Pattern Recognition: From Tracing Figures in Sand to Devising Other Futures

For the Web Residencies by Solitude on the topic »Post Doom« artist Shirin Fahimi takes visitors on a divinatory journey. Her augmented reality project Umm Al-Raml, Sand Narratives brings to life the fictional persona of Umm al-Raml. The mother of sand challenges the lack of female prophecy within Islamic literature and addresses divinators’ denunciation within contemporary Iranian society. Read an interview with the artist.

A conversation between Shirin Fahimi and Mara-Johanna Kölmel — Feb 24, 2021

Web Resident Interview Shirin Fahimi

Umm al Raml Sand Narratives, screenshot, 3D obj, 2021.

Mara-Johanna Kölmel: Umm-al-Raml, the mother of sand, is a fictional persona that you have been developing through different iterations and performative collaborations. She represents a female prophet but also one of the many female forces that have been erased throughout history. How did this powerful figure come into being and start to pollinate your work?

Shirin Fahimi: Back in 2017 when I first began my research on ilm al-raml (science of sand) divination, for the Tarigh-o-Shekl project, I was intrigued by the amount of speculation and ambiguity regarding the origin of this divination. I found several different yet similar stories of its origin. They all shared a character of a male prophet who lost his way, therefore God sent the angel Gabriel to teach each of them the knowledge of ilm al-raml so they could find their paths.

»Gabriel appeared to him in the shape of a man, drew lines in the sand and said to him: You are a prophet; but you hide your gift of prophecy out of fear of your fellow men.«1

Web Resident Interview Shirin Fahimi

Tarigh-o-Shekl, screenshot. 7:15 min, Montreal, Canada, 2018. »There was a prophet who wrote and the revelation came to her while she was writing«

While making the Tarigh-o-Shekl video and looking at my hand on the sand narrating the origin of Raml, I realized the lack of reference to female spiritualism and prophecy in those literatures. Therefore I decided to reimagine it from the perspective of a female rammal (geomancer). A female rammal who lives in oblivion and emerges through the persona of Umm-al-Raml.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Pattern Recognition: From Tracing Figures in Sand to Devising Other Futures

Umm al Raml figure, edited scanned image of the book Tarigh al-raml keshvari, Author: Arsalan Keshvari, 2021. Umm-al-Raml means »mother of sand« in Arabic, and is the name of one of the sixteen figures in this divination, which contains eight dots (or four lines), and stands as the guardian of the Raml.

Mara-Johanna Kölmel: How does this figure link to your biography, growing up in Iran?

Shirin Fahimi: When I was in elementary school, I was mesmerized by the prophets’ stories, especially the prophet Solomon, who speaks with animals and genies. I was always trying to imagine the very moment that a prophet received a revelation from God. I thought if I try to be a very good Muslim, God will eventually talk to me as well, and I could see the invisible realm and bring changes to the universe with my intentions. On the other hand I was afraid of that very moment of revelation; a moment that I imagined as a rupture to reality. Sort of naively or in my imagination, I understood back then that the revelation could happen to anyone, regardless of their gender. However, when I got older, I realized that my grandmother had a certain way of praising my brother and described him as »you are such a prophet,« while I was never called as such. It was only recently that I realized many mothers admired their sons and grandsons by describing them as being as pure as a prophet, but this did not apply to their daughters.

In my research I found some theories that suggest a distinction between being a nabī (prophet) and being a rasūl (messenger) in Islamic literature. While the position of a nabī, who receives revelation in the dream, is not exclusive to men (a prophet’s mother could be a nabi), being a rasūl mainly refers to prophets with books, who have the responsibility to get involved with the people as a political leader, which are mainly men. So in this context no women have been historically associated with being a rasūl.2

Additionally Fatima Mernissi, in The Forgotten Queens of Islam, highlights that although there were so many restrictions against women’s visibility in the political arena, many women still found ways to practice political power. The reason why »no women has ever borne the title of caliph or imam in the current meaning of the word«3 could be found in the lack of spiritual validation for women in the political system.

All these inspired me to begin a research inquiry on what gaps exist between earthly leadership, in a sense of political power, and spiritual leadership in a sense prophecy. How are these two aspects connected in the Islamic societies historically and in the contemporary sense? Have women always been excluded from spiritual leadership? Having so many women practicing high levels of spiritualism, what makes them being excluded from the archives? Is the female prophecy possible in the Islamic culture? And what does this possibility mean? And what changes does it bring with itself?

For the purpose of my current project Umm al Raml Sand Narratives, I will be experimenting with the augmented reality (AR) platform for this web residency. I would like to make Umm al Raml and her divination appear on the viewers’ devices, in their living rooms, or depending where they place the target image in order to activate the AR.

Web Resident Interview Shirin Fahimi

Umm al Raml Sand Narratives: First story, screenshots, augmented reality, 2021. Effect preview link (Open this link on a mobile device to see the effect): https://www.instagram.com/ar/827896201094826/

Web Resident Interview Shirin Fahimi

Umm al Raml Sand Narratives: First story, screenshot, 3D obj with audio, 2021. Effect preview link (Open this link on a mobile device to see the effect): https://www.instagram.com/ar/827896201094826/

Mara-Johanna Kölmel: You have mastered ramali – a centuries-old method of divination that is still practiced in Iran. Could you tell us more about this form of divination and how it informs your practice?

Shirin Fahimi: Before starting my research on ilm al-raml, I only knew the common usage of the term rammal in Iran, as a derogatory term referring to a charlatan who pretends to know different types of divination or magic, whether tarot reading or making talismans. Only after encountering a page of an old manuscript Hidayat al Raml (»Instructions on Sand Divination«) I began to learn about the ilm al-raml as a science known as geomancy in English, and its historical context.

Web Resident Interview Shirin Fahimi

Hidayat-al-raml (»Instructions on Sand [Divination]«) by Hidayat Allah, India or Iran, 1209 AH/ 1794, colored inks and gold on paper. Wellcome Library, London.

Still if I explain to my family members that my art project is about ramali, they will look at me in shock. I have been asked many times how this is related to art. Is this even art? Do you believe in these sorts of superstitions? Does it work?

I also have been warned to not practice ramali by a shopkeeper in the Tajrish bazaar in northern Tehran, who sold me dice and a disk of Raml. He told me that I might open doors that are not supposed to be opened, and I should be careful about this.

Web Resident Interview Shirin Fahimi

Geomancy Book at Tajrish Baazar, courtesy of the artist, Tehran. Iran, 2018.

The contrast between the common usage of the term rammal in contemporary Iran with its negative association as a deceitful persona, to its glorious depiction in old manuscripts from Islamic golden age (the eighth to fourteenth century) was very intriguing. Alireza Doostdar, in his book The Iranian Metaphysicals, narrates this blurring line between permissible and forbidden aspects of practicing ramali in Iran. Furthermore, Doostdar emphasizes how this denunciation of rammals in contemporary Iran is mostly gender bias, women who practice occult sciences are publicly seen as »naïve, ignorant, or uneducated« and therefore more prone to believe in superstitious.4

I don’t consider myself a rammal, since my knowledge and resources are still very limited. But I am inspired by the logic and technology of casting ilm al-raml divination as well as the historical and social aspect of it. Ibn khaldun, describes the attributes of the real rammal as:

»People who suffer departure from their natural conditions, they yawn and stretch, show symptoms of remoteness from sensual perception … Those in whom this sign is not found have nothing to do with supernatural perception.«5

In my recent projects I utilized the ilm al-raml method of casting the shapes and placing them on each house. And with the help of a few of my books, I assign them a time and material (one of the four elements). The hardest part of this divination is the process of interpreting each figure in relation to each house in order to bring clarity to the question or intention that is set during the process of casting the divination.

Web Resident Interview Shirin Fahimi

Umm al Raml Sand Narratives: Full moon raml, screenshot, animated 3D obj, 2021. Effect preview link (Open this link on a mobile device to see the effect) https://www.instagram.com/ar/1294703130903356/

In Tarigh-o-Shekl, I used ilm al-raml methodology to reread the map and create an alternative map of the city. And for my current project in Umm-al-Raml, Sand Narratives, I cast the raml as a method of navigation, with the question, where are the female prophets? And I will interpret the figures collaboratively with my mother and combine them with a sort of autoethnographic approach, personal experiences and anecdotes to create the narration.

Mara-Johanna Kölmel: I find it very compelling how you use ramali as a tool to navigate the colonial, racist, and discriminatory matrix inscribed into digital technology. At the same time, your contribution to this web residency works with Facebook’s new augmented reality Spark, which makes me wonder: can »the master’s tool« really dismantle »the master’s house« to use Audre Lord’s words? If so, how?6

Shirin Fahimi: 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 in the digital landscape. I remember that at the beginning of my digital experimentation for creating the avatar of Umm-al-Raml figure, I tried to use the available 3D characters that are mostly used for gaming industries. But no matter how much modification I made to those models, none of them could look like Umm-al-Raml, and therefore I decided to take a 3D scan of my own body and give birth to it in the digital environment. So 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.

Web Resident Interview Shirin Fahimi

Umm al Raml Sand Narratives: First story, screenshots, augmented reality, 2021. Effect preview link (Open this link on a mobile device to see the effect): https://www.instagram.com/ar/827896201094826/

I hope that eventually this avatar can have a digital life of its own. In my future work, by merging the ilm al-raml’s pattern recognition methodology with the digital data-driven environment, I aim to experiment and imagine what digital space would look like and mean to us if it was built on ilm al-raml.

The process of making and learning how to use certain applications with XR technologies during the pandemic became slower for me. Not having access to faster computers or necessary equipment to achieve a certain quality of the work, I decided to find other, more accessible platforms. Using Facebook’s Spark AR application was easy to use and share with the public, but with certain policy limitations. To use this application one needs a Facebook account, which I did not have, and making an account for Umm-al-Raml was not an easy task since Facebook did not recognize her name as a real character, and I had to come up with different solutions.

Web Resident Interview Shirin Fahimi

Umm al Raml Sand Narratives: Face mask, screenshot, animated 3D obj, 2021.

Going back to your question that can »the master tool« really dismantle »the master’s house« made me think that in an environment where our digital presence is swallowed by giant companies such as Facebook, the ability to create a completely new platform and space might be challenging. However consequences of a rupture in their pre-established and amplified structure is the question I still struggle to unfold. This fractured usage of Facebook Spark also acts as a mediatory in my project, since the augmented reality in this project always refers to a reference point outside of the screen and placed within the physical space of the viewer. As Marlene NourbeSe Philip beautifully put it: »Often the hairline fracture is all we can do, while hoping that down the road somewhere, with enough such fractures, the structures will collapse.«7

Mara-Johanna Kölmel: This also makes me think of Three Thousand Years of Algorithmic Rituals: The Emergence of the AI from the Computation of Space, a text that you pointed out to me. Matteo Pasquinelli suggests that the ancient mathematical structures underpinning ritualistic practices of divination help us to understand an algorithm as an »emergent form« throughout history rather than a »technological a priori.«8As such one can argue that the digital space is deeply informed by nonwestern thought. This problematic appropriation of nonwestern knowledge by dominant forces is a central topic of your practice. Could you elaborate on this?

Shirin Fahimi: Through my research I learned that ilm al-raml, the science of sand, was considered as 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 which have been dismissed as irrational or superstitious in the contemporary era. Like some other divinatory methods, ilm al-raml is based on binary codes, one and zero configurations, in which it systematically defines and divides space, time and material. I immediately became interested in the link between the digital technology methods of prediction versus the ilm al-raml divination. How would our understanding of time, space, and material differ in the digital environment if we use ilm al-raml as technology?

Yuk Hui noted that in order to challenge global technological hegemony, one needs to start looking, with some imagination, for new forms of practice. Reviving the traditional methods of divination might be a starting point, but it won’t be enough to merely change the narration from Prometheanism to ilm al-raml. It is not only the narrations that need to be challenged, but also the technical reality itself through practice and material.9

Web Resident Interview Shirin Fahimi

Umm al Raml Sand Narratives: Full moon raml, screenshot, animated 3D obj, 2021. Effect preview link (Open this link on a mobile device to see the effect) https://www.instagram.com/ar/1294703130903356/

Mara-Johanna Kölmel: There is this poetic performance Breaching Towards Other Futures, which you did with your collaborator Morehshin Allahyari. I feel that this active gesture of breaching in the sense of violating, breaking through a given status quo and pulling down barriers of ignorance also informs your web residency contribution. How do you link this act of breaching to the residency call on Post-Doom?

Shirin Fahimi: In the Breaching Towards Other Futures lecture-performance series, in collaboration with Morehshin Allahyari, I cast the divination with the question of the borders; and trying to see the future of the borders, in reference to the Muslim Ban. Morehshin and I started to interpret the Raml together and integrate it in the performance narration.

In February 2020, on my way to San Francisco to perform with Morehshin at CounterPulse, I got rejected at the border after hours of being kept at the second security and interrogation station with an officer. Although I could not be physically present there, I participated via video call from Toronto.10 This was the fourth time that we performed, and this time while performing it from a distance, I felt through my whole body every door that we cast back in 2018. I felt I already lived in them back then.11

Tenth Door–The House of Mother

Time: Present Wind
Her Movement is limited
Her access is denied.

In the Post-Doom call, Johanna Hedva asks: »What happens when we think of doom as a beginning, rather than an end?« This challenge of the linear temporality resonates with the ilm al-raml divination, one can move from one door to another, from one temporality to another, present, future, past, present.

Depending on the shapes created for each door any of the doors can carry a catastrophe or a light, I do not know what is out there, but we will open them together in Umm-al-Raml Sand Narratives.

Web Resident Interview Shirin Fahimi

Umm al Raml Sand Narratives: First house, the house of intention, screenshot, animated 3D obj with audio, 2021. Effect preview link (Open this link on a mobile device to see the effect) https://www.instagram.com/ar/1348104288890245/

Web Resident Interview Shirin Fahimi

Barcode for umm.al.raml account, where you can find the augmented reality effects.

  1. Stephen Skinner: Terrestrial Astrology, Divination by Geomancy. Milton Park 1980.

  2. For further readings see M. Zakyi Ibrahim: »Ibn Ḥazm’s theory of prophecy of women: Literalism, logic, and perfection,« in: Intellectual Discourse, Vol. 23, no. 1, 2015, pp. 75–100.

  3. Fatima Mernissi: The Forgotten Queens of Islam. Trans. Mary Jo Lakeland. Minneapolis 1993.

  4. Alireza Doostdar: The Iranian Metaphysicals, Explorations in Since, Islam, and the Uncanny. Princeton 2018.

  5. Ibn Khaldûn: The Muqaddimah, An Introduction to History. Trans. by Franz Rosenthal, Princeton 1967.

  6. Audre Lorde, »The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,« (1984) in: Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Berkeley 2007, pp. 110–114.

  7. Marlene NourbeSe Philip: Frontiers: Selected Essays and Wrtings on Racism and Culture. Toronto 1992, p.176.

  8. Matteo Pasquinelli: »Three Thousand Years of Algorithmic Rituals: The Emergence of AI from the Computation of Space« in: e-flux Journal, June 2019. Available online at: https://www.e-flux.com/journal/101/273221/three-thousand-years-of-algorithmic-rituals-the-emergence-of-ai-from-the-computation-of-space/ (accessed February 18, 2021).

  9. Yuk Hui: The Question Concerning Technology In China, An Essay in Cosmotechnics. Cambridge, MA, 2016.

  10. An Important Update on Breaching Towards Other Futures« in: Southern Exposures. Available online at https://soex.org/news/2020/02/06/important-update-breaching-towards-other-futures (accessed February 18, 2021).

  11. »Breaching Towards Other Futures« performance in collaboration with Morehshin Allahyari, part of Where Do You Want Ghosts to Reside? Curated by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Azin Seraj, at CounterPulse, San Francisco. Available online at: https://vimeo.com/394580178 (accessed February 18, 2021).

Shirin Fahimi

As an Iranian-Canadian artist, Shirin Fahimi explores the impact of the occult sciences and mysticism in empowering the female presence in the political and spiritual domains. Her study is informed by the mysticism literature and magic from Islamic culture in Iranian society. Since 2016, she has developed her practice into a body of works, primarily video installations and performance, presented at critically recognized art institutions such as Savvy Contemporary, Counter Pulse, and The Rubin Museum of Art.

Mara-Johanna Kölmel

Find more contributions in the archive