Baseera Khan’s first solo exhibition in New York, “iamuslima,” was titled after a term, “Muslima,” that she had Nike stitch on a pair of sneakers to protest the company’s refusal to allow the word “Islam” or “Muslim” on its customizable sneaker models. While Nike recently removed those words from its banned list of “content construed to incite violence,” the New York–based artist’s positioning of the sneakers at the exhibition’s entrance suggested their ongoing critical relevance—particularly in the wake of Trump’s travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries. Invoking as well Khan’s self-identification as a “queer femme Muslim,” the shoes were a perfect introduction to the intersectional and autobiographical themes explored throughout the show.
The sneakers, placed on clear acrylic shelving, were adjacent to three “Psychedelic Prayer Rugs” (all works 2017). Made in collaboration with Kashmiri artisans, the rugs have brightly colored designs combining personal symbols and markings meaningful to the artist—a pink triangle, an excerpt from an Arabic poem, the Purple Heart medal—with those traditional to Islam, such as the lunar calendar and the star and crescent. Viewers were encouraged to take their shoes off and interact with the rugs, meditating on their political and poetic allusions or performing the traditional salat, the daily prayers that constitute one of the five pillars of Islam, the others being faith, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca.
Khan reenacted the five pillars in a series of large-scale monotone screen prints. Based on photo-collages, the prints adapt and personalize the pillars’ foundational principles through performative self-portraits. In Oneness (belief in monotheism), for example, which corresponds to faith, Khan layers photos of herself in profile such that she appears as a goddesslike figure with multiple legs and faces. The image suggests a multitude of identities coalesced into one—a vision of oneness that is feminized and collective.
In four of the five prints, Khan wears one of her “Acoustic Sound Blankets,” a group of black textile sculptures that were also on view. They consist of sound-dampening material cut with head-size holes. The margins of the holes are embroidered with elaborate gold patterns passed down through generations of women in the Khan family. In the prints, the blankets abstract and obscure her body, their ghostly forms recalling, alternately, hijabs, body bags, robes, and moving blankets. As sculptures, they exert a physical presence that is weighty and funereal. Huddled together against a wall, they seem to protect secrets carried within. In the past, the artist has employed them for intimate discussions (often sexual), inviting people to join her inside one of the muffling cloaks.
Khan’s performances are not always private or hidden. In a public performance on opening night, she activated the exhibition’s dominant installation, Braidrage, a rock-climbing wall made from bits of cast body parts. Swinging from a giant black braid suspended from the ceiling, she climbed on the resin body fragments, most of which were filled with hair and gold chains and tinted in shades of brown or black to conjure a vast spectrum of skin tones. The symbolism of hair and gold reflects her Indian heritage, and in the context of the performance referred to the struggle and ascent of her immigrant family members who came to the States before she was born.
Khan’s interpretive explorations of Muslim identity are complex, offering a recuperative, adaptive model at odds with the reductive stereotypes Islamophobia breeds. At a time when many—feminists and liberals alike—still question whether Muslim women can be empowered by their faith and culture, the works in “iamuslima” were testament that they can.