In 1985, when she was very young, growing up in Denton, Texas, Baseera Khan saw a photograph of a young girl on the cover of National Geographic magazine. The girl was Sharbat Gula, a refugee fleeing war in Afghanistan who became widely known as “the Afghan girl.” Her image was captured by American photojournalist Steve McCurry at a Pakistani refugee camp, her identity unknown to him.
Baseera saw herself in this girl visually, and although both her father and mother immigrated to the United States from India, Baseera’s paternal grandfather was from Afghanistan, giving her an ethnic connection to the girl in the photograph as well.
The National Geographic cover serves as the inspiration for Khan’s screen-print entitled Zakat (or donation). The piece features several vertical rectangles, skewed left and right in layers, in various shades of black, white, gray, and beige. At the center is the smallest rectangle, a thin, crisp white frame that mimics National Geographic’s iconic yellow border and contains white lettering that makes up the cover’s original text. In Zakat, it is only these reprinted words that are clearly visible and neatly contained. Khan’s face in profile lies within the central rectangle, while her embroidery covered shoulder area spills into other frames. Enlarged photographs of family jewelry, including her father’s wedding ring, positioned on top of Khan’s head—almost like an elaborate hat or crown—lie within and beyond the central frame as well. And only very faintly can be seen a portion of the cover’s original subject, Gula’s left eye, positioned directly left of Khan’s right. The right eyes of each woman share the same point, at the direct center of the piece.
Khan’s connection to “the Afghan girl” and her reworking of the National Geographic cover are integral strings in the web of family history, geopolitical commentary, and inner and outer journeys that make up Khan’s first solo exhibition iamuslima, currently on view at Participant, Inc through April 9th.
iamuslima is a multimedia show that is structured around five 50 x 59 inch monotone screen- prints on Stonehenge paper and in identical black frames. Each print is an interpretation of one of the five pillars of Islam and titled accordingly: Zakat, Fasting, Prayer, Pilgrimage, and Oneness. With Zakat, Khan seems to indicate that she both sees and recognizes the suffering of others as she journeys with it herself.
Across from Zakat, along the opposite wall, is a sculptural piece entitled Acoustic Sound Blankets, made up of several acoustic blankets both pinned to the wall and structured into various humanoid shapes on the ground. Khan uses these acoustic sound blankets for performance pieces, and they are featured in four of the five screenprints. Khan spoke about the significance of the blankets:
These blankets came into my life because I feel like I’ve always been vocally on exhibition in my family. . . . When you finish the book, the holy book, you have to recite several things in front of people and you have to have a really beautiful voice, and parents are really into that. . . . It’s like a pageantry. And so I’ve always had to perform and record. . . . Later on in my life, I got really interested in underground music, and that was really the only way I could kind of think through who I needed to be for myself, and it was a very private thing. I worked at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios, a music venue that’s still in Denton, Texas. . . . Music is a way I incorporate a lot of interests. I think through music as a language because I do feel like words fall short.
Cut into each acoustic blanket is a hole that Khan refers to as the neck hole, meant to resemble the circular patterns that can be seen on the holy book. These holes are rimmed with golden embroidery based on patterns that have been passed down for generations through her mother’s family to mark special occasions such as births, marriage, and death. The holes in these blankets also resemble the sound holes of acoustic guitars rimmed by intricate rosettes. That acoustic blankets are often also used when moving possessions feeds into the mobility Khan gives the blankets, including their use as protest march gear. The black blankets bring to mind a variety of divergent and interconnected concepts, from womb-like safety to self-discovery to body veils to, on the darker end of the spectrum, Khan says that they can even be seen as body Bags.
Lying between Zakat and Acoustic Sound Blankets, by the back wall of the gallery’s main space, is an installation piece entitled Braidrage. The piece consists of a large braid that is 15 feet and 6 inches in length, made of synthetic and real hair, which, as Khan points out, is usually sourced from South Asia. The braid hangs from a hole in the ceiling. The end tip forms a small pile of hair on the floor below. Strewn on the floor surrounding the braid, are unique poured dyed resin body parts embedded with additional hair, Cuban chains (in gold and silver), and gold leaf made of hypothermia blankets. Khan has also attached these body parts to the back wall of the gallery, turning it into a 12 x 15 foot rock climbing wall where the Cuban chains included in the piece double as harnesses.
On opening night, Khan included the climbing wall in a performance piece, as well as a pair of customized mid-top Nike sneakers bearing the word “MUSLIMA” on the back and “IAMUSLIMA” on the velcro strap across the front. These sneakers were so named, in part, due to Nike’s prohibition of the use of the word “Muslim” on its products (a ban now lifted). Opening night, before climbing the wall, Khan removed the sneakers from her feet and placed them in a compartment of clear acrylic shelving that can be seen by the gallery entrance, also containing ablution items and sociological textbooks. There she rubbed black chalk on her body like performing ablution, then, barefoot, walked over to the wall and started to climb. After the climb, she returned to the shelving to put the sneakers back on her feet.
Viewed in its totality, the installation resembles both a battlefield or sea of sunken bodies and the type of obstacle course used in military training. The silver and gold colored Cuban chain link–a type of chain link often used in Men’s Jewelry and “bling” jewelry–when observed with the black and brown body parts on the floor, bring to mind concepts of bondage and exploitation, while viewed on the wall, hanging as harnesses, they appear to be re-appropriated as symbols of strength, means over a hurdle. The metallic chains may also be seen to work in tandem with the golden embroidery patterns passed down through Khan’s mother’s family, looped in with the bonds and strength of lineage. The gold colored hypothermia blankets, most often seen worn by refugees or athletes, bring to mind devastation, displacement, and greed, as well as safety and perseverance.
Speaking about the significance of the materials used in Braidrage, Khan said that they:
Do relate to a system of colonization that clearly still exists all over the world and has created so much confusion and institutional racism in America. . . .We see how labor is a way around abusive relationships with regards to exploiting one’s work and resources for little or no pay to a large entity that has a vast amount of monetary return. And . . . to add, a woman—because ultimately I am a woman, but I call myself femme—a femme person is picked apart and sold in many ways in every society, gold is traded, your hair defines you, and you are without agency, like a refugee wearing a hypothermia blanket at the edges of a new life if you do not behave as that status quo, or behave in patriarchal ways.
Braidrage, along with Zakat, directly ties in with Khan’s screen-print entitled Prayer, which can be seen by the gallery entrance across from the acrylic shelving. In Prayer, various bodies wearing and surrounded by Khan’s acoustic sound blankets, including one body that can be clearly identified as Khan’s, appear to have been cut out of a polaroid picture. Layered on top of the images in black lettering, the text of the print reads:
stack the dollar bills.
My family stacks the trauma.
Now I’m trying
to makes some money
off understanding my mama’s drama
You feel me?
Ameen Summa Ameen
Khan clarified that her name is not meant to be read as a sign of authorship, but rather the traditional signing off of a prayer. Like Braidrage, Prayer also brings to light the ways in which personal and public, familial and geopolitical narratives can overlap and intertwine, can be stories of exploitation or triumph. The lyrics in Prayer will also be featured on an upcoming album Khan will be putting out as well.
On a more colorful plane, a bit further into the gallery beyond Prayer and the shelving, lie Khan’s Psychedelic Prayer Rugs, three small rugs laid out next to each other on a diagonal. Lunar Count Down, woven in Islam’s symbolic colors of green and white with a large amount of yellow is related to the lunar calendar and the counting down of days (concepts also touched upon in Fasting). Act Up features a two-shaded pink pyramid and a poem in Urdu passed down to her from her mother, which pays tribute to the iconic poster the organization put out featuring the gay pride pink triangle and the words “SILENCE=DEATH.” Purple Heart is rooted in the relationship between religion, war, and global trans communication.
Khan invites viewers to use the rugs for their own meditation. And iamuslima as a whole can be viewed as Khan inviting viewers into her life perspective while beckoning viewers to see themselves in it. Speaking about Pilgrimage, a very dark screenprint where only a faint pair of hands wrapped round braided chains poking through an embroidered hole of one of the acoustic sound blankets can be made out, Khan stated:
Pilgrimage is this place where it promotes you to only think about yourself, and it absorbs you. And this idea of absorption and darkness is a really beautiful thing. And I think it’s interesting how in cultures darkness, especially in America, darkness is a scary thing. And black is usually used for mourning. It’s usually used for showing that something is scary, so I wanted to problematize that and just have a conversation if anything about that.
Khan both challenges and welcomes her audience to gaze at themselves as they make meaning out of what it is to be femme, Muslim, and American.
Baseera Khan: iamuslima at Participant Inc.
Feb 26 – April 2 (extended to April 9Th)
PARTICIPANT INC is located at:
253 East Houston Street, ground floor
between Norfolk and Suffolk Streets on the Lower East Side
All photos for this article by Peter Kaspar