Inside iamuslima: An Interview with Baseera Khan

Baseera Khan just had her first solo show in New York City, iamuslima. Khan presented work that packages her social and personal identities with familiar spiritual objects and family archives. Her anxiety of deep rooted historical trauma matches her concerns with the politics of immigration in America. Khan’s method to create sculptural endurance performance works, all in relation to her body, attempt to manage and think through, “what’s next?”

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iamuslima NikeID sneaker by Baseera Khan. Image Courtesy of the artist.

The first piece seen at the forefront of the exhibition was a pair of Nike Air Force One Mid-Top sneakers designed by Khan through the NIKEiD project. After hearing of a lawsuit against Nike for not allowing the word “Muslim” to be embroidered on these customized shoes, Khan sidestepped the blockade by altering the word. She calls this strategy “misspelling on purpose”, and had iamuslima inscribed onto the shoes instead, this manipulated word directly referencing Khan’s identity as both a Muslim and a woman. These shoes were also a document from her performance during the opening night of the exhibition where she walked around the space in the shoes, and then placed them atop the stack of acrylic boxes also seen at the forefront. These boxes were meant to function as an invitation for others to take their shoes off too.

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Images courtesy of the artist.

She then proceeded to perform ablution with a bowl of black chalk nearby, readying herself to climb a synthetic rock wall installed at the opposite end of the gallery entitled Braidrage, leaving chalk dust footsteps behind. The rocks were made from resin molds of the corners of her body with chains and locks of hair embedded into them like DNA. Traversing vertically a white wall, via the corners,  Khan climbed as high as she could until utter fatigue, leaving yet another residue of black chalk against the wall. Traces of her presence remained throughout the entire run of the installation.

The Acoustic Sound Blankets placed in the exhibition were worn by Khan in several prior performances that speak about safe spaces and intimacy. Individuals were invited to come under the blankets with her, offering protection against assaulting sounds. There are Psychedelic Prayer Rugs — created collaboratively — colorfully designed by Khan and fabricated by people residing in Kashmir, India. After visiting the exhibition for an artist talk, I wanted to probe the artist further about the context of her practice.

Khan expresses the importance of community when making her work. I asked, with her work primarily exploring themes her own identity, being a Muslim queer woman of color, how then does she engage or build a community in the process of making work? How does this community then support the practice of understanding one’s own identity?

“There was a large group of people that came together to help me with this exhibition.” As a teacher at Parsons, many former students came together to help Khan with her exhibition. In return she would plug them into jobs or they were given school credit for their assistance. All of these students were also queer people of color,  which was important for Khan. “It gave me an opportunity to create an environment of people where, while we were making the work, we could have an ongoing conversation about our feelings and topics that extended beyond the classroom discourse.”

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Psychedelic Prayer Rugs by Baseera Khan. Image Courtesy of the artist.

A longer arc of conversation took place when producing the Psychedelic Prayer Rugs. This idea, to travel to India and collaborate there, conjured when Khan’s father passed away and her mother came to live with her for some time. “I was trying to find a way for her to enter into my world,” continuing to practice engaging the community with her work. She took her mother to Parsons, toured the design classrooms together, and while Khan taught class her mother actually helped embroider designs for the Acoustic Sound Blankets. At some point they came to realize this task was not something they could do alone by hand. Thus, they traveled to India and were able to connect with artisans to help produce some of the embroidery in Khan’s show. This is when they discovered the ideas behind the Psychedelic Prayer Rugs.

Khan comes from a lineage of people that have always worked in pedagogy and textile construction. Teaching is what she wants to sustain her livelihood along side her studio practice. Her engagement in this way is most important, and if the work she continues to make sells, then she would be even more able to provide resources for the community she is surrounding herself with. “You start to learn about how to be a leader or how to truly be in a community, and how to form your own family.” Khan, as a teacher and a leader, is a strong example for students and artists to form more empathetic environments for people with religious differences, or differences at all, as she builds and engages her own community.

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Acoustic Sound Blankets by Baseera Khan. Image by Maxim Ryazansky and courtesy of the artist.

Many of the materials used reference the body, and are re-used and employed in different ways. The Acoustic Sound Blankets, for example, have many iterations, engaging a community and creating safe spaces. I asked Khan, how do the materials evolve and continue to reference your body and other bodies?

Khan feels very assaulted by sound, admitting to having an astute sense of hearing which makes her sensitive to it. The acoustic blankets are a soft space that minimize the sound coming at you. They were “A micro geography you could slip underneath, to have reprieve from sound violations, from sound terror you hear everyday– you know, the city is crying and vibrating constantly.” Her interest in understanding military architecture led her away from the exploration of physical architecture of a space and instead brought her focus to how sound controls populations of people, like the call to prayer. “Sound is a way we are controlled; it is a cue to do certain things; it is very pavlovian. I wanted to repool myself and find my own affinity groups. Instinctually, the way to do that was to create a vacuum” for these sounds.

She would invite people underneath an Acoustic Sound Blanket in these performances, activating a space of intimacy. She would gauge interactions based on their comfortability, offering to sing to them, mostly. The acts would continue as well as the two people engage by looking at each other and hugging, turning the micro geography into an intimate environment. She even wore one of these during the women’s marches that occurred in New York around the time of the inauguration.

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Images of Khan wearing an Acoustic Sound Blanket at the Women’s March in NYC. Images courtesy of the artist.

Along with these performances is an aspect of a “social construction of how we have expectations of each other, in regards to all the chaos happening in response to class and race.” Khan told me, “I wanted to do something and be present, but I didn’t want my body to be present. To mask myself in this kind of acoustic geography was a way for me to be present, you can hear my voice, but you cannot see my body.”

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Braidrage by Baseera Khan. Image by Maxim Ryazansky and courtesy of the artist.

In regards to the rockwall, Braidrage, there was an idea formulated here about performance and endurance with exercise wielding a way to combat the anxiety from deep rooted historical trauma. I asked Khan, how is exercise a part of the your daily practice and your artistic practice?

Khan asked herself “How can I sustain myself making work that gives me something in return? I want to have fun, I want to be social, I want to be healthy.” This spawned from an unhealthy relationship she was having with her art practice. She was interviewed for the 2010 Whitney biennial, but she realized the work did not build a community and that the paintings she was making at the time left her hands, were misinterpreted and she felt had become instruments for neo-liberalism. She decided to go to graduate school at Cornell to study, and while she still made a lot of work, she did not engage like before, leaving the fourth wall up. “Exercise became the thing I learned was what I needed 2014 as I watched my father and brother and mother’s health devolve. Toxicity is not a normative narrative, I think it is linked to colonization and displacement and the patriarchy and I wanted to do something about that and control that narrative in my work. And if I wasn’t doing that I didn’t want to make work.” In this way, she explains in her bio, strategies for decolonial practices.

Khan attended the Skowhegan residency soon after this realization which played a large role in pushing this idea. The residency facilities had a sound booth which led her to the creating of the Acoustic Sound Blankets as well as other performances during the residency. The environment of the school in general promoted exercise. “I was so healthy…I started to employ exercise in artistic ways as a way to manage trauma…and I do projects based on exercise as a medium.” The gym became the studio, where Baseera could use running as a medium and then used climbing in Braidrage; the performances becoming about endurance. Presenting the artist’s body in two forms in Braidrage exemplifies a colored body traversing a vertical plane, pressed up against a white background. “I wanted to see what a woman of color looked like pushed up against a white wall, and see how far she could go.”

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Baseera Khan in front of Braidrage. Image courtesy of the artist.




Jordan Kasey’s Whimsical “Exoplanet” at Nicelle Beauchene Gallery

Jordan Kasey exhibits six new large-scale paintings, encircling and filling the space with visions of whimsy. “Exoplanet,” at Nicelle Beauchene Gallery in Soho, permits the viewer to enter Kasey’s paintings, which seem extracted from a different world. The light within each painting emulates unnatural tones and shadows that exist under a source of light unfamiliar in terms of planetary sensibility.

Installation Image of Jordan Kasey's Exoplanet courtesy of Nicelle Beauchene Gallery

Installation Image of Jordan Kasey’s Exoplanet courtesy of the Artist and Nicelle Beauchene Gallery

A white light illuminates a poolside, crisply accentuating a shadow cast on a beige pavement by a red hand; a red and turquoise light saturate a dinner table, the view downward on only one guest, their skin and hair also saturated by the light. With gray dominating much of the canvas space, as an object casts a colored shadow, the stark lighting and brilliance surrounding leads me to imagine the rest of the environment in chrome and under a scintillating white sun. Yet, I find something uncanny about these places. What is this alternate reality and why are we going there? Regardless, in an in-between place, I feel at a distance from the world I’m physically in and still separate from the world Kasey depicts.

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Installation Image of Jordan Kasey’s Exoplanet courtesy of the Artist and Nicelle Beauchene Gallery

The paintings’ edges barely contain entire bodies, entering the picture plane showing all but the right or left side of the body, no head, half of a face, or only a face, whose massiveness arrest me and leave me feeling almost miniature. The scale of these figures and the canvas push me farther out of reality into a realm where I encounter scenes that resonate with real life, but I must have only seen them in a dream. A single paint stroke captures the realness of a toenail or a blade of grass, but also impossibly molds a head without any concavity for an eyeball to be set in, sitting instead like stickers on a flat surface. The dimensionality of the objects that populate the scenes render these flat planes into dense dreamscapes, where impossibly lit figures and structures depict everyday activities to be more complex and dense; these engorged moments mirroring memories of dreams.




Intimate Strangers: A Response to Dawit L. Petros and Emmanuel Iduma’s conversation at H&R Block Artspace

At H&R Block Artspace, Dawit L. Petros’ The Stranger’s Notebook, brings a conversation that asks what it means to be a stranger to other people, places and archives. The exhibition consists of photographic, video, and sound based works that documents Petros’ 13 month journey through Africa and Europe: from Lagos, Nigeria to Amsterdam and then to Italy and Morocco. It provokes an inner-conversation about being a stranger; as a large part of our lives are spent in transition. There are strangers I pass by on the street, share a space with, and even anticipate interaction with. Recognizing my ability to blend into the background of others’ lives, I understand that I am the stranger too.

I observed the conversation at the Artspace between Petros and Emmanuel Iduma (art critic and founder of the collective, Invisible Borders). Iduma worked with Petros for a portion of his journey while documenting The Stranger’s Notebook. Both investigating similar ideas within their practice, Iduma asks Petros these questions:

What does it mean to be an intimate stranger? How do you reflect on this experience of traveling? How do you write in respect to the manner of this fleeting kind of movement and experiences? Most importantly, How do you think about presentation in response to mode of travel?

Dawit explains that the starting point of his work was an image of a circus elephant named Snyder, which he encountered in Salina, Kansas.

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An image of Snyder the circus elephant, killed in 1920 in Salina, Kansas. Photograph courtesy of Dawit L. Petros.

Assumptions made about this elephant being from Africa (which it wasn’t) kindled curiosity in Dawit about images like this, where its complexity causes the viewer to place assumptions within the story of an image. Throughout his journey, Petros found himself at the center of “stranger-ness,” unaware of or had no access to the truth in the narratives he was facing. Having experienced migration himself as a refugee, he is researching and considering the experiences we all have of different journeys at different privileges. The presence of this show brought the opportunity for him to investigate his sense of distance from others as a stranger by circulating evidence, via his personal and encountered archives, of shared compassion, knowledge, and perspectives.

Historical Rupture by Dawit L. Petros. Image courtesy of the H&R Block Artspace.

Historical Rupture by Dawit L. Petros. Image courtesy of the H&R Block Artspace.

This piece, Historical Rupture, became a central point of the show because of its reference to the act of making assumptions while disrupting a linear arrangement.  In this work I found a direct correlation to how we look and then digest information to build a sense of the past. The fragments dispersed and not arranged within a chronological structure create questions about what can be seen with no clear answers. These are photographs of the ocean’s turbulence, rest, and horizon, but there are a few photographs of a kind of material and other unfocused images that suggest the ocean but are visibly not.

Again, I catch myself making assumptions of what I am seeing within a single photograph, but am then denied that assumption by what a photograph nearby suggests. The ocean was used as an allegory for history. The notion of history’s linear structure creates order but this is not the reality of how we actually experience it– in a fluid arrangement of knowledge. I visualize history as a grid of intersecting circles of people’s viewpoints of their personal or extended past. Because of the massive amount of archives kept to unfold ideas or truths about the past, there is a way to construct an interpretation of a past which considers multiple perspectives.

Install shot of The Strangers Notebook by Dawit L. Petros. Image courtesy of the H&R Block Artspace.

Install shot of The Stranger’s Notebook by Dawit L. Petros. Image courtesy of the H&R Block Artspace.

In this show, Petros was placed within numerous charged spaces where he had to decide how to document his surroundings. He explains that he assesses what is accessible to him within his surroundings and remains truthful to the complexity that exists there. “Stop, establish, reflect, and construct.” He experienced a sense of estrangement from these bodies, which allowed room to define a more intimate space by being empathetic.

Extending into a setting where we are forced to consider other histories can make us better citizens and allies. This is not some friendly reminder like ones from roommates to keep shared space clean, but is a persistent obligation to know that one’s experiences are not another’s. Specifically, the 2016 presidential election has brought attention to a condition of complexity in reality. This condition seems to exist at the periphery of  the social bubbles individuals can be isolated within. Centered in the information we want to interact with, we can easily be blind to the information we should consider that has been left at the periphery of our social bubble. If left unconsidered, we become ignorant and apathetic.

So, as we continue to make and see art, travel, experience the world, it is important to assess our own surroundings and be mindful of perspectives we may not have access to.




Where is Nuance Found? A Review of Arterial Echoes: Three Generations of Creative Mentoring

Arterial Echoes: Three Generations of Creative Mentoring, at UMKC’s Gallery of Art , which ran from September 8th through October 28th 2016, presented a series of work shown in eight groups of three: one UMKC faculty member, their mentor, and a student (the faculty member taught). With a diverse representation of drawing, painting, print, and digital media, cohesiveness was achieved through presenting these triad relationships.

The carefully crafted title, Arterial Echoes, was meant to showcase parallels in the highly diverse works. That diversity as a whole lessened the specific emphasis on these shared connections.  Our ability to trace the routes these artists followed to conjure their own work stopped short when we only got to see one piece from each artist in a grouping.

Installation image of Arterial Echoes image courtesy of UMKC Gallery

Installation image of Arterial Echoes image courtesy of UMKC Gallery

For instance, with the work of Ricky Allman, we saw only a single painting from his larger body of work, and only one work plucked from his mentor’s and student’s portfolio. This relationship is narrow.  The problem is that the works chosen were too distilled; they did not seem to be carefully decided and consequently destroy the contextual oeuvre of each artist. They focused more on comparing directly to the professors than to the mentors and students as artists with broad practices themselves. The show would have been stronger if  it focused on more work from one or two triads of artists and allowed conversations to occur within the gallery.  There is simply not enough to compare, and ironically, too much.  

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Works by Timothy App, Andy McIlvaine, Davin Watne. Images by the author (left) and courtesy of the UMKC Gallery (right)

This show did not showcase all three artists’ works made concurrently, which could have better represented practices in adjacency to each other. The years in which the work were pulled appear random and unconsidered.  Within one triad of works, professor Kati Toivanen’s has work from 2015, mentor Stephen DiRado’s was from 1987, and the student Sarah Kraly’s was from 2009. Contrarily, in another triad, professor Ricky Allman’s work was from 2015, mentor Hyunmee Lee’s from 2015, and student Sopearb Touch’s from 2016. Logically, with narrowed time gaps between more current works, routes are more accessible and cohesive. This particular grouping of  Allman, Lee, and Touch was one of the strongest in the show in terms of how it highlighted the formal kinship between the artists.

With an intent to emphasize a route where the artists gave themselves permission to use the tools their predecessor provided, connections became apparent formally, moving from surface to surface of each piece in the show. The oil paintings of UMKC professor Davin Watne, his mentor Timothy App, and Watne’s student Andrew McIlvaine did strongly represent this route. What becomes evident in this grouping is that we often overlook the impact of our influences. The similarity of the monochromatic color palettes were obvious. After recognition of what else exists within the frame of view, the rest of the linking elements became clear. While content is broad in this group, compositionally, the paintings were very similar through the treatment of the frame. The atmosphere, dull and thick, surrounded the illuminated centers of each work.

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Image courtesy of UMKC Gallery

But these were three works out of twenty-one. The other eighteen were not necessarily linkable to these three. If they were — it is a stretch.  There are photo prints, etchings, and video work; all of which don’t necessarily talk to any of the other groupings. This show is full of separate micro conversations, without a focus on the whole. Unlike a museum, that sections off works in expansive rooms by time period  showing a large breadth of a particular movement, this show was doing too much with too little space.  If this had been eight mini shows with more work, and more room it could have been more exciting — and also more specific.  The goal of the exhibition, to exhibit three generations of mentoring, lost its luster when too many connections were trying to be made

This exhibition found success in how these relationships echo one another formally. We expand our ideas through being influenced by those around us. This particular exhibition complicated this intent with its broadness. There were many disparate pieces that made the show like a garment unraveling a broad history. One could find the thread between the work of Stephen DiRado from one triad, of Elija Gowin from another, Andrew McIlvaine from another, and so on.  These possibilities made it apparent that there were an infinite amount of threads to be traced without the support of a solid thesis beyond formal comparisons.