HAMTRAMCK, Mich. — Like many an immigrant’s tale, Osman Khan’s ambitious installation work, On Which Side, The Barbarians?, begins with a journey. The myriad media pieces traveled from the artist’s studio to the gallery in a converted box truck, a 2011 project of Khan’s titled “Going my way,” where the blank white truck was adorned with a colorful overlay of florid Pakistani patterns and designs.
“The truck embodies an idea of the hybrid,” Khan said during an interview at Public Pool art space, where his work is on view. The truck represents Khan’s move from his native homeland of Pakistan, which he left at the age of two, and attempts to overlay that experience with his life in the United States, where he has long been a naturalized citizen. Khan’s emphasis on a kind of cultural overlay, rather than melding, is very intentional, highlighting the sense of separated spaces coexisting — an idea echoed in the literal division of the gallery space into two sides, separated by a folding screen “wall.”
That Public Pool is situated in Hamtramck, a city-within-the-city of Detroit, so dense with Muslim immigrants whose call to prayer reverberates citywide, is not lost on Khan — this context made the gallery a desirable venue for his exploration of how his psyche (and more generally, that of South Asian Muslims in the US) has been divided between two cultures.
“One [aspect of this psyche] is a reaction to Western hegemony,” said Khan. “There’s a kind of pendulum swing, especially in the Muslim world — when I look at why fundamentalism is taking over, it’s not even that we believe it, we just don’t want anything to do with the West, because it’s messed with our lives for 250, 300 years. You’ve meddled in it, and look what mess we’re in.”
The “mess” exists on one side of a wall that literally divides Public Pool’s one-room gallery space into two divergent realms, which Khan defines as the “aggrieved/external” versus the “ambiguous/internal.” Entering through the front door, the viewer must initially navigate the external realm: a narrow corridor created by a towering folding screen, painted gray and crowned with circular cut-outs that mimic the style of the border wall erected by Israel to divide Palestine. Though Khan is primarily concerned with the South Asian and Pakistani experience, he views the decision on the part of the West to side with Israel as a betrayal of the Muslim world in the modern era, and “a thorn in the Muslim psyche.”
Khan has accrued objects that represent various points of conflict surrounding his identity as a “brown” person. Some seem almost innocuous, such as “Lunch ’81,” two framed photographs that provide a side-by-side comparison of Khan’s elementary school immigrant lunch — last night’s curry between whole wheat bread slices, peeled apples browning in their bag, and off-brand apple juice — with the American ideals of brand-name white bread, bologna, plasticky Kraft cheese, vivid orange Cheetos, and the latest in school lunch technology, Capri Sun.
“Brown narrative,” said Khan. “It filters down to even the food I’m eating — so here’s this kind of brown food, and I’m looking at white food, and it’s beautiful. This is America, this is American, and I’m not. Something as innocent as lunch, and suddenly you feel othered. Any Asian or foreign person will tell you about that experience.” Khan sees the humor in this, and makes no case that this represents deep trauma, particularly when compared with other pieces on this side of the wall, such as “Orange Pile” — a stack of orange prisoner jumpsuits — and “Issue, No. 2/Drone Score,” a pile of takeaway newsprint papers with some 4,200 hash marks. While the former grapples with the violation of prisoner rights at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, the latter visualizes the ever-rising tally of kills by US drone missions in Pakistan, Yemen, and Afghanistan.
Khan traces these conflicts back to the historic drawing of the Radcliffe Line, with a display called “Instruments of Partition,” wherein India, Asia Minor, and Africa were geographically divided according to the whims of colonial powers such as Great Britain, France, and Germany. In a display case are drafting tools and a pencil standing in for those used by Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who drafted the plans which geographically divided Pakistan and India. Khan paused to contemplate the power in that pencil.
“It’s an aesthetic in the end, what divided a people,” he said. “What made 15 million people disposed were acts of aesthetics. A pencil was used. A compass.”
Despite the serious subject matter at hand, Khan has a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. Amid all the hash marks of “Drone Score,” for example, is a hand-drawn musical staff with a single note, and instructions “to be held for a very long time.” And above the display of “Instruments of Partition,” Khan has freehand drawn a pencil line on the wall, conversing with the wall drawings of Sol LeWitt.
“It’s a wall drawing,” he said, “but suddenly it has political ramifications. It’s not just aesthetic and conceptual — there is a lens of the brown narrative on it. I can’t just make nice lines. For me a line is no longer just something that’s geometric.”
Having made it this far, the viewer is invited to tackle the next hurdle, which requires traversing the underside of the wall by dipping briefly through Public Pool’s basement trap door to come up on the other side. For those willing to tunnel beneath Khan’s barrier, they will find the rest of the exhibit: a colorful explosion of the “ambiguous/internal” reality of Khan’s psyche.
The room is packed. In contrast to the somber, gray wall of the outer sanctum, the wall’s inner side is adorned with a mural of the same vinyl Pakistani truck-art decals Khan used to decorate “Going my way.” The protagonist here is the Tiger of Mysore, leading a charge of mythic beasts in a war to disseminate culture. At the far end of the wall, the Taj Mahal stands, surrounded by minarets pointing up like so many ballistic missiles.
Nearby, “Tippoo’s Tyger (Version),” a tiger mask on a wooden sawhorse, references an 18th-century automaton created for Tipu Sultan, a king who opposed the colonization of India, and remains a hero in the Muslim world. A tribute to singer Nazia Hassan, “Disco Deewane,” sets a disco ball spinning above the tiger, a kaleidoscope of color projected on a round screen forming a second, Pakistani version of the disco ball. All is not fun and games here in the inner sanctum, however — a pair of photographs depicts a stack of heads and hooves from water buffalo, slaughtered for food and stacked in the streets of Pakistan, used here as metaphors for suicide bombers. “Often, in the case of a suicide bomber, all that remains is the head and the feet,” said Khan.
In the center of the room is a black glassy cube, a replica of the Kaaba, which is the literal center of the Muslim world. This stands in conversation with a photo that captures the words “Muslim Center” — part of an illuminated sign for a Muslim community center in the Detroit-adjacent Muslim stronghold of Dearborn. Khan seems to be asking where the true center is, a kind of questioning that he acknowledges some might see as blasphemous.
With its title, On Which Side, The Barbarians? poses a simple philosophical question, but unraveling the complexities of one’s own psyche is never a straightforward matter. The external world may be fraught with politics, imposed identity, violent action, and grim comparisons, but our internal space is no less messy — and perhaps more. Khan has provided an intensive experience, bravely and effectively allowing visitors to rummage through his psychic baggage. With his good humor and self-reflection, he seems to be the first to acknowledge that, despite all that the world has done to us, some of our damage belongs to no one but ourselves.
Osman Khan’s On Which Side, The Barbarians? continues at Public Pool (3309 Caniff St, Hamtramck, Mich.) through October 22.