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Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Art Beyond Aesthetics—the Vision of Morehshin Allahyari

by Peppa, Research Fellow, New York

At times, our imagined future pulses with memories, stories, and the histories of our country. In this fruitful place between past, present, and future, Iranian-born artist, writer, and educator Morehshin Allahyari, situates her work. As a self-proclaimed “private investigator,” Allahyari says she has always sought to document stories. From a young age in Iran, she was active in the youth creative writing scene. As an adolescent, writing became Allahyari’s first artistic medium. After she lost her grandmother, who had lived with her family her entire life, she was driven by a mission to share her grandmother’s story. She recognized the significance of her grandmother’s life and wanted to tell her story in her grandmother’s voice as a woman from Kurdistan. So, Allahyari embarked on a journey to find out everything she could about her grandmother. She recounts going to her grandmother’s village with tape recorders and cassette tapes to conduct interviews with her grandmother’s community and family members, and by the time Allahyari was 15, she had turned this project into a nearly 400-page book. By the time she turned 16, the book was published. This experience launched Allahyari’s drive and intention to document and protect stories, and reclaim narratives. Today, her work is centered by a research practice that is integral to everything she does.

Allahyari came to the United States at the age of 23 after receiving her bachelor’s in Social Science and Media Theory at Tehran University. She went on to receive not one, but two master’s degrees from US institutions: one from the University of Denver in Digital Media Studies, and another in New Media Art from the University of North Texas. While Allahyari explores a vast array of mediums including video, sculpture, writing, 3D simulation, and digital fabrication, she says she “thinks about art beyond aesthetics.” Instead Allahyari explores the relationship of complex topics through time, finding ways to preserve the past and offer possibilities for our future. “Storytelling is really where I find the power of artmaking,” she says. “It’s when you can take personal stories or you use the power of myth-building to then create other worlds,” she adds.

Allahyari says that her work is also driven by a passion to join technology and history to create new narratives. Her digital and sculptural works include alluring, and at times familiar, forms, which sit, float, and rotate in physical and virtual space. Describing her process, she says, “I’m not one of those artists who can just pop out work every two months. That’s just not how I engage with art practice. I really like to spend time and go really deep into a work, and really build a relationship with a project. When I’m really nerding out on a project, it will just ooze into my dreams.”

Both Allahyari’s experience of growing up in Iran and living in the diaspora are woven into her art. Allayari’s move from Iran to the U.S. was highly impactful. She recounts feeling a sense of exile from her home. “This move forced me to grow up quickly,” she says. As she developed her art in the context of the U.S., and considered the possibilities of her return to Iran, she also faced the very real possibility that her work would be met with censorship. She says she started to make art about political and social issues in private. “The more I censored myself, the more exiled I felt,” she explains. The time came when Allahyari made the decision to no longer censor herself and her art, and thus began pushing boundaries politically and culturally. It was and still remains an emotionally difficult choice. “That truly never-ending pain that I feel about not being able to go back, or being scared to go back to Iran at this moment, contributes a lot to the ways that I live my life, the day to day relationship to different lands and spaces that I have moved around to, as well as the art that I make,” she says. She has not returned to Iran in twelve years.

To build a world, Allahyari says technology plays a crucial role, and helps her to respond to social, political, and cultural issues. Allahyari emphasizes the urgency for us to consider technology critically. At the center of her concerns is a consideration of power, and about who controls narratives. Her questions are important and difficult: “How do we engage with technology? What would happen if you used a 3D printer to archive or document a history or an event? When there is a new technology and it is controlled by dominant powers, we witness new waves of imperialism and colonization. What happens when these tech tools, like 3D scanners, start being used by big tech companies?”

Morehshin Allahyari, Material Speculation: ISIS, Lamassu, 2015, 3D-printed resin with embedded portable data-storage device, image courtesy of the artist.

These questions and concerns came to the forefront of her work when she started more deeply investigating the uses of 3D printing and digital fabrication. In her lecture-performance piece Digital Colonialism (2016-2019), she investigates the adoption of the 3D printer and scanner by Western powers doing projects in the Middle East. She explains that while this technology has existed for the past thirty years, the function of the 3D scanner has shifted in the last ten years. Today Western-based companies, especially tech companies, have initiated projects in South West Asia to scan artifacts, in the name of preserving what has been destroyed. Allahyari recognizes that this is an extension of a history we know all too well. She offers this example, “It’s very similar to when you think about colonization in an object at a museum. You know when you walk into a museum, at the MET or the British Museum, and you see a huge gate or artifact there from somewhere around the world that you know was probably stolen or somehow taken in a conflict situation? You can see the history of colonization when it comes to physical historical objects,” she adds. Allahyari raises concerns that continue in the process of scanning collections—”there are a lot of issues that come with this kind of practice, meaning that there’s questions of access, there’s questions of ownership, copyright ownership.” Allahyari, however, is interested in what happens post-3D scanning. “What happens after a Western tech company goes and 3D scans an artifact in Iran? Where does the profit they derive from these practices end up going?” Devoted to remaining critical of her mediums, she recognizes the power of using technology, and is interested in formulating ways to “disrupt” its intended use.

Indeed Allahyari sees both the power and the gift of technology through a critical lens. She vividly remembers the experience of being blown away by a video where she saw a 3D printer in action for the first time in 2013. The excitement of seeing something digital become something physical moved her to work with this technology materially and conceptually. In her project, Dark Matter (2013), Allahyari gathered a collection of objects that are forbidden or unwelcome in Iran. She digitally arranged the objects in humorous combinations and juxtapositions; one example was a dog wearing a dildo attached to a satellite dish. These re-configured and re-contextualized items exist as 3D printed sculptures and are part of her oeuvre.

Allahyari continues to work with 3D printing as she responds to the world around her. Many of us may recall the heartbreaking video of the Islamic State shattering ancient artifacts in Mosul that went viral in 2015. In her project, Material Speculation ISIS (2015), she digitally reconstructed twelve of the destroyed artifacts and brought together artmaking, activism, poetics, history, and technology to respond to the devastating meaning of that event. While she wanted to explore the practical function and utility of 3D printer technology to recreate something that had been lost, she also went a step further. “The sculptures are 3D printed in transparent resin material and you can see memory cards and USB drives that I have inserted inside of the sculptures that contain all the research,” she explains. Each individual piece contains all of the resources she used to complete the project: the PDF files of her research, her email correspondence and communications with historians and scholars, and finally, the 3D printable files of the artifact. A nod to future generations, these pieces by Allahyari can be replicated, and exist “poetically as time capsules.”

Morehshin Allahyari, She Who Sees The Unknown: Kabous, The Right WItness, and The Left Witness, 2019, Still image from 3D animation, image courtesy of the artist.

 Allahyari refers to the term “re-figuring” as a way to relate past and future and reclaim narratives. She states the importance of “the process of looking back into the past and refiguring what was told to us as mythology… really seeing the power through re-figuration is so much of reclaiming and reimagining and seeing ourselves in other possible worlds, and building worlds with that.” The term “re-figuration” becomes quite apparent in her project She Who Sees the Unknown (2017-2021), a project in which she pursues her curiosity of unresolved and unknown topics in Iranian and Arab mythology. In this work, she is inspired by stories about jinn, the supernatural creatures from Islamic culture, traditionally feared and respected in Iran.Specifically, Allahyari digitally recreates the queer/female monstrous characters who are often portrayed negatively and are considered less than those who are male. By reclaiming and magnifying these figures, they become possibilities for disrupting colonizing and patriarchal power, and exist as agents of change to reimagine a different future. Allahyari’s extensive project joins elements of video, sculpture, and text, as well as a series of public events, and a release of an entire archive on the material she gathered in her research process.

As Allahyari re-figures and researches stories and histories, she reminds the Iranian diaspora and perhaps diaspora subjects in general, of the importance of what is passed on generationally, how we hold our past, and shape our future. And just as generously and passionately as she spoke about her own work, Allahyari conveyed a beautiful message for future artists: “Always make your own formula. To me, it’s always been about being a fish, you know, that swims in a direction in which I want to swim. I feel if we could teach that concept to younger kids, rather than telling them that they have to go to this school, have this type of studio practice, email this many curators—all the things that you’re told to become a successful artist. It’s the most powerful when you make your own way. And stay curious,” she adds.

Allahyari’s next project, a speculative documentary, is called, The Remaining Signs of Future Centuries. You can learn more about her work, by going to her website:

Cover Image: Portrait of Morehshin Allahyari, Brooklyn New York, Photo by Emily Andrews, 2021.

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