Zulfikar Ali Bhutto dismantles the conditions linked to marginalised identity
In his novel, The Jewish Messiah, Dutch author Arnon Grunberg tells the story of a young Swiss-German boy who decides to convert to Judaism later migrating to Israel and finally becoming its prime minister. The teenage protagonist, Xavier Radek, is gay, hence the first queer premier of the Zionist state. In his fiction, Grunberg criticises the Nazi prejudice against Jews, homosexuals and gypsies – caused by the white European male’s sense of superiority over other ethnicities. A driving force behind several wars, including the WWII; because war, in the words of Susan Sontag, “is a man’s game… the killing has a gender, and it is male.”
Most wars of the last two centuries were fought for acquiring land, controlling resources, and global dominance. Tiny European nations occupied large territories in Africa, Latin America and Asia. The phenomenon has continued in the form of international politics and globalisation. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in several of his works (part of his solo exhibition, being held from February to June at the COMO Museum of Art, Lahore), dismantles these conditions/ contradictions. His video installations, mixed media tapestries and textile- and photography-based installations are about celebrating the position of a marginalised entity/ identity: a Muslim, North African, Middle Eastern, South Asian, a queer, an endangered species, the threatened environment. They defy neo-colonialism, macho-ism and industrialisation.
In his breath-taking Tomorrow We Inherit the Earth (2017-2023) Bhutto has constructed a narrative of resistance by incorporating found visuals. The video starts with Madam Noor Jehan’s 1973 song: Sanun Nehr Walay Pul tay Bulakay. It informs the viewer that “Radio waves… are able to travel at the speed of light and continue even beyond our atmosphere into other planets, solar systems, stars and galaxies.” The work includes clips of Imam Khomeini stating the distinction between Jews and Zionists, images of flowers opening and closing their petals and the picture of Sana’a Mehaidli, “a member of the who, at the age of 16 blew herself and a Peugeot filled with explosives next to an convoy in , , during the .”
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (son of a Pakistani father and a Lebanese mother, born in 1990 in Damascus, Syria), uses intriguing imagery and eloquent texts to present a holistic view of fighting against Zionist forces, resisting “the weight of colonialism, violence and imperialism.” The text invokes the reaction; is it “really about Muslims… or about being different?” One is reminded that two of the most powerful and persistent voices for the Palestinian cause, Edward Said and Amin Maalouf, “were Arab Christians.”
Being different, being other, being the outsider, being endangered, being a target is the spine of Bhutto’s art. In a sense, his work is not different or dissociated from the legacy of his illustrious grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who gave voice to the voiceless, fought for the exploited peasants, labourers, workers and became a messiah for the dispossessed in Pakistan. Recognising that much water has flowed in the Indus River, Bhutto Jr, who obtained an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 2016, is dealing with a number of diverse marginalised communities.
Being a queer invites all sorts of hostile reactions and restrictions in a patriarchal masochist society. Many see faith, honour and tradition at risk in a queer practice/ presence, not realising/ acknowledging that people in our culture have long recognised, admitted and followed the preference. In a sense, the entire diction of Urdu poetry, from Mir Taqi Mir to Munir Niazi, presents a contradiction since most of them were not homosexuals. They just followed a deep-rooted diction/ tradition dating back to Amir Khusro, who referred to his mentor Nizamuddin using masculine as well as feminine terms, describing their relationship in the vocabulary of intimacy between a man and a woman.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto uses intriguing imagery and eloquent texts to present a holistic view of fighting against Zionist forces, resisting “the weight of colonialism, violence and imperialism.”
It seems odd therefore that in Pakistan today queers have to assert their identity. This is ironic because Lahore, the cultural capital of the country, has long celebrated the annual urs of Madhulal Hussain. According to legend the master and the disciple, a Muslim and a Hindu, are buried in the same grave. Those who forsake the conventional demarcation of gender roles may also leave behind religious bias. In his work, Bhutto addresses the mechanisation of marginality. For him, queer is not merely a private way of living but also a manifestation of larger issues and identities. He declares “What made it queer? Islamophobia and orientalism” forced “Islam into the margins of the world’s political stage.” For him, those fighting a dominant force - political, religious, societal or homophobic - are striving to claim their rightful place. A de-situated Palestinian protestor, a Muslim adhering to his/ her custom while living in the American Midwest, a queer dressing up, interacting and speaking their choices, are battling against the hegemony of a singularity.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto has suggested this struggle through his text-based mixed media Guerrilla Jang kay Hathiyar (2019), Guerrilla Jang kay Piyaray (2019) and images of weapons: bazooka and hand grenade, made with screen print on muslin, printed polyester fabric, gold and blue metallic trimming, embroidery, applique and quilting. The fact that these arms, associated with manly power, are recreated in mediums generally linked with females is significant. Bhutto, elaborates the use of weaving, embroidery, applique, in the course of dismantling the edifice of male power.
Physical power is usually aimed and gained by youngsters in our surroundings by going to gyms. This is true of posh areas as well as poor neighbourhoods. Actually, these establishments for enhancing one’s muscles are not just about some individuals but about subscribing to an ideal. Bhutto comes across a book “supposedly originally written by Arnold Schwarzenegger, a muscleman icon, actor and former governor of California.” The artist expounds on how the American idol of masculinity, power and dominance has been incorporated into local popular symbols. He punctures this by superimposing floral patterns and traditional embroidery on top of these samples of masculine world. In his series Mussalmaan Muscleman (2016-17), the artist has rendered the desires, desperation and defeats of a male Muslim, in his urge to steer the world according to his power (physical, cultural, hierarchical). Men with bulging muscles may be the masters of their tiny hemispheres (cronies, family), but in the harsh, hard world this bodily might is a tiny mark. One may be hired as a salesperson at a shop marketing female shoes, undergarments, makeup; or a tailor stitching wedding dresses. Like the two tapestry hangings with missile or bomb type shapes (titled, Grace 298 and Mercy 258, both from 2020) are defused with the inclusion of chiffon, raw silk and various trimmings and plastic sequins.
The exhibition is all about identifying with the marginalised, and like his grandiose grandfather, recognising their position and associating with them to the extent that he connects with the blind Indus River dolphin. In his Bulhan Nameh, Bhutto has installed a series of ongoing works (since 2020) in which the body and vision of the blind dolphin are represented. In a sequence of cyanotype prints on fabric on paper, the artist has portrayed views of the species under the water, looking at the bridges and barrages built by the colonial powers and the later governments.
In her campaign against Narmada Dam, Arundhati Roy sided with the farmers, who lived in the vicinity and were threatened with disappearance with the emergence of the huge water reservoir. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto presents the case of Indus dolphins.
Says Bhutto: Bulhan (dolphin) “has no lens, only a pinhole, sensing the most basic changes in light and dark. “Imitating how the dolphins would see… from shrines to major engineering projects that have dictated their fate as a species for hundreds of year.” The artist has picked his own pinhole camera and decided to “landscape photos of seven sites that dot the 10-kilometres Sukkur-Rohri stretch.”
In his work at the COMO Museum, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto associates with other humans as well as another species. This represents the ultimate feat of becoming the ‘other’ - gesture to recognise/ show respect to others in the realm of religion, region, politics, melanin, language and gender.
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore