On the responsibilities of intellectuals, Arundhati Roy once said, “Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it.” This was in 2003 on the eve of the Iraq War. Nearly two decades later, the Indian activist’s words continue to inspire generations of artists who long for the liberation of oppressed Muslim cultures.
For her latest exhibition, Baseera Khan sliced a 6 x 14-foot column into seven flat cylinders. She wrapped them meticulously with silk Kashmiri prayer rugs — pieces of contraband smuggled by artists under Indian military occupation. Colors abound in each cross-section, perhaps unexpectedly. While the rugs display elaborate patterns in auburn and burgundy, the columns’ foam insides are solid shades of hot pink, baby blue and neon orange. This juxtaposition seems absurd at first but resonates within the context of the show, which is titled snake skin. The artist suffocates a fallen imperial structure with serpentine materials, hacking it to pieces and exposing its soft core.
snake skin is a corporeal study of the body politic, featuring her installation “Column Number One – Seven” as well as framed chromatic collages. Khan wields the tools of cultural autopsy in her dissections of ancient ruins and traditions, and it appears that we have caught her in the act. Throughout Simone Subal Gallery, Khan lays some column pieces flat on the floor and leans others upright — almost forensically — so that visitors can observe them from every possible angle. A few pieces appear in a large stack, with tattered and peeling bits of foam fallen along the wayside. The scene is a bit macabre, like the aftermath of a gruesome dismemberment. All the while, she holds her own hands up to the viewer in photographic prints, showing that she takes full responsibility for her actions.
While much of Khan’s previous work adapted Islamic symbolism to critiques of contemporary fashion, these new works draw inspiration from historic mosques — such as the Masjid Malcolm Shabazz in Harlem, which has floor-to-ceiling carpeting — to address broad suppression in Muslim-minority countries. Cutting up a downed imperial structure is an act of catharsis, and Khan goes one step further to mutilate the pieces into non-recognition. The appearance of rugs throughout the exhibition is an attempt to empower the people of Kashmir, who face travel lockdowns and information blackouts from the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Khan’s ornamental wrappings are thus a glorification of the artform and an indicator of their creators’ quiet resistance.
snake skin connects the oppression of Muslims in Kashmir to other places of corrupted empire, offering tributes to artists who defy surveillance and silencing. In small vertical collages, she pairs archival photographs of Roman ruins with colorful cutouts from the German Democratic Republic’s Mosaik magazines, which published socialist perspectives and satire of state power during the Cold War. Once again, the artist conjoins ancient architecture with robust colors. In “Baarwaada, the Oldest Walk,” Khan brings together an illustration of a brown-skinned, barefoot peasant with a photograph of India’s oldest mosque in sharp shades of yellow and blue. Despite its political influence, Mosaik leaned toward caricature in its depictions of race and class. Khan accordingly leans into this historical fallacy, appropriating the cartoon for her own purposes. A comical depiction of poverty loses its controversy when placed in the context of worship, as the peasant strides toward a source of refuge.
In “Holding My Knowledge,” Khan reveals herself to the viewer and makes peace with her actions. The photocollage depicts the artist’s own hands — bejeweled with rings and perfectly manicured black nails — holding the fragments of her columns. The rest of the frame is pitch black, separated by a blood-red border. Her essence remains intact as shadows lurk above. This solemn process may occasionally enshroud Khan’s entire being, but she has learned how to navigate the darkness.
Baseera Khan: snake skin continues at Simone Subal Gallery (131 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through December 22, 2019.
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