Student Work: Zahra Jewanjee's Research around Binaries and Dualities


Zahra Jewanjee

How can we navigate the idea of binaries and dualities that connects us to nature and social constructs?

That’s one of many questions that guides Zahra Jewanjee [MFA 19 PT] and her creative work at RISD. Whether it’s through a painting, a chair, or a code, she grapples with trying to understand and visually communicate our “relationship with the sublime, the known and the unknown,” and how these binary systems in which we place ourselves cause us to create our differences and divisions on multiple scales.

Looking to nature for answers, Zahra began researching the similarities and differences between humans and microbial communities in fall 2017. With guidance from Jennifer Bissonnette, Biological Programs Designer at the Nature Lab, Zahra collected swab samples from the forearms of people who spend a lot of time in close proximity to one another (i.e. roommates, co-workers, couples).


Through extensive observational periods using the Lab’s Olympus SZX16 Research Grade Stereomicroscope, she documented how the microbes evolved over time. She wanted to note if and how divisions occur outside of the human construct—if it is, one might say, natural to colonize into groups and create separations at the microscopic level.

Micro Colonies (Public bench bacteria). Taken with Olympus IX51 Inverted Microscope in 2017

Zahra also uses other methods to tackle her questions about the human psyche and societal constructs. For example, by lining up parts of a deconstructed chair in an elongated plexiglass box, she wants her viewers to get a sense of how optics influence the way we see things; how the sculpture she made breaks down for us the way our vision changes when engaging with the piece. From this perspective, she asks: can the chair represent the psyche of the brain—how we understand, behave, and live in social structures?

In-between Earth and Cosmos. Materials: perspex, wood, acrylic paint. 2018

These and more questions continue to formulate for Zahra as she moves through her artistic and scientific research, expressing the mysteries through paintings and other media. Her complex discoveries come through in her layered creative process, filled with codes and symbology that requires a slower read to understand the metaphors and information instilled in the work. The bird, for example, is one symbol that frequently appears in her paintings in pairs and as part of the visual collective in her work. She notes that in order to access the pieces (i.e. why a bird? Why is there an air balloon in the piece? What can a cat be a symbol of?), it’s essential for viewers to ask of themselves: how can I unbox myself? How can we find different ways to look at the same thing?

Path 2018. Oil on Canvas

Zahra concludes:

“Predator and prey relationships in animals have become a way for me to categorize opposing behaviors that address similar social and hierarchical divides. These all seem to me a sub-set of a larger conceptual framework or a conversation which challenges me to form a vocabulary that can be painted in a way where chance and intention both can form its own reality and propagate. By self-classifying human behavior in a manner which can depict a sense of duality in all of us, the collective that can provide sustenance, protection and growth to one can also be ominous to the other. So, it is this symbiosis which leads my investigation of systems within systems and ideas around binaries. Through visual representation and metaphorical use of a border or other opposing dialectics, we can navigate towards new ways of looking and understanding human perseverance.”

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The RISD Nature Lab is an EPSCoR|C-AIM Core Research Facility supported by the National Science Foundation under Cooperative Agreement #OIA-1655221 and EAGER Grant Award #1723559. ​​​Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed on this site are those of the Nature Lab and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.​

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