In “Future Faithful: Islamic Experiments in Space Exploration and Posthumanism” at Bass & Reiner Gallery (through April 10, see a 3d gallery view here), Zulfikar Ali Bhutto presents a stunning video and series of fabric works that are rich with references to traditional Islamic architecture and mythology.
Also going by the drag persona Faluda Islam, Bhutto addresses queerness as sexual orientation and gender fluidity. (The Syrian-born artist recently moved from the Bay Area back to Pakistan, where he was raised.) In this latest exhibition, Bhutto flips and mirrors the normative world such that queer is also the strange or unexpected. As Bhutto’s work moves between the apocalyptic and carnivalesque, the artist creates his own mythology that fluidly combines religious and cultural references to create a dialogue about the metaphysically and cosmically unknown or hidden.
Bhutto presents a mesmerizing video “Grace and Mercy 556” (2020), previously featured in the exhibition “AFTER LIFE (we survive)” at YBCA, curated by Thea Quiray Tagle. Bhutto’s collaged animation shrewdly mines traditional Islamic architecture to expand its symbolic meanings and function. In particular, the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount is a sacred and historically contested space for Muslims and Jews.
As Bhutto duplicates and simply rotates the golden dome—a symbol of the heavens—the artist playfully converts them into science fiction Morse code satellites, complete with B-movie sound effects. Additionally, minarets are iconic towers in mosque architecture, used for calls to prayer and translate into Arabic as “beacons.” In hybridizing minarets and spaceships that rather crudely fly through outer space, the artist imagines vessels or devices that send messages from beyond our known reality. Bhutto’s delightfully strange and odd structures flip the normative world such that communication with the speculative and divine spans time and place.
Through content and materials, Bhutto’s four wall hung fabric works approach craft traditions with a queer lens. The work’s sequins, plastic gems, and bold colorful patterns have a kitsch resemblance to traditional Islamic design, known for its opulent materials like lapis lazuli and gold leaf and intricate mathematically derived patterns.
In “Zhavedan Abu Nawas” (2018), Bhutto references Abu Nawas, the queer Iranian poet whose homoerotic works have been censored and burned. As a sequined gas mask overlays a black-and-white silkscreen of a bare-chested man, the image transforms the ominous into the provocative. The brightly colored and patterned fabric that drapes over the lower half of the figure suggests a voluminous izaar, futah, or sarong. The two additional izaar-like forms hanging from the bottom of the work imply multiple bodies and a closeness that hints at a sexual encounter hidden beneath the fabric. As the work’s gas mask and izaars obscure bodies, the artist embraces the formlessness of shifting and amorphous identities.
With the artist’s many complicated layers of calligraphy, symbology, numerology, and text, I am a little uncertain about some of the exact details of his elaborate mythology and queer revolution. However, I am pleased to hop on this wondrous journey and to stand witness to the unknown within these captivating works.
“Future Faithful: Islamic Experiments in Space Exploration and Posthumanism” is on view at Bass & Reiner Gallery through April 10. More info here.