When Abdullah Qureshi returned to Pakistan after studying in the UK, he found many people in the LGBTQ community did not necessarily identify as ‘gay.’ Describing his six years studying art in London as “an explorative phase for me, where I was generally looking at issues of gender and sexuality,” Qureshi confronted the challenge of identifying his sexuality in Pakistan, a Muslim-majority country, where members of the queer community practice their lives in secret, face discrimination from society, and endure a strict penal code from the colonial era, which threatens to punish homosexuality with prison.
But while religious clerics condemn homosexuality and uphold the traditional institution of family in Pakistan, private spaces persist where queer people can congregate and express themselves, including creative spaces like fashion, cosmetics, and the arts.
“While I did go through the process of discovering myself and my sexuality [in London], it never really came to the forefront. Ironically, it’s when I moved back to Pakistan that I was confronted with how to identify myself,” Qureshi said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “I started learning very quickly different people were seeing the identity framework in different positions. For example, there were people who resisted the use of the word ‘gay’ altogether in Pakistan. And for me, it was fascinating there were people who were not even using that kind of identity label.”
Today, Qureshi lives in Helsinki, Finland, where he is writing his dissertation on queer Muslim migrants. A curator and artist, Qureshi is working with Aziz Sohail and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Jr. to collectively redefine what it means to be queer and Pakistani. The three-person collaboration, which includes painting, media, and conceptual art, materialized after Qureshi saw a performance by Rehan Bashir Jalwana, a male classical dancer from Pakistan.
“I’d seen a classical performance by Rehan Bashir, and it had elements of queerness and a lot of Pakistani heritage,” Qureshi said. “And I started thinking about what I’d need to think about queers as a collective of Pakistani people, and I knew Zulfi and Aziz were already interested in those concerns, so I approached them. We started thinking, ‘What does queerness mean to each of us?’ And as we talked about it more, we realized queerness doesn’t have a single definition but is a contested space for each of us.”
Each artist lives in a different place in the world: Bhutto lives in San Francisco, Sohail lived in Lahore and Karachi before recently moving to Irvine, California, and Qureshi lived and worked in Pakistan for six years before moving to Finland for his PhD. But all the artists have one thing in common: they’re queer and grew up in Pakistan.
While the trio of artists are now all based outside of Pakistan, their collaboration comes at a time when LGBTQ people in the country are stepping out of the shadows. Queer parties and get-togethers are accessible on an invitation-only basis, and digital spaces have become havens for queer community and self-expression. LGBTQ posters were seen at this year’s Aurat March (Women’s March), where transgender women were also in attendance, and transgender Pakistanis were able to identify as their gender on national ID cards after parliament passed a law in 2017. Slowly, the presence of LGBTQ people is being normalized in the mainstream after Kami Sid emerged as Pakistan’s first transgender model.
And while Sohail, Bhutto, and Qureshi center queer male experience in their artwork, other artists like Sa’dia Rehman and Saba Taj work from a more feminine context, and Fatimah Asghar discusses what it’s like to be Pakistani, Muslim, and queer in her poetry.
“As artists, we reflect these things, and we show these things, and we use our creative minds to reveal things that are already happening,” Bhutto said. “I don’t think we’re at the head of [this movement], I don’t think we’re necessarily at the line of it, but I think it’s humbling to know we’re at least part of it.”
The trio debuted at Twelve Gates Arts in Philadelphia in March 2018, and then held a second show at Uqbar Gallery in Berlin last August. Their ongoing collaborations celebrate that there is no one way to be queer, Pakistani, immigrant, and/or Muslim. Bhutto uses South Asian aesthetics to imagine a Third World war of liberation in the near future, led not by patriarchs but queer revolutionaries, while Qureshi explores identity and the male body through abstract paintings. Sohail uses conceptual art and poetry to represent Tinder chats between men across the India and Pakistan border, as well as the experience of queer migration.
“My work is really about a movement projected into the future,” Bhutto said. In one work, Bhutto writes ‘Guerrilla Jung’ (‘guerrilla war’) in curling black Nastaliq Urdu over textile portrayals of queer Muslim revolutionaries. “What does it look like when queer and trans people in Pakistan, or in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen or Iran — these places which have been so heavily under Western and American imperialism — what happens when the queers rise up?”
Rather than focus on a one-dimensional narrative of victimhood typical of mainstream depictions of queer people from Muslim backgrounds, Bhutto tries to imagine what liberation looks like by putting queer people at the forefront of a Third World revolution.
“I think there’s a lot of queer people being victims or at the mercy of someone else, and of course, we can’t deny there is oppression and a huge level of victimhood that does happen,” Bhutto said. “But what does it look like when we reimagine these bodies as in fact the victors that overthrow Western imperialism?”
Sohail’s work similarly imagines new possibilities but at the Pakistan-India border. The schism between the two countries occurred in 1947 after the British suddenly left their wealthiest colony without a sound political resolution, leading to the deaths of more than a million people. Today, gay Pakistanis and Indians within a reasonable mile radius of each other use dating apps to form cross-border relationships.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge how people negotiate their presence,” Sohail said. “My practice looks at the border with India, and how digital apps like Tinder and Grindr are used to find and connect with people across the border. Guys in Lahore are actually connecting with guys in Amritsar. And I’m not trying to say that the border isn’t a problem between India and Pakistan, but how would it be to think about freedom in different ways?”
Qureshi draws on the concept of Charbagh (“Four Gardens”), the architectural layout of paradise in the Quran, to imagine a queer Muslim utopia. When he has shown this work, he also complements it with an interview he conducted with a gay Iraqi migrant, the sound of the man’s voice eerily transposed over the video of his penis in black and white. The anonymous narrator revisits his first sexual encounter and the painful moment his mother discovered his sexuality.
“A lot of gay men were being rejected from the LGBT clubs [in Helsinki] and over time it became clear it was because they were Iraqi [migrants],” Qureshi said. “They were being racially profiled and as a result, they went cruising to darkrooms where people wouldn’t know their identity. And that’s why I made it black and white. The removal of skin color is also political.”
While Bhutto, Qureshi, and Sohail’s collaboration remains firmly rooted in their experiences as South Asian queer men, their art is also part of a global LGBTQ movement rising in countries like Pakistan, Lebanon, and India, but also panning out and gaining diversity in Europe and the United States.
In Bhutto’s words, “there’s a dialogue happening, we’re not working in a black vacuum, we’re working in a very specific time and place and context — a contemporary historical context.”