Decolonizing Art for Art’s Sake – The Markaz Review

My piece about decolonizing art for art’s sake in The Markaz Review today! It looks at Rameau’s opéra-ballet, ‘Les Indes Gallantes,’ and compares a stunning production choreographed by Bintou Dembélé (she uses street dance to subvert the colonialist ideology of the opéra) with two underwhelming mainstream white performances that somehow made it to prestigious stages. It’s a look at racism in the arts and how it leads to the recycling of sub-par work. To more art and narratives by people of color. Read here.

dance and collab/community

on friday i taught a combined ‘dance performance and collaboration’ & ‘dance and community’ class at nazareth college where my dear friend Mariko Yamada invited me to share work on my new film The Injured Body: A Film about Racism in America.

most of the students were dance students so at the end of my presentation, i shared the video portion of a multimedia piece mariko and i presented at the fringe festival in 2017. it’s a fusion of text, sound effects, film clips, music and dance that convey the oppressive impact of racism on the human body. i asked the students to reflect on the piece and come up with a movement phrase inspired by what they experienced.

as always, they blew me away. one student talked about the entwining of blackness and queerness, and created a powerful dance accompanied by words recorded in 20 min. amazing. students talked about the abruptness of the fringe piece in which breathing accelerates and climaxes as loud sounds are mixed with hectic footage. they compared it to a panic attack.

they described micro aggressions as a ‘cycle’ one is stuck in against one’s will and a ‘pill’ one is forced to swallow every day. students talked about BIPOCs being watched relentlessly and the self-consciousness and stress that comes from that policing. they incorporated the ‘hands up’ movement in their dance, to mirror gestures used by protestors.

one student talked about the effects of holding in too much, not being able to breathe freely, and how that can lead to mental health issues and medical problems. we talked about the heaviness of racist micro aggressions and how a just vision for the future can give us hope.

and so do bright young people <3

editing a film trailer

editing a feature length documentary again, after 6 years! finished working on ‘a thin wall’ in 2015. getting the hang of premiere pro (still learning) thx to Rajesh Barnabas and creating a beautiful, exceptionally long trailer (can’t fit all this richness in 2 min). so grateful for this work and the people it highlights, in this case more than 20 women of color, thru interviews and dance. it’s always hard to get started (transcription, getting all the materials aligned, technical obstacles, the sheer magnitude of the task) but once i do, i can’t stop. art-making elevates everything. it gives one hope <3

[Ayni Ali photographed for ‘the injured body’ by Arleen Thaler]

i don’t know all muslim/brown people

a friendly FYI: because i was born outside of the US and i’m brown and muslim, it doesn’t mean that i know all muslims, brown people, immigrants, or folx from south asia.

in one of my first jobs at ABB, in CT, my boss would come running to my office to say something like, ‘i was just on the phone with this guy from india…’ there would be no other connection, just some random guy’s indian-ness affixed to my apparent pakistani origins.

i met a white person on zoom the other day, someone i know professionally, and he told me (for no reason whatsoever) that in school he had a friend named muhammad and that the only memory he had of him was making out with girls at his place. relevance u might ask? well, u wouldn’t be the first. i guess it was muhammed’s muslim-ness that i was supposed to dig.

i don’t need to know about a cousin’s best friend who happened to be pakistani or about the unforgettable trip to india whilst in college. imagine if we started bonding with the mainstream by listing all the white people/places we know.

so, no need to mention brown or muslim folx if their identity seems to be their only function. i probably don’t know them. there are a lot of people in south asia and about a quarter of the world population is muslim. just sayin:)

feeling blue and how i got over it

i had been feeling blue for a while. it’s hard to be homebound and work on one’s computer all day, every day. so today, i turned on the music, loud, on my wonderboom, and cleaned the whole apartment. there is something deeply satisfying about being in motion and scrubbing. isn’t cleanliness next to godliness:)

then i put on my snow boots and drove to #lakeronkonkoma. i had no idea if it would be walkabale or not, with all the snow on the ground. lake #ronkonkoma is about 10 min from where we live. it’s the largest and deepest lake in #longisland – 92 feet at its deepest. the indigenous people of this land considered it a bottomless lake, so sacred that they wouldn’t fish in its waters. but they did perform wonderful ceremonies all around it.

i have always, since day one, felt a deep connection to lake ronkonkoma. there is something unreal about the blue of its waters and the translucent light and sky above them.

the lake was particularly moving this afternoon. the sky striated with shades of blue, grey, light-filled yellow and gentle purple hues. something delicate and liquid. the lake covered with ice. still, white, expansive. i walked in the snow and learned to keep my balance, held by the enchanting beauty around me. my eyes rejoiced.

in urdu, there is this expression ‘aankhoon ki thandak’ – the coolness of one’s eyes. those we love give us pleasure, when our eyes behold them, they provide cool relief to tired eyes. i kept thinking of this expression. my eyes too felt relaxed, not just because of the cold weather but because of the serenity the lake offered so generously.

i know all our situations are different, but if u can, go outside, walk in the snow and feel connected to the world.

salman toor at the whitney

why i came to nyc: stunning work by salman toor, born in lahore, at the whitney. his first solo exhibition: stories of queer brown men as they negotiate the distance between new york and pakistan. the expressive faces and hands in his paintings are exceptionally rendered. so many things that strike one as immediately recognizable – the turn of a head whilst sitting down for tea, the passive acceptance of extra security checks at customs and immigration, the anxiety of being questioned by pakistani cops when on a date, etc. am still here. still discovering.
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whitneymuseum #salmantoor #lahore #pakistan #newyork #newyorkcity #art #figurativepainting #oilpainting #queerbrown

Borders Can Be Borderlands

My piece in Mason Street’s Winter Issue 2021 published today.

‘It used to be that borders were formed naturally, by oceans and mountains, carved out by the physical contours of the earth’s surface. There was something poetic about these landforms, extending from foothills and valleys, to plains and plateaus, all the way to seafloors. They were shaped by wind and water erosion, pushed up by the collision of tectonic plates, forged by volcanic eruptions, sandblasted and weathered over millions of years. They were substantive, grounded in history.

The borders that came out of the crumbling of empires, in the 20th century, were different. Cartographic inventions meant to divvy up world resources and power, divorced from indigenous logic or priorities. A few sheets of stolen paper.’

More here.

a mon professeur prefere

cher monsieur maurer, it will be a while before i can fully express everything i want to say, but u left an indelible impression on my life. u believed in me more than any other teacher. u made me feel like i was destined to do important things. nothing could have meant more to me at that age, in 6th grade. it opened up the world to me, made it accessible, in spite of the racism that would crop up once in a while both inside and outside our school. i never got those othering vibes from u.

i am glad i got to meet u once, as an adult, on a visit to brussels. what a moment that was – stepping into a classroom at parc schuman, the way it used to be, u coming out of the class, recognizing me and hugging me with immense emotion. u once told my mother that everything is possible for me. i lived by those words. when i left parc schuman for lycee emile jacqmain, i came to say goodbye. as i left the school, i can still see u leaning against the door frame, saying matter-of-factly: “ne change pas.”

after we reconnected on fb, i didn’t always agree with ur politics. the othering that i had never felt in person, came through indirectly in the posts, an orientalism that was hard for me to take. yet what u meant to me growing up is unequivocal. relationships can be complicated that way. it’s hard to believe u are no longer here. yet so much of what u taught us will remain close. it is a part of me.

the memes are for us

just to clarify, the bernie memes are for us, hardcore bernie supporters. we’re not posting to defang bernie or minimize his message, but because he’s the real deal. me personally, i am also enjoying the memes because, as jennifer jajeh pointed out, inaugurations are corny. also, settler anthems, flags, expensive peacoats, and other misc pageantry don’t do anything for me. so i am with bernie: apart from the crowd, doing his own thing, aware of the sabotage, but continuing the work. neoliberals, centrists and warren fans who went after bernie, hands off pls:)

To be published in a literary magazine!

Last year in Sept, in the midst of working on my film and several other projects, I wrote a longer piece and submitted it to Mason Street for their Winter 2021 Issue “Frontiers and Borderlands.” My piece is a collage of personal and collective history, poetry, and art. It combines many voices and points of view, but it starts with my mother’s story and how she experienced the violence of the 1947 partition. I got an email from the editors today. They have accepted the piece!!! It should be published online in Feb. I am incredibly thrilled! Writing is something I’ve loved since I was a child. Although I continue to write for films, articles and presentations, it was important to try and write for a literary publication. I was nervous. It’s an art form I have not invested in for too long. This validation means the world to me.

seeing ‘the changemakers’ at RMSC

at the rochester museum & science center today where we saw ‘the changemakers’ exhibit which is stunning. recognized so many beautiful women friends who are part of the exhibition. two pieces from my art series ‘this heirloom’ are on display there. one is a graphic collage with my mom and her sister, when they were little girls. the other is called ‘embroidered dreams’ and it’s a tribute to my paternal grandmother, niaz fatima. my grandmother became a widow when she was quite young and struggled to raise and educate her children, in a highly patriarchal family system. i was wondering how she would feel about her picture hanging in a museum in rochester, new york, a tribute by a granddaughter she didn’t see grow up. it felt empowering.
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rmsc #thechangemakers #beachangemaker #womensupportingwomen #womenempowerment #pakistan #rochesteny

The NYT’s terrorism fetish

“We fell in love with the fact that we had gotten a member of ISIS who would describe his life in the caliphate and would describe his crimes,” New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet told NPR in an interview. “I think we were so in love with it that when we saw evidence that maybe he was a fabulist, when we saw evidence that he was making some of it up, we didn’t listen hard enough.”

That’s it? The NYT was madly in love with ISIS fantasies, so they didn’t bother to check whether their one and only source, Shehroze Chaudhry, had ever been to Syria? Rukmini Callimachi, their terrorism star, gets reassigned and we move on?

This is the problem with the West: their obsession with lurid, Orientalist, violent, but also perversely erotic readings and portrayals of the non-West. It’s a full-time job that requires constant snooping and make-believe, the invention of entire disciplines and colonial projects, the production of art and culture, as well as plentiful funding and prestigious awards. Whether it’s the Nobel or Pulitzer, the Peabody or the Oscars, look at the stories being told. What gets rewarded and what gets left on the dusty pile of rejection.

This reward and punishment scheme is so consistent and normalized, that even people of color with connections to the non-West get it. They know what stories to tell or how far they can go in their criticism of Europe and its stellar intellectual history. The trick is to complicate, to rely on subterfuge, and not make the indictment of the non-West too obvious, racist, or one-note. The formula works well, particularly if the oeuvre is inspired by Plato’s Dialogues or Leopardi’s Canti.

The ‘Caliphate’ fiasco is hardly an anomaly. NYT terrorism expert Judith Miller cheerled the invasion of Iraq, because her source “clad in nondescript clothes and a baseball cap pointed to several spots in the sand where he said chemical precursors and other weapons material were buried.”

This is the precarious foundation on which the War on Terror and its attendant propaganda are built, buttressed by stories of magic WMDs and ISIS elves. Failures of American journalism, however spectacular, never make a dent because this is the reflection we want to behold. We can only be good and right, if someone else is bad and wrong. Even if we get caught lying like a rug, we can turn around and say we were so madly in love with the truth, we just didn’t listen hard enough.

in karachi

i’ve been working 24/7 on a new community-oriented art project and the gorgeous website that will house it (thank u Isabelle for ur brilliant work on the website) and so i’m looking through old external hard drives to find and organize artwork and photography i have produced over the years. came across this picture from karachi where i was working at the time – my first serious job as a management trainee at ICI. wonderful times when everything was exciting and possible, even though i was stuck in a corporate world that never really jibed with me. still i will always be grateful for jobs that made me financially independent and able to live on my own in a diverse and insane metropolis, almost double the population of nyc. photograph by Umar:)