Recovering Myths: Randa Mirza’s “El-Zohra Was Not Born in a Day”

March’s Artforum just landed and it contains the essay “Mounting Resistance” by Nasser Rabbat about new art in Beirut. One of the two solo shows in the Lebanese capital that Rabbat discusses in Randa Mirza’s “El-Zohra Was Not Born in a Day”. The exhibition comprises a series of dioramas that focus on the pre-Islamic myths of the Arabic world. As Rabbat writes, the El-Zohra of the title:

is none other thant the Arabic version of the Roman goddess Venus, also known as Ishtar of Mesopotamia and Aphrodite of the Greeks. Her story is obliquely alluded to in Qur’an 2: 102 and elaborated on in Islamic apocrypha, although many contemporary commentators, displaying less flexibility than their medieval counterparts, deny the reference to el-Zohra and brand the whole interpretation un-Islamic.

In another work called “The Gods of Noah”, Mirza brings together ancient Near-Eastern figurines of a man, a woman, a horse, a bird and a lion, as if to suggest that the myth of Noah, who appears as an important prophet in the Qur’an, is a compilation of more ancient models of the interactions between humans and animals. Both for the figure of el-Zohra and for Noah, Mirza has not only offered her own critique of the suppression of the pre-Islamic period by Islam in general, but also, and more pointedly, the destruction of pre-Islamic Near-eastern art by IS as itself an absolute and devastating destruction of the mythic roots of Islam itself.

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