will and agency. They are both good and evil, and show up when catastrophic situations appear to humans.
Zoba’ah ( زوبعة ), illustration from Metaliʿü's-saʿadet ve-yenabiʿü's Siyadet by Abu Maʿ shar al-Balkhi and Seyyid Muhammed bin Emir Hasan el-Saudî, 1586 (publication of the original book: 9th century)
Zoba’ah ( زوبعة ), illustration from Kitab Albulhan and The Book of Felicity by Abu Maʿ shar al-Balkhi, 1436 (publication of the original book: 9th century)
To download the figure, visitors to the exhibition must agree to terms and conditions that oblige them to commit to a series of micro actions in the world. Subsequently, the visitors’ responses can be read together on the Archive section of the website, and in this way Allahyari transforms our individual agency into a picture of the collective potential in the digital space.
As one of the most powerful jinn, Zoba’ah (زوبعة), which translates as ‘whirlwind’, brings immediate change once summoned. Meaningful change is needed, Allahyari believes, in this time of fights for justice, wars, and urgent climate disasters. Therefore, she brings Zoba’ah (زوبعة) into virtual space, which has represented a crucial public arena in recent years for transformative movements such as the current Iranian Uprising led by women under the hashtag #MahsaAmini, Arab Spring, anti-imperialist movements in Hong Kong, the EndSARS uprising in Nigeria, the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, and the Me Too movement.
A decolonial and critical gaze on our digital age
Combining activism, cultural history, and technology, Morehshin Allahyari challenges contemporary norms in her works and asks what kind of future we want to live in. In previous projects, she has used 3D printing to reconstruct ancient sculptures destroyed by ISIS and inserted data files into them to be read in the future. Likewise, the work Zoba’ah (زوبعة): The Whirlwind is a commissioned work by the museum as part of Allahyari’s long-term project She Who Sees the Unknown, for which she re-figures, 3D models, scans and prints monstrous queer figures that examine contemporary colonialism, patriarchal structures, and environmental destruction. Allahyari thus highlights and reinterprets the female or queer figures of the past and creates counterparts to the contemporary idea of the masculine hero.
Allahyari approaches the Middle East’s political events and cultural histories with an internal critical eye. Simultaneously, she is aware of not falling prey to the West’s dominant binary understanding of the Middle East. Instead, she points to the troubles of our world that are initiated from a long history of Western colonialism and so, in 2015, Allahyari coined the concept of ‘digital colonialism’, addressing how today’s digital infrastructures are often anchored in the imperial logics of the past. She specifically points out how Western archaeological institutions and private companies 3D-scan artefacts in the Middle East and Africa, after which they patent the files and control who can access them – just as Western museums in colonial times took physical artefacts back to their home countries. Consequently, as a Western museum exhibiting and collecting 3D printable works, it was an obvious choice to invite Allahyari as the second artist to the Virtual Sculptures project, to take a new critical look at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s own practices and to expand the collection’s cultural resonance.
Close-up rendering of Zoba’ah (زوبعة): The Whirlwind, 2022
Morehshin Allahyari (Persian: موره شین اللهیاری) is a New York-based Iranian-Kurdish artist using 3D simulation, video, sculpture, and digital fabrication as tools to re-figure myth and history. Through archival practices and storytelling, her work weaves together complex counter-narratives in opposition to the lasting influence of Western technological colonialism in the areas of SWANA (Southwest Asia and North Africa). Her work has been part of numerous exhibitions, festivals, and workshops at venues throughout the world, including the New Museum and MoMa (New York), Centre Pompidou (Paris), Venice Biennale di Architecture, and Museum für Angewandte Kunst (Frankfurt), among many others. She is the recipient of The United States Artist Fellowship (2021), The Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters & Sculptors Grant (2019), The Sundance Institute New Frontier International Fellowship (2019), and the Leading Global Thinkers of 2016 award by Foreign Policy magazine. Her artworks are in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Current Museum. She has been featured in The New York Times, Huffington Post, Wired, Parkett Art Magazine, Frieze, Rhizome, Hyperallergic, and on the BBC, National Public Radio and Al Jazeera, among others.
For more information about the project She Who Sees the Unknown, please visit the archive.
What can art do in the digital, public space?
Zoba’ah (زوبعة): The Whirlwind is part of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s multi-year project Virtual Sculptures, an online collection of digital sculptures that anyone can download and use. The project explores the digital and our shared online presence in it as a public space, even though it functions according to other premises, barriers, and market forces. By commissioning a series of virtual sculptures by leading contemporary artists, the museum intends to learn more about this digital world.