ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Shirin Fahimi as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Shirin Fahimi is a digital media artist based in Ontario, who was born in Iran. She investigates the colonial dichotomies of rationalism and superstition, as well as the ways in which women negotiate visibility in the political arena in Islamic societies through digital world-making. Her research is influenced by Islamic mysticism literature and magic in Iranian society and diasporic communities.
Since 2016, she has developed her practice into a body of works, multi-media installations, performances, and extended reality series based on the Islamic binary code, a method of divination called Ilm-al-Raml, known as geomancy. In her ongoing project, Umm al Raml’s Sand Narratives, she juxtaposes the spiritual journey of Iranian women practicing mysticism in Toronto with a digital landscape generated through divination that imagines the future of female prophecy. She has presented her work at critically recognized art venues including Savvy Contemporary, Berlin; Counter Pulse, San Francisco; and The Rubin Museum of Art, New York.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Shirin Fahimi: Since 2019, I have mainly worked with XR technologies such as AR and VR. I have explored different ways of storytelling within the digital landscape by merging ancient methods of divination and mysticism with new technology.
My interest in mysticism and divination goes back to my upbringing in Iran and the influences of the women around me. As a teenager, all my notebooks were covered with divination as a way to create a mental portal to access alternative ways of knowledge-making or an alternative presence outside the physical limits of school and classes.
In 2016, I came across a divination methodology, very similar to the one I used in my teenage years, called ilm al raml (geomancy). Through my research, I learned that ilm al raml, the science of sand, was considered an applied mathematical science alongside astrology, philosophy, and mathematics from the twelfth century. Hence it became important in my work to revive such sciences and ways of knowledge making that have been dismissed as irrational or superstitious in the contemporary era.
I asked myself:
What kind of knowledge do occult sciences produce?
I use divination as a methodology to navigate uncertainties and to access past, future and present possibilities. A methodology to access what is invisible or erased.
Who has access to such knowledge?
Alireza Doostdar, in his book The Iranian Metaphysicals, narrates this blurring line between permissible and forbidden aspects of practicing ramali in Iran. Doostdar emphasizes how this denunciation of rammals (those who practice divination) in contemporary Iran is mostly gendered bias; women who practice occult sciences are publicly seen as “naïve, ignorant, or uneducated” and therefore more prone to believe in superstition.
Merin Shobhana Xavier in her chapter “Gendering The Divine” mentions that “One of the challenges of studying gender and Sufism (or any religious tradition for that matter) is locating non-heteronormative voices amidst a tradition that has been penned by male teachers, scholars, leaders, and writers.”
These gendered bias show themselves in both terrestrial and celestial realms, by excluding women to carry certain titles such as being a prophet or khalifa.
It became important in my practice to interview, listen and retell stories of women and non-heteronormative voices within mysticism.
How to retell the stories?
XR technologies made it possible for me to immerse viewers in the mystical, digital world. But I still ask myself what is the presence of the viewer when they enter the VR space. How to define presence. What tools should I prepare for the viewers, and which senses should be engaged?
AE: You took part in two residencies at Banff in Alberta, Canada; the first in 2019 and the second in 2022. What projects were you working on and how did these experiences enrich and impact your practice?
SF: My first Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity residency was shortly after being introduced to Morehshin Allahyari, my now mentor and frequent collaborator.
At the time, I was already quite deep in my research of Umm-al Raml and using divination, performance and persona to explore questions such as “Where are the female prophets?” and “How do we decolonize the linear narration of time?”
Before, it had felt unimaginable to work with technology, but through my first collaboration with Allahyari, I saw myth, folklore and erased histories translated into digital space. I also saw how naturally technology, like divination, offers windows or doors into the beyond and into other futures. In Banff, experimenting with 3D scanners and 3D modeling programs such as Blender I became interested in bringing my performance persona, the divinator, into the digital realm.
While in my work I point to the invisibility of the figure of a female prophet historically and in society, I also faced an Islamophobic environment and lack of such a presence transitioning into the digital landscape. I remember that at the beginning of my digital experimentation, while creating the avatar of Umm-al-Raml figure, I tried to use the available 3D characters that are mostly used in the gaming industries. No matter how much modification I made to those models, none of them could look like Umm-al-Raml. I decided to take a 3D scan of my own body—in this sense, in order to create what has been invisible in that environment I needed to get outside of it and give birth to a new image.
During my second, and most recent, residency in Banff, my approach and my goals were quite different. The residency took place in March 2022, and it was my first time out of Ontario since the start of the pandemic. Over the past few years, I have exhibited at a number of galleries and artist-run centers across Canada and online, but what made this residency so important was the opportunity to be among peers and mentors while also having space to nurture all the possibilities for in-person interaction with my work.
I invested time exploring how to show my work in VR, considering installation components and people’s experience within physical space. I also explored the materiality of sand and silicon, elements I plan to further incorporate in my practice. I was guided, grounded, and pushed by the feedback I received from the artists a part of my cohort as well as guest faculty Yaniya Lee, Lou Sheppard and Vanessa Kwan.
Self-portrait as Umm al Raml, 2022, gif,3D scan and 3d modeling
AE: Tell us about the development of Umm al Raml and how this character has evolved across the various iterations of your work.
SF: Umm al Raml means “mother of sand” in Arabic, and is the name of one of the geomancy shapes, which contains eight dots (or four lines), and stands as the guardian of the Raml.
This persona was first performed in a collaboration with Morehshin Allahyari in the Breaching Towards Other Futures lecture-performance series at The Rubin Museum, NY, in 2018.
While Morehshin performed becoming Aisha Qandisha, “the most honored and fearsome jinn in Islam (originally from Morocco),” I created Umm al Raml: a fictional persona, a female divinator, inspired by the geomancy. We both became “the openers” in this performance, to open divination doors to time and space and reorient the audience within this lecture performance.
In my AR project with Akademie Schloss Solitude residency (2020), I used the 3D scans that I created during my residency at Banff Centre, to retell an origin story about ilm al raml divination.
I was intrigued by the varied origin stories that I have found about this divination, nevertheless, they all shared the idea that this divination was only offered to a male prophet (prophet Idris or Adam). The augmented reality series gave me space to reimagine the divination origin story through the lens of a female divinator, Umm al Raml.
Additionally, I created a series of face masks based on the divination diagrams and used them as a performative gesture in order to embody this persona.
In my recent ongoing project, Umm al Raml’s Sand Narratives, which has been exhibited at the articule artist-run centre (Montreal, 2022), I render visible the absence of female prophets within Islamic literature and the challenges of representing them. By wearing the AR mask, each became the narrator of Umm al Raml with their own stories, extending origin stories based on their own personal journeys.
This work juxtaposes the spiritual journey of four Iranian women practicing mysticism in Toronto with a virtual reality landscape generated through divination that imagines the future of female prophecy. By reviving the 7th-century Islamic method of divination, the science of sand, this project builds on narrative possibilities generated through divination. It decolonizes the linear narration of time by blurring the line between present, past and future. The viewers are invited to immerse themselves in the digital landscape through the virtual reality headset. They interact with the symbols and 3D objects to unfold the narration while exploring the digital world.
AE: How do you use archives and technology as tools to create new infrastructures of knowledge production and preservation within your work?
SF: In essence, I think about divination, in and of itself, as a form of archiving; storing knowledge, making accessible visible and invisible worlds, documenting the past, present and future. Expanding ideas around what an archive is (towards a site of flux) and what an archive can hold (beyond colonial constraints of knowledge production) is something I hope my work invites more people to think through.
For the past six years, I have been researching Ilm Al Raml and collecting interviews with those who practice mysticism, most of whom are Iranian women now living in and around Toronto. This research is its own living archive, holding the stories, dreams and prophecies of interviewees. Returning to the question of “Where are the female prophets?” these conversations become more than collecting data—retelling history with figures of women who have power in mysticism.
In bringing this body of work into the digital realm, I began using VR and its many possibilities as a means of transforming elements, such as rosaries and facebook posts, into virtual objects a part of the archive. For example, in 2021 at the Art Gallery of Guelph, I presented In the House of Fire with Avaz-e-Eshgh, layering the sound and visuals of my interview subject with her Facebook posts, audio she likes and the roses which held meaning to her journey.
In this sense, the hierarchy of the archive undoes itself. One aspect of the interview does not have more significance than another; each is a part of the work and a part of the story.
Entering a multilayered and multidimensional world that encompasses visions and dreams, through VR, the viewer is invited on a journey to, quite literally, choose their own path as they navigate this archive.
AE: What is your process for the production of your works, and how do you approach production within your practice as a whole?
SF: I have been focused on the Umm al Raml Sand Narratives project and exploring/expanding ways of storytelling within it. By using divination as the core of my project, part of the creation process becomes dependent on my initial intention while casting the divination and who interprets them afterwards.
Interviewing becomes one of the important tools that I use that creates a conversation between the divination I cast and the interpretation that each woman shared with me about it.
On the other hand, as being new to the field of virtual reality, part of my practice is constant learning and exploring the application itself. Therefore I like to create different iterations of the same project while exploring the tools that are accessible to me.
AE: What and who are some of your major creative influences, and why?
SF: My first influence and inspiration is always Morehshin Allahyari, both in her research and how she opened and shared spaces within her career. Meeting Morehshin and collaborating with her encouraged me to navigate spaces where I felt not welcomed initially because of the lack of inclusivity within digital-based art institutions. She inspired me to redefine what digital art meant to me throughout my creative process and not wait for outside validation.
From the beginning of my project, I was inspired by Black Quantum Futurism Collective when thinking about time, portals and community. Their projects inspired me to start a series of interviews with Iranian women living in the diaspora about their journey to mysticism.
Since my latest Banff residency, I kept being inspired and learning from artist Nura Ali, who I met there. You can listen to her latest podcast here. In her ongoing research about the language she thinks about the invisible systems that heighten our attention and direct our focus. She also considers how she can use language to pull those systems out of the shadows and expose them to the full light of day. She inspires me to push myself further in the intentionality of the medium that I chose to create and present work with.
I met Hiba Ali via social media and had the privilege to meet them virtually. I am very inspired by how they use technology in presenting their research and creating healing spaces within the digital spaces while asking what care means in those spaces. They inspired me to be more transparent in my work about the limitation of privacy and politics of the open source applications that I am using.
AE: What are you currently working on and do you have any shows or projects upcoming in 2022-2023?
SF: Currently, I am working on a new installation and animation for the Umm al Raml Sand Narratives project for CAFKA biennial 2023.
I am attending a residency at Ray Ferris Creative Tech Springboard (Launchpad, Toronto). As part of this residency, we will present our works at Toronto Nuit blanche 2022 on October 1st.
I recently published a book titled O Lone Traveller, in collaboration with Melika Hashemi, with contributions from Mitra Fakhrashrafi, Joyce Joumaa and Nima Esmailpour with Studio Publication Guelph. This book addresses themes of border-passing and surveillance. It includes a pair of guides: one for self-reflection and one for educators.
From August 19 to September 11, 2022, I was invited by Galerie Galerie for the Foire Papier to participate in Glaneuse, a virtual exhibition featuring the work of 11 Canadian artists.
This September, I will attend the Art and Computation Retreat organized by the German Informatics Society, the Goethe-Institut and the Weizenbaum-Institut. Within the ACR, artists and technologists meet in a fictional game scenario with live-action role-playing and interactive storytelling elements.
In November 2022, I will present my work in collaboration with Montez Press Radio for a podcast about my contribution to Pfeil Magazine’s recent issue.
The artist would like to thank Mitra Fakhrashrafi for their support in editing their responses.
SHIRIN FAHIMI ONLINE: