Non-Binary Muslim-American Artist Baseera Khan Finds Her Voice in Moody Center Exhibit at Rice

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“Girls”, the HBO television series created by and starring Lena Dunham, is not the first reference that comes to mind when meeting artist Baseera Khan or learning about her work. (Khan identifies as them.) Though hearing them explain it, a creative and coming-of-age commonality becomes clear.

Like Dunham’s characters, four young women living in Brooklyn chasing their dreams “one mistake at a time”, Khan – raised in Denton and based in New York – resides in the same borough and explores politics and body issues through the pop culture, architecture, fashion and music.

The brightest thread connecting the two is the strength of storytelling. In the 10 years between the first episode of “Girls” and their first Houston solo show, “Baseera Khan: Weight on History,” the representation of voices in creative spaces has changed. The public journey to self-discovery, on the small screen and through song, remains the same.

“It’s always about people doing something undefined,” they say.

When: until August 27

Where: Moody Center for the Arts, Rice University, 6100 Main

Details: Free; moody.rice.edu


“Weight on History” at the Moody Center for the Arts features both Khan’s recent work and new pieces, including a crown jewel commission: “Painful Arc (Shoulder-High)”. The exhibit opened at Rice University on June 3. A mix of media examines existing power structures and alternative futures, disruption and reprieve, cultural biases and hope for a more inclusive society.

Visitors enter under “Features” (2018), Khan’s interpretation of a chandelier. The device, equipped with a disco ball motor, turns while their voice falls asleep above the head; Khan’s debut album, “I am an Archive”, is out soon. They wear a gold nameplate necklace with the title around their necks. The nine songs are rooted in a childhood hobby of Khan – their parents were singers and the family often listened to music together. They sang in the school choir.

The University of North Texas at Denton has one of the strongest opera and percussion programs in the country, Khan says. “I never let that pass.”

Their music played in the lobby of the Moody Center is meant to serve as a palate cleanser to set the tone and mood. The rhythmic and ritual words are taken from passages of the Koran.

“They’re useful when you’re thinking or trying to rest,” Khan says. “Although you are about to enter a rock (concert) style hall.”

They refer in part to “Painful Arc”, a wood and foam installation of a classic Islamic arch in shades of purple. Images of the performer’s body and standing microphones are rendered from recent performances. The piece questions the history of architecture and the idea of ​​fixity while simultaneously representing Khan’s own body. They are currently battling chronic back pain and a realignment on their right side – the structure calls for more anatomy support and women-specific health issues.

To the left of “Painful Arc”, “The Psychedelic Prayer Rugs” (2017-2018) features a series of Islamic devotional rugs. Each combines elements of traditional prayer rugs, such as the five-pointed star and crescent moon, with contemporary pop culture iconography. One has Nike sneakers, another says “I’m as good as you”.

Khan includes a poem in Urdu – “The right to speak can be taken away, but not the right to remain silent” – to illustrate that non-participation can be just as effective as protest.

“Speaking is your right, silence too”, they say. “Sometimes silence is power, sometimes speech is power.”

“Yakshi and Red Shoes” from “Law of Antiquities” (2022) and “Mosque Lamp and Prayer Carpet Green” from “Law of Antiquities” (2021) complete the triangle of works. The artist wears sky-high red platform shoes in the two excerpts from a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum, which they affectionately dub “collages.” Their body parts appear inserted between various tools, rugs and clothing associated with religious practices as a means of reclaiming the history of these objects.

In an adjoining gallery, “Second Skin, Columns 1-5” (2022) features a Corinthian column fragmented into five parts to depict failed utopias and fallen empires. Custom silk rugs, handcrafted in Kashmir, partially wrap around each structure.

“I call it snakeskin or second,” Khan says. “It depicts animals digesting and then peeling off their skin. This loss is what is happening in the world right now.

Five hanging “acoustic sound blankets” (2017-2020) are found objects reminiscent of the oversized clothing of Orthodox Muslim women. Feature of thick material absorbs sound; the artwork was conceived in the wake of travel bans for citizens of Muslim countries in the United States, raising questions about who is accepted in modern society.

A collection of six additional collages line an opposite wall. Khan describes them as little poems or portals to smaller ideas.

And then there’s “By Faith” (2020 and 2022), a multi-part video work parodying reality TV culture. Against a theater set taken from Khan’s Brooklyn apartment, they swap personal anecdotes with painter Amy Sillman and unpack Blackness, the representation and decolonization of Eurocentric art history with actor Brandon Burton.

Khan says a 20-minute iteration of the “episode” is under consideration for HBO Documentaries. As replicas of the artist’s actual kitchen, dining room, bedroom and front door flash in the background, it’s easy to imagine the next generation of “Girls” is there after all. Stay tuned.

amber.elliott@chron.com


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