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Rebellions: Imagined & Inherited

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Jr at Como Museum


Hassan Tahir Latif


What does the earth ask of us,

What lies in the marriage contract between flesh and soil?



Human lives are frail and seem to always hang in a precarious balance. The threats of mass extinction, war, famine, climate catastrophes loom over us constantly, forcing us to confront our mortality. Recently, there has been a rise in ultra right wing tendencies and fascism, with an onslaught of hyper consumerism and hyper capitalist behaviour. At the same time, and perhaps because of it, there has also been a shift towards spirituality and the need to connect with forces deeper and more ancient than all of us.


It is in this context that the epithet above stood out to me when visiting Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Jr.’s show at Como Museum in Lahore. The words are pasted on the walls of the gallery space and kept returning to me when I began to think about how to approach Bhutto’s work. Work that for me was always associated with issues of identity, queerness and anti-imperialist politics. These themes are naturally present in the installations at Como; however, this one question became a lens for me to engage with them. I found it not only made his body of work more pertinent, but also lent it a sense of urgency.


What does the earth ask of us indeed?


Bhutto has inhabited various identities: he is a multidisciplinary artist and wildlife advocate who has worked across several mediums in both Pakistan and abroad, with artwork and performances that are a commentary on patriarchal structures, queer identities, religion, imperialist oppression and rebellions. His wildlife advocacy and climate activism has brought to light many of the issues plaguing his native land of Sindh, which in turn affect the local and global ecologies. All of this comes under one roof at Como, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the breadth of his work.


The show at Como is comprised of three major series from the artist: Tomorrow We Inherit the Earth, Mussalmaan Musclemen and Bulhan Nameh—Dolphin Diaries.


Tomorrow We Inherit the Earth (2017-2023) is an investigation into histories of popular resistance, guerrilla warfare and anti-imperialism in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, in the context of a post-utopian and post-human world. It comprises of textile installations and video works and presents an imagined future revolution where queer Muslims and their allies counter imperialist and neo-imperialist oppressions. It is a series of projects spread out over six years, culminating in a four-part film series, ABJD. At Como, I was able to see Prologue 1009, the first film in the ABJD series.


Stills from Prologue 1009

Prologue 1009 is a fascinating blend of myth, history, politics and speculative fiction. What we are presented with is an archive of an imagined revolution set somewhere in the distant future.


The video begins with Noor Jehan’s iconic song, Sanu Nahr Walay Pull, playing slowly in the background and then fading away. It is quite eerie to listen to this lover’s lament in this setting. There’s a sense of otherworldliness, cementing this video as belonging to another time, another place. We are then met with evocative imagery of rebellions, political leaders, ancient ruins and news footage. A voice-over narrates text that is essentially a call to rebellion.


From visuals of historic ruins, revolution, snippets of a sermon from Khomeini, to verses from the goddess Ishtar’s descent to the lower world, the audio-visual collage creates a compelling case to examine human mortality and the repercussions of our actions. What will be left behind? What will be found after we are long gone?


There is also an underlying element of horror, a sense of foreboding, throughout the footage. Speculative fiction, horror and sci-fi are all genres that lend themselves successfully as platforms for difficult conversations centred around human behaviour, injustice and trauma They also create a space to present diverse voices, such as queer and POC, that can face censorship in more traditional methods of storytelling. This finds form in the ABJD films that follow Prologue 1009, where Bhutto, embodying his drag personal Faluda Islam, collaborated with a diverse group of artists in using horror as one of the elements for his world building.


Yoman Osman in her foreword, Hopeless Musings On A Darling City, written for the ABJD x Tomorrow We Inherit the Earth companion publication (also available at Como) echoes this thought: “Horror is able to access and trigger a primal, childish part in viewers, making it the perfect medium to discuss trauma.”


The video is complemented by textile installations that depict real and imagined guerrilla fighters, exalting and venerating them. Some of my favourite pieces are of the bejewelled and bedazzled kabbadi players, representing Bhutto’s vision of futuristic warriors. These works reminded me of various mythological figures and symbols, Greek minotaurs and altars. In the central foyer of Como, we find tapestries of similarly bedazzled missiles, while tapestries depicting guns and other weaponry are spread all around. All of these are embroidered with flowers and other textile interventions—essentially rendering them less masculine.


MODERN ATTACK, 2020

[From L to R: Javedan Ajal Adhahab, 2021; Javedan Abu Nawaz Ibn Quzman, 2018; Mercy 258, 2020]


This flows seamlessly into an earlier work of Bhutto’s, the Mussalmaan Muscleman (2016-2017) series, which uses imagery taken from a translated version of a book allegedly written by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Blown up versions of photographs from this fitness manual have been printed on fabric alongside the translated text in Urdu. Bhutto has then feminised these tropes of masculinity through his signature textile practice. Flowers, sequins, jhallars and sehrasare superimposed in embroidery.


One of my favourite pieces is Feet, where a moustachioed, hirsute man is staring directly into the camera, wearing nothing but trunks (along with socks and sneakers), smiling ever so slightly and flexing with a barbell. This image of hyper-masculinity is dotted with flowers and during the opening was surrounded by a field of rose petals, the scent of which pervaded across the space—I wondered if it was meant to also signify a funeral for toxic masculinity.


Feet (2017)

For anyone who has struggled with their body, with the concept of masculinity they present, with occupying hyper masculine spaces such as the gym, this stance (or indeed such a person) would be equal parts intimidating and curious. Such hyper-masculinity is one of the many reasons why I personally prefer working out at home and not surrounded by a group of supposedly evolved men acting out their most primal fantasies, grunts and all. Bhutto turns the imagery on its head with floral motifs. The ensuing result almost leads one to think the moustachioed man is about to drop the barbell and go “hey girl!”


The intersection of hyper-masculinity and homoeroticism goes back centuries, and we are reminded that it is even now fully entrenched in our societies. In an age where marginalised identities are constantly under threat from patriarchy and traditional masculinity, this work remains pertinent. Bhutto presents us with a vision for a softened masculinity, one that embraces a fluid perspective of gender and sexuality. His embroidery and appliques may emasculate these images in the traditional sense, but in doing so empowers them with softness that is urgently required in a world continuously suffering under heteronormative masculinity. I believe I can safely state that many of the problems facing our world, from neo-colonialism, neo-imperialism, climate change denial and the exploitation of natural resources, all stem from this mindset.


The artist’s latest work and the third series in the show, is the Bulhen Nameh—Dolphin Diaries (2020-ongoing), a commentary on the havoc wreaked by exploitative practices on delicate ecological systems that have taken aeons to develop. Bhutto’s love for wildlife, his work on climate change and his deep association with his ancestral land comes alive in this series.



Cyanotype prints on khaddar from 'Dolphins Circling Sadhu Bela' (2023), with 'Nazir Mirani through a dolphin's eyes' in BG Left.

Bulhen is the Sindhi and Seraiki word for dolphin and many of us are familiar with the Indus River Dolphin, commonly known as the Blind Indus Dolphin—centuries of evolution has taught it to survive without its eyes. Using his background in alternate photography, the artist has captured imagery with a pinhole camera that is mimetic of how the Indus Dolphin interacts with the world. These are reproduced as cyanotypes on khaddar. The hanging textile pieces remind one of the flowing motion of the water, transporting us to the Indus herself, evoking “a meditation on memory, nostalgia and loss.”


With this research project Bhutto aims to ‘re-mystify the Indus and in so doing allow us to re-imagine Her as a living and ever changing entity’. The work essentially becomes an archive of the Indus, mapping the way it has changed over centuries, how it has been used for the modern state, as well as for religious and spiritual activities. I am eager to see how the project unfolds and where it finds a culmination point.


Throughout the show the same thought recurs: what do we owe this earth? How do we live with it and live with integrity? Whether it is the commentary on colonialism, patriarchy, masculinity or ecology, the exploration of what we owe the earth in return for the life we have been given remains a constant. Bhutto’s expansive work presents a vision where queer and marginalised identities are instruments of dismantling oppressive regimes, of non-toxic masculinities, of a world where we pay homage to Nature rather than exploit it endlessly. And perhaps that is what we owe the earth, that is what is in the marriage contract between earth and flesh: a celebration of the Other, of the softer approaches to life that can be a conduit for a more harmonious existence. We must turn, as Bhutto exclaims, to Indigenous communities who can impart essential knowledge amassed over centuries to move us towards a healthier planet.


As I write this, a cyclone threatens to wreak havoc on Pakistan’s coastline; irregular weather patterns have displaced the standard arid June of Lahore with a seesaw of early monsoon thunderstorms and uncharacteristically brilliant spring days; famine looms large due to impending economic crises (and from crises we have already undergone); marginalised communities and those who dare to speak against oppression are routinely cut down to size. Our own nation is not the only one rife with such difficulties: wildfires run rampant around the world, minority rights hang on a precipice, conservative factions continue to gain momentum. It appears as if our very existence hangs in the balance.


In questioning what we owe back to the earth we can find a way to move forward. I am often wont to give into my more nihilistic tendencies and be supremely pessimistic, wondering if there is any point to fixing any of this—perhaps Nature will find a way once humanity drives itself to extinction. Is there any point in even saving it?


However, Bhutto’s afterword in the ABJD companion publication comes to mind:


“The future is very much here leaving very little left for the imagination. Yet it still feels important to continue visioning and this is the emancipatory power of telling stories about the future, about other possible realities. We are a world in desperate need of good news.”


I concur. It is essential that we continue to tell our stories, stories that provoke and inspire, stories that platform queer and other marginalised voices that light a path towards a just and equitable future. Bhutto has shifted focus from imagined futures to the pressing needs of the earth, however, shows such as this one become an instrument in furthering such thought and expanding ideas that we may find uncomfortable to contend with.


We cannot reverse the wheel of time and inherit a different earth, but we can ensure that those we bequeath it to inherit a better one.


Tomorrow We Inherit the Earth at Como Museum (Lahore) is on till 30th June.



 


Hassan Tahir Latif is Managing Editor at The Aleph Review.


All gallery photos courtesy the author. Stills from Prologue 1009 are sourced from ABJD and Tomorrow We Inherit the Earth (Sming Sming Books).

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