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Issue 226

Baseera Khan Uses Their Body as a Weapon

At the Brooklyn Museum, the artist presents a suite of works that centres on their experience as a queer, Muslim femme to question ideas of origin and belonging

BY Aruna D'Souza in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 07 FEB 22

There are few artists as materially inventive as Baseera Khan. It’s a quality that shines through their first solo museum exhibition, ‘I Am an Archive’, at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, New York. (The show is held in conjunction with Khan’s receipt of the UOVO Prize for Emerging Artists.) Every element of their practice – which spans performance, video, installation, photography and sculpture – is shot through with meaning. For instance, In Privacy Control (2018–20), the two-way mirrors printed with Khan’s retranslations of passages from the Qur’an evoke both the police surveillance of Muslim communities and the freedom from the male gaze that is granted to Muslim women in mosques, where they worship segregated from the men, often behind mirrored partitions. Hair, which shows up in works such as Braidrage (2017–ongoing) and I Am an Archive, Speaker (2021), is both a sign of women’s desirability and a means of economic survival for poor South Asian women who often resort to selling theirs to wig manufacturers – two forms of commodification and fetishization of the femme body. In multiple pieces, Plexiglas is exploited for its transparency and capacity to carry any colour while asserting its status as a petroleum-based material – acting as a reminder of American imperialist wars motivated by a desire to control Middle Eastern oil supplies – as well as its extensive use to display artefacts in institutions whose collections were built during other eras of Western expansionism.

Baseera Khan, I Arrive in a Place with a High Level of Psychic Distress (Black), 2021
Baseera Khan, I Arrive in a Place with a High Level of Psychic Distress, 2021, chromogenic photograph and laser-cut acrylic, 157 × 94 cm. Courtesy: © the artist and Simone Subal Gallery, New York; photograph: Stephen Takacs

But what’s most remarkable about Khan’s practice is that the multivalence of these materials isn’t purely conceptual or geopolitical – it’s deeply personal, even visceral. It’s not just any hair that the artist uses, it’s their own hair. It’s not just anyone doing the performances behind the two-way mirror, it’s the artist themself. Khan forces us to recognize how apparently abstract systems that seem larger than any individual in fact shape us all, turning us into both commodities and commodifiers, leveraging our bodies and identities at every turn. Referring to themself as an archive in the exhibition title is to acknowledge how they – a queer, brown, Muslim, femme child of undocumented immigrants, and the result of a complex family history that connects India, East Africa, Afghanistan, Kashmir and the US – is a product as well as a record of history and the forces that shape it.

The exhibition focuses on work made in the past five years, including their best-known piece, Braidrage, represented here via an installation and video, along with associated drawings and photographic studies. In the original performance at Participant, Inc. in 2017, Khan put on a climbing harness and scaled a wall fitted with holds fashioned from resin casts of body parts – knees, ears, heels, and so on – and a thick rope composed of human hair (including their own). The charcoal with which they covered their body prior to the ascent was, as ever, considered: an allusion to Muslim practices of ablution before prayer (in places where water is not available, sand or ash are acceptable alternatives per Islamic teachings); to practices of self-adornment and self-protection (as in kohl, used to enhance beauty and as protection from the evil eye in many South Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries); and to art-making itself (as a drawing medium). And all these elements are activated by a body that, in its strength, power and endurance, defies every limiting stereotype white supremacy imposes upon it.

Baseera Khan, I Am An Archive, Speaker, From Bust of Canons, 2021-20
Baseera Khan, I Am An Archive, Speaker, from Bust of Canons, 2021, FMD (Fused Deposition Modelling), 3D-printed acrylic, flex foam speaker, artist's hair and custom steel pedestal. Courtesy: © the artist and Simone Subal Gallery, New York

As befits an artist whose own identity is the product of various forms of displacement and who belongs to a religion that has been global in a very true sense for centuries –  including in the US from as early as the 16th century – questions of East versus West are moot, while ideas of origin become slippery, if not entirely meaningless. Hyperconscious of the ways they are othered, Khan works hard to wrest the definition of ‘real American culture’ from those who would exclude them from its ambit. Pop and consumer cultures are not set in opposition to those of the Muslim or the immigrant but are, rather, another material language through which such identities are fashioned. The point is made quite emphatically in the gallery through which you enter the show, where four large chandeliers – formed from insulation foam and covered with hand-dyed cotton – hang from the ceiling, spinning like disco balls. Their shapes recall decorative motifs culled from Khan’s mother’s archive of South Asian and Middle Eastern textiles; their visual effect is reminiscent of the dance clubs Khan used to frequent in Texas as an adolescent. At one end, on a steel plinth, sits I Am an Archive, Speaker, a sculpture made by scanning the artist’s body. The piece, complete with jewellery and other adornments, is split along the heart chakra, where a bulbous speaker is inserted at the point of incision, twisting the torso into an impossible S-curve. The artist’s own hair (cut just prior to the show’s opening) sprouts from the figure’s head; the exaggerated pose refers both to the bodily contortions of Instagram selfie-takers and the erotic sculptures of medieval Indian temples. The work’s soundtrack – a full-length album recorded by Khan – is a moody, artpop compilation that draws on South Asian beats and whose lyrics, while at first sounding like familiar pop, subtly allude to the larger themes of her show: the way capitalism values and devalues femme bodies; the experiences of the refugee and the migrant; questions of exclusion and belonging; claiming and asserting power, and so on.

Baseera Khan, Braidrage, 2017-ongoing
Baseera Khan, Braidrage, 2017-ongoing, performance at Participant Inc., New York, 2017. Courtesy: © the artist and Simone Subal Gallery, New York; photograph: Maxim Ryazansky

A play between visibility and occlusion runs throughout the show, a reflection of the ways in which Muslims experience day-to-day life: simultaneously ignored and hypersurveilled. This contradiction is at the heart of a series of four photographs titled ‘I Arrive in a Place with a High Level of Psychic Distress’ (2021), made using a body-sized, makeshift scanner bed on which the artist laid down over and under pieces of Kashmiri chain-stitched embroidery, plexiglass and other materials, so that their bejewelled and manicured, but otherwise seemingly naked, form is reduced to fragments in an elaborate game of hide and seek. It emerges again in one of the best series in the show, ‘Law of Antiquities’ (2021), created on site at the Brooklyn Museum, in collaboration with its curators and conservators, using objects from the institution’s Islamic arts collection. The composite photographs, including Mosque Lamp and Prayer Carpet Green, offer a powerful counterpoint to the longstanding modus operandi of many cultural institutions: championing collections built via colonialist and imperialist enterprises around the world, while severing artworks from the very people who today might claim a connection to them. Islamic art does not, in this framing, have anything to do with Muslim people or rampant Islamophobia or wars in the Middle East or the military occupation of Kashmir. In the face of such deracination is Khan’s utterly contemporary body peeking out from behind the artefacts: a watchful eye, a green-nailed hand, bare shoulders and legs, platform heel-shod feet. The artist is an archive – a record of the ways institutions define, limit and exclude them – and the weapon by which those definitions, limits, and exclusions will be overcome.

Baseera Khan’s ‘I Am an Archive’, curated by Carmen Hermo, is on view at the Brooklyn Museum, USA, until 10 July 2022

Aruna D’Souza is a contributor to the New York Times and 4Columns. She co-curated the 2021 exhibition ‘Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And’ at the Brooklyn Museum and is the editor of a forthcoming collection of the writings of Linda Nochlin, Making It Modern (Thames and Hudson, 2022). She is currently the Edmond J. Safra Professor at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., USA.