A sigil is a symbol believed to have supernatural powers. In Simiya, an Islamic branch of occult practice, letters and numbers are arranged into sigils in order to conjure up metaphysical powers, like the ability to fly or to disappear. Artist Maryam Taghavi has long been drawn to these sigils, and other magic-imbued symbols, ornamented forms of language whose meanings extend beyond the written form and become actions to be performed.

In her solo exhibition “A Leap Has No Return,” curated by Rohan Ayinde at Blanc Gallery, Taghavi uses these symbols to explore the visionary capabilities of “female agency,” from Simiya practitioners to the thousands of women in Iran protesting for their freedom today, spurred to action by the death of Zhina Mahsa Amini.

“[The sigils] were giving me a lot of ideas, in terms of: What happens when language is thought of as something that can be performed? When language has this sort of dimension to it?,” Taghavi says. “I’m now trying to think of talismans or sigils outside of the actual things that claim to be sigils, like Zhina’s name. How can something else that is not necessarily in that category carry that same charge?”

The exhibition is bound by a pair of talismans, one of which calls for disappearance, the other for reappearance, which are meant to be used together. One is spray painted in black directly onto the wall, its symbols and design like a pattern from the I Ching. The other, the sigil for disappearance, is cut out of a small sheet of gold acrylic and suspended from wires, creating a shadow of itself on the wall. They function as a dare to imagine the impossible, the imperceptible, which permeates all the work in the show.

The sigil for disappearance is cut to of a gold acrylic rectangle which hangs in front of the wall casting a shadow.
The sigils for disappearance and reappearance function as a dare to imagine the impossible, the imperceptible, which permeates all the work in the show.
Credit: Robert Chase Heishman 

Taghavi, who was born in Tehran, remembers such talismans from her youth; while these symbols are centuries-old, they are still in practice today. It makes sense that the artist is drawn to these rituals, she received her MFA in performance from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Conjuring these metaphysical powers requires a ritual, an action on the part of the seeker. To enact the talisman for disappearance, for example, one has to burn the symbol immediately before disappearing. 

Further into the gallery are five large-scale airbrushed paintings meant to evoke the horizon. To create them, the artist moved an inch-long diamond form horizontally across the canvas, airbrushing layers of primary colors around them as she went. The airbrushing itself is a sort of performance, it is an active, gestural art form, one that requires precision, even if the results are somewhat outside one’s control. Looking closely, the horizon lines actually explode into many different colors, greens and oranges and pinks, radiating outward from the white diamonds.

The diamond shape, noghte, is used in Arabic and Farsi calligraphy to identify certain letters and to measure the proper proportions of those letters. The width of five diamonds, for instance, might be used to specify how long the arc of a letter might be. “It’s basically giving you the measurement for proportions, and for aesthetics and perfection,” Taghavi says. Installed at an angle on their own freestanding support structures, the thin canvas paintings stand in the pathway of the sunlight that streams into the gallery from its south-facing windows, making them semi-transparent. 

Taghavi evokes the horizon, the place where the earth meets the heavens, because it is basically an imagined line that our eyes make up, she says, a “distance we cannot reach.” “I think there’s something incredibly powerful about that mode of imagination,” Taghavi says. Just like the sigils, portals for wish fulfillment, the horizon hinges between two paradigms: the physical world and the metaphysical one. “What the connection is for me, or the overlap between the horizon line and the form of a sigil, [is] that because we are able to imagine that there is an unknown and there is something that is imperceptible to us, we begin to maybe see things based on our belief system.”

The primary colors in this exhibition have a similar function, they’re a return to the basics of perceptions. Red, yellow, and blue are the three colors used to make all the other colors in the spectrum. In addition to the horizon paintings, primary colors also show up in three oversized canopies that stretch over Blanc’s outdoor patio. The temporary roofs, like the talismans, offer some protection from the elements. They also extend the gallery outdoors, setting the scene for gatherings, including a closing ceremony on May 14 wherein the artist will perform a reading alongside musicians Jean-François Charles and Ramin Roshandel.

For Taghavi, the conjuring power of the disappearance and reappearance sigils is similar to that of Iran’s Women, Life, Freedom movement, which has brought scores of people to the streets in Zhina Mahsa Amini’s name. Amini (whose name is sometimes spelled Jina) died in September 2022 while in police custody. The 22-year-old Kurdish woman was visiting Tehran with her family when she was detained by Iran’s so-called morality police for not wearing the hijab. She was brought to a detention center, where she was allegedly beaten by police, and then taken to a hospital, where she fell into a coma and later died. 

Zhina Mahsa Amini’s name is present in the exhibition on a wooden box, where it is precisely cut out allowing the viewer to see inside the vessels.
Credit: Robert Chase Heishman

Taghavi explains that in Iran, it is customary for a temporary gravestone to be installed at a person’s gravesite, later replaced by a more elaborate version. On the original version of Amini’s grave, a relative wrote a message which roughly translates to “Zhina, dear! You will not die. Your name will turn into a symbol.” Though the permanent gravestone doesn’t bear this message, it was a prophetic one, showing up on protest signs around the world. 

Zhina’s name is present in the exhibition on a wooden box, where it is precisely cut out, in Kurdish, allowing the viewer to see inside the vessels. “It was kind of this collective consensus around that her name is now a talisman,” Taghavi says. “Her name has become a code that is really firing up this movement and her death sparked the uprising and the movement.”

While the sigils may be an ancient form, their potential power, and the human desire for wish fulfillment, for magic, for imagining that which is being our perception, seems timeless. Taghavi is excited to bring these talismans into the present day and see what magic might unfold. 

“It’s one thing to spend time on sigils and talismans and reincarnate them, and then it’s another thing to step outside of them,” she says. “How is the everyday charged with these elements? I’m fascinated to bring these all in the same room and see what happens [with] these written forms that are charged with something beyond their own meaning.”

“A Leap Has No Return”
Through 5/14: Mon 1-5:30 PM, Sat noon-4 PM, Blanc Gallery, 4445 S. King, blancchicago.com, closing reception Sun 5/14; see the gallery’s social media for details.

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