Baseera Khan: I Am an Archive
On ViewBrooklyn Museum Of Art
October 1, 2021 – July 10, 2022
One hears Baseera Khan’s I Am an Archive exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum before one can see it. Walking in, I am deliciously befuddled. Such exultations of sound are not often heard in the hushed and sanitized corridors of museum shows, and I welcome this aural alt-text that acts as both guide and subverter.
In Bust of Canons (2021), 3D-printed layers of acrylic composite into the fractured striations of a body. Life-sized and absent both legs and forearms, this femme body is placed atop a square pedestal. There is an almost tangible oiliness, a nod to the historically charged source, petroleum, from which acrylic is derived, as well as to ritual ablutions. The iridescent and pearly sheen makes the figure seem almost as if it is sheathed in armor. Bust of Canons takes visual cues from both a carved marble Yakshi (12-13th century), sequestered in the Brooklyn Museum's permanent collection, and the sandstone Celestial Dancer (Devata) (mid-11th century) housed at the Metropolitan Museum. Yakshi and Devata are both carved into stark sexual visibility for viewers, their torsos twisting to allow optical access to their exaggeratedly sexual backs and fronts. If this serpentine warping of form—found historically in these sculptures and the Instagram S-curve mirror-selfie trend—feels like a difficult posture to achieve, Khan’s Bust of Canons further nudges the act into impossibility. Border lines of vertical and horizontal cuts intersect and thus delineate the various body parts; they are laid atop one another like bricks, the figure entangled in the grid. I can't help thinking of Amber Jamilla Musser when she asks “[w]hat it feels like to be enmeshed in various regimes of power.” The figure’s fragmented body and evidentiary lines of unwholeness feel to me to be operating in two distinct parallels. The lines of the figure, having been built up, and thus never having totally existed, nod to these ideologies and narratives as carefully constructed, fabricated. The bust is a mirror held up to our perverse desire for consumption of the museological artifact, theoretically able to be handled, traded around, pedestalled, and silenced, and thus endowed with hegemonic signification and wholeness by its extraction from larger contexts and lineages as a result of its removal from its country of origin. However, even as we recognize her status as a pedestalled object, Bust of Canons’s forms deny us full cognizance and thus control. Eyes cast downwards with an expression of almost bored ambivalence. The figure's gaze is directed not merely at the floor but beyond it, a stance of thoughtful interiority that rebukes outside signification. Swelling up from the figure's chest is the globular form of a speaker which intermittently wafts music, a 19-track album Khan recorded earlier this year. The figure's “voice” echoes through the gallery space, thus becoming both background noise and guide as we encounter Khan's oeuvre. Bust of Canons voices its articulation, story, and subjecthood, lightly twisting away from specificity. The addition of real human hair, the artists no less, can be understood as an inverse nod to the idea of the archive, accumulated, categorized, and utilized as a structural element: a tool for a built environment of racism and surveillance.
I venture on and am met with my reflection, by way of four pink, blue, yellow, and purple mirror-clad chandeliers, hung from the ceiling with thick rope and rotating slowly, casting onto the wall disco-ball glimmers of light. The patterns for these lantern works, all entitled Chandeliers (2021), have been pulled from Khan’s family archive, their mother tenderly and meticulously compiling the materials from their Islamic and South Asian textiles. This diligent upkeep acts as a sort of insistence and memoratic homage to their histories: Khan remembers their mother embroidering traditional designs on fabric sourced from Joann Fabrics, a quiet subversion. Let us consider the material of acrylic as a multipronged semiotic departure. As with Bust of Canons, there is a notable nod here to the performance of armoring as something both protective and fraught, the acrylic sheeting simultaneously drawing our eye and dispelling our gaze. There is an inability to glean what is underneath; we are always met with our own looking. I think of Homi Bhabha’s theorizing on the slippages that occur within colonial mimicry, creating interstices of space that allow the “other” to subvert. There are alter-possibilities and counter-archives at work within the gaudiness of bright colors and materials. From an interview between Khan and Diana Seo Hyung Lee, the former notes certain materials that “allowed me to shout while hiding me at the same time.”
My last stop, and what may be one of my favorite aspects of the exhibition, is the reading room, in which Khan has laid out crucial literary sources that feed their practice and research. Connected to the tables are pens, provided for us to add our annotations and notes in the pages. In this way, Khan invites us all to think through and against the systems of power around us and endows us with the choice of annotating into the margins our hopes for alter-realities.