Imagining a Queer Muslim Futurism
Artist Zulfikar Ali Bhutto works with a cultural mishmash that includes an Urdu edition of a 1970s Arnold Schwarzenegger fitness manual.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Alif Para La Revolución. Photo: Kali Ma. Courtesy of the artist
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is a San Francisco-based Pakistani artist invested in the demystification of Muslim masculinity through a queer lens. Bhutto uses photography, collage, performance, and curating to tackle issues around Islamophobia in the US and sexual oppression in Southeast Asia. Hailing from an influential Pakistani family whose members include former presidents Benazir Bhutto and his grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the artist, who spoke to GARAGE about his recent work, embraces a politically conscious stance that makes use of public and personal memories.
GARAGE: Your Mussalmaan Musclemen collages riff on masculinity, Western stereotypes of beauty, and Urdu language by accenting bodybuilder photos with embroidery. How does this process align with your performances?
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto: I made a few large Mussalmaan Musclemen pieces for the Karachi Biennale in 2017. The source material was an exercise book written by Arnold Schwarzenegger that was translated into Urdu in the mid ’70s. The book was a mishmash of cultures and didn’t really have a sense of belonging, with mostly white, buff men performing for a macho-male weightlifter audience. When translated, it changed direction and applied to another, unintended audience. The book created its own universe free from the dominant gaze. I scanned its pages and printed them on fabric to create embroidery and appliqué.
There is commentary there on the performance of a softer masculinity with homoerotic undertones. After living in Pakistan, the UK, and now the US, I intend to subvert the status of language as an access point for the mainstream English-speaking crowd, complicating what language offers and what it limits for certain people. A script originally written in English but transformed into something visually alien to the American crowd became even more confusing along with familiar images of muscular white men. Many people thought the text was some sort of a divine source about revelation until I told them it was a translated an exercise book. Urdu and Arabic texts look similar, so they also saw political iconography.
You co-curated The Third Muslim: Queer and Trans Muslim Narratives of Resistance and Resilience at SOMArts Cultural Center last month. Do you consider curating an extension of your art practice or a distinct way to channel your ideas without authorship?
Curating is a system of organizing in the sense of political activism. The first show I organized was The Shadow Over Our Flag in Pakistan, which was about the politics of marginalized minority rights. When I moved to the US, I realized I am a Muslim, and a queer artist. Until then, I had never seen myself as a monitory, necessarily. As a male Shia Muslim, I had enjoyed a certain privilege in Pakistan. My practice evolved into thinking about Islam as a global and somewhat “queer” force. I use queer in a broader context beyond sexuality for a political standpoint in order to subvert and “weird” the dominant politics. I started thinking about how Islam became so political as a religion. Research into others working on similar topics led to my curatorial practice, which in this case can be considered as extension of my artistic practice. After my graduation from the MFA program at San Francisco Art Institute, nuances amongst people who identify as Muslim and queer seemed even more complex. The artists we chose simultaneously carry queerness and Islam in various ways—politically, ideologically, or spiritually—while dealing with Islamophobia from a queer perspective
Your Malakhra photo series depicts Pakistan’s wrestling tradition from an intimate and also rather surreal perspective. How did you capture those images?
I started as a documentary photographer in Pakistan, but when I moved here, there wasn’t much to be inspired by, so I went back to my archives. Also, I had stopped doing documentary photos about Pakistan because putting the subjects into victimized and voiceless positions didn’t sit well with me. What interested me, however, was looking at spaces where masculinity is performed as a spectacle, and wrestling was a great way to channel this approach. Wrestlers are happy that you take their photos. Also, men have much greater social mobility in Pakistan. In the end, I explored something that was also about myself as someone taught a certain kind of masculinity by society. Both violence and tenderness are at play in these wrestling pictures. The aggressive performance of masculinity is balanced by tenderness. When I took the nighttime photos, the environment was very dark. I used a slow shutter speed and a flash to capture these really beautiful movements—nothing was digitally altered. I saw these ambitious moments in the middle of violence, which served as a great metaphor for the understanding of masculinity in Muslim countries.
What are your thoughts about coming from a politically active family in Pakistan, where your family name resonates so strongly with the country’s modern history? Politics and masculinity go hand-in-hand, impacting each other through patriarchy and authority.
The art I do is political and an extension of the politics my father was engaged with around marginalized people. I just don’t deal with politics using the same tools. I don’t feel the need to be the face of change. Some people in Pakistan label me as a gay rights activist, but I’m not. I don’t work as an activist. I make political art that instigates conversation.
In your video with The Turmeric Project, you talk about how invisible you sometimes feel being a brown man in Castro, and how performing helps people “pay attention.” How do you blend your own heritage with a Western understanding of drag in your performances?
I work with the transgender community in Pakistan, but I don’t use direct references from khwaja sira culture in my drag performances. (As opposed to the commonly-known Hindu word hijra; the Pakistani transgender community prefers the Urdu expression khwaja sira.) I’ve met many drag queens in San Francisco and begun doing drag in traditional club settings thanks to these relationships I’ve developed with the community. The idea of using elements from the khwaja sira community is a tender issue; appropriating elements from such a rich history would be irresponsible. However, I find inspiration from ’90s Arab, Hindu, and Urdu pop music and utilize pop elements from Iranian and Lebanese cultures, which I relate to through different sides of my family. I rebrand these cultures to talk about nuances and identity while remaining joyful.
Drag taught me to have joy and keep the crowd going while interrupting certain issues. I like drag’s ability to make people laugh, cry, and think at the same time. I also have to underline that drag is a small portion of performance practice that has evolved over the years towards confusion of genders rather than female impersonation, for example the last year’s Queens Museum performance, Silent Crisis.
You performed Silent Crisis as part of the group exhibition Fatal Love: South Asian American Art Now to reflect on different types of challenges you faced in Pakistan as a gay man and in San Francisco as a brown Muslim man. How does this paradox affect your practice?
Silent Crisis emerged after a long research period that included personal, political, and historical analysis. The piece came out from an initial response to that paradox of being gay in Pakistan, where I couldn’t completely express myself, and Muslim in San Francisco, where I carried my body as a political entity. I realized how American understanding of sexuality is impermeable and single-layered as opposed to Southeast Asia where, yes, sexuality is a major taboo, but still may hold depth and complexity. Living and working in the Bay Area, I do my best not to become a fetish or exotic object as a brown artist. It’s important to for artists like myself to navigate fetishization and maintain integrity.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a few new projects, including Queer Muslim Futurism, which is about creating future queer landscapes through a Muslim lens. The narrative is about my drag character who, as a rebel leader, talks about contemporary politics in a future that signals a different dimension. This is a world in which the marginalized fights back. I create future guerrilla Muslim drag warriors on the front of resistance and blur the line between a revolutionary and a terrorist. The gaze of the Muslim male subject is queered, not in a docile way but to challenge the Western perspective of Muslim maleness. I’m doing films and performances in which gender and sexuality are undefined and identities are left unclear.