Burning Glass, Reading Stone 8: Tales from the Garden of Zār


Rouzbeh Akhbari, Present: One Revolutionary, No Revolution, 2021. Courtesy the artist.

Burning Glass, Reading Stone 8: Tales from the Garden of Zār
Rouzbeh Akhbari

May 31 – June 27, 2021

Tales from the Garden of Zār is a multifaceted research project that revolves around legends of edible earth in connection to purported paranormal activities in the Strait of Hormuz. Historically, this narrow waterway played a significant role in the trade logistics of the maritime Silk Road and acted as a primary source of salt rocks and unique compounds necessary for steel production. This trade-centric geography gave rise to an early internationalism and cultural hybridity, with various actors frequenting Hormuz and exchanging oral stories.

Following Portuguese colonial campaigns, tales concerning the existence of supernatural forces inspired by the intensity of the archipelago’s climatic conditions circulated widely. Simultaneously, rumours about Hormuz’s inhabitants as lustful earth eaters were rampant, giving rise to a series of distorted phantasmagorias that offered the moral justification for violent invasions by ultra-religious European and Persian empires. In the contemporary context of espionage and accelerated multinational militarism around the strait, various accounts of paranormal sightings have given rise to new transcendental narratives that take inspiration from old colonial myths.

Originally inspired by his late grandfather Mahmoud Dehnavi’s unpublished drawings of imaginary Safavid gardens, Akhbari developed this project between Hormuz, Lisbon, and London. Consisting of a short film, a fictocritical novella, and a series digital images, Tales from the Garden of Zār probes the connection between early 17th-century anti-colonial warfare in the Persian Gulf and a multitude of approaches to temporality in political Islam.

Visit the Blackwood Gallery website for documentation, an interpretative video tour with Educator-in-Residence Laura Tibi, a response by a Reader-in-Residence, and more to be released throughout the series.

Reader-in-Residence Program

Across the eight-part lightbox series Burning Glass, Reading Stone, the Blackwood Gallery activates a Reader-in-Residence program that brings readers into dialogue with each image set. This month, the Blackwood is pleased to welcome curator, architect, and researcher Bruno Alves de Almeida into dialogue with Tales from the Garden of Zār.

Adapting the familiar artist’s residency format to one that focuses on practices of reading—reading an exhibition, reading a text, reading as interpretation—each Reader-in-Residence will respond to a series of works presented in the Blackwood’s lightboxes. For each four-week image set, a Reader responds to the series in the form of a reading, set of images, performance-for-the-camera, score, or other experimental interpretative form (distributed via the Blackwood’s website). Bridging local and international respondents, including artists, poets, humanities scholars, and scientists, the Reader-in-Residence program creates a network of sustained engagement with Burning Glass, Reading Stone, and encourages the development of new dialogic and interpretive possibilities in a time of quarantine.

About Burning Glass, Reading Stone

Part of an eight-part lightbox series
Collectively curated by current and recent Blackwood Gallery staff
September 8, 2020–June 27, 2021


Oscar Santillán, process image of lens from Solaris, 2017.

Activating four outdoor lightboxes in public space on the University of Toronto Mississauga campus throughout the 2020-2021 academic year, Burning Glass, Reading Stone explores the conditions, technologies, and spaces of spectatorship that mediate our engagements with the world—physical and virtual. The lightbox program features eight sets of images: each provides a distinct testimony borne of a particular mode of observation or narration.

Distributed across a University campus still navigating social distancing protections necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the lightbox series responds to COVID-19 as a rupture that brings both public space and digital media under examination. What habits of looking has social distancing concretized? What wakefulness to the already existing inequities and gaps produced in our mediated environment is required? What responsibilities do images ask of us? What responsibilities do they occlude? How can various regimes of looking (scientific, testimonial, documentary, intimate, science-fictional) refocus collective attention?

The Blackwood Gallery gratefully acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the University of Toronto Mississauga. We would also like to acknowledge the support of the University of Toronto affinity partners: Manulife, MBNA, and TD Insurance. Lightbox infrastructure is supported by the UTM50 Anniversary Fund, established to showcase the innovative, collaborative spirit of UTM.


The Blackwood
University of Toronto Mississauga
3359 Mississauga Rd.
Mississauga, ON L5L 1C6

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Please note: The Blackwood’s gallery spaces are currently closed to the public. Burning Glass, Reading Stone is FREE and open to the public, and accessible 24 hours a day in four outdoor lightboxes across the University of Toronto Mississauga Campus. Some movement throughout the campus is required—ramps and curb cuts are in place across the University premises.

Please respect social distancing protocols while on campus.

Image descriptions:
1) Laid upon an over-exposed image of a horizon line in the strait of Hormuz are eight miniature illustrations each depicting a scene and inscription from the 17th century manuscript Jarunnameh (or Jangnameh-e-Kish).
2) A circular image appears in the middle of a black background. In it, an out-of-focus desert scene appears upside-down. The handmade quality of the lens producing this image is readily visible, with many streaks and imperfections on its surface.