What does it mean to be marginalized? How does it feel when a community that shares your religious beliefs in turn rejects you based on your race, gender identity, or physical ability?
These are two of the many questions posed by SOMArts’ The Third Muslim, an engaging multimedia installation of work by 15 artists who identify as queer, trans, and gender non-conforming. Curators Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Yas Ahmed marshal images and ideas that highlight Islam — along with homophobia, racism, and rejection in queer communities — and the potential for visual art to foster both individual and communal healing.
A note of context may be helpful. Though it’s not stated outright, critical theorist Homi K. Bhabha’s concept of the third space offers a lens through which to consider The Third Muslim. Briefly described, the third space opens up when two or more individuals or cultures interact. Under the best circumstances, those interactions help blend disparate experiences, and undermine the notion that culture is homogenized, or worse, “pure.”
With Bhabha’s work in mind, the third space concept may help us understand historical and contemporary cultural collisions like imbalances of power between developed and developing nations, the consequences of colonialism, and the negative effect of mainstream media portrayals on communities represented in The Third Muslim.
Clothing is a potent and prominent metaphor throughout the installation. Walking into the gallery, viewers are immediately faced with a subject that arouses passionate responses from women and men alike worldwide. Saba Taj’s F**k It Veil series presents three burqas, the modest garments worn by millions of Muslim women that are dismissed as sexist and culturally regressive by many in the West.
Taj’s textiles depart from the black or dark blue cotton generally used to make burqas. Colorful print and gold lamé trimming (a la Scarlett O’Hara and Carol Burnett) introduce a note of uneasy humor intensified by how the mannequins, situated on a low platform, rise over the viewer. These representations of Muslim women do not suggest subservience or those lacking personal agency. Instead, they demonstrate pride in one’s ethnicity and religious identity. Against a media landscape lousy with loud and ill-informed, if not outright xenophobic personalities who live to condemn what they don’t understand, these silent figures speak volumes.
Iranian artist Hushidar Mortezaie’s Occupy Me: Topping from the Bottom Up addresses state-sponsored murder and hope for the future in a conceptual red carpet scene. In front of backpacks and jerseys emblazoned with the phrases “magic whiteness,” and “orientalism makes me barf,” Mortezaie positions three mannequins fitted with the likenesses of three men — teenagers Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni and actor Fereydoun Farrokhzad — whose deaths are popularly linked to their homosexuality.
By the artist’s hand, the souls of these men are celebrated, honored as symbols of resistance against perceived governmental and corporate exploitation. Facing out to the main gallery, the figures spur us to recognize a violent past and present reality in Iran, and work for a future that honors the lives that were lost.
In addition to presenting the work of accomplished artists, Bhutto and Ahmed view the exhibition as the beginning of a physical and psychological space where these ideas can be sustained even after the installation closes. Building what they term a “multi-sensory archive” enables a marginalized community to represent itself, directly defying the negative media branding of queer Muslims.
While constructing and maintaining an archive is a fraught process, the endeavor will start to fill in missing or erased histories, and create a third space, as Bhabha theorized, for members of the wider queer community to discuss the issues — race, representation, access, and visibility — that have thus far divided them.
From this perspective, Samra Habib’s luminous portrait series Just Me and Allah, Jamil Hellu’s Cloaked, and Nabeela Vega’s Visiting Thahab may serve as reference points for those seeking visual affirmation of their queer and Muslim identities. Likewise, Totally Radical Muslims’ (TRM) radical zine and Kaamila Mohamed’s poetic verse may offer textual reassurance to those who seek healing. Set against a social and political milieu that shrinks and narrows by the day, the space created by The Third Muslim is exactly what we need.
‘The Third Muslim is on view at San Francisco’s SOMArts Culture Center through Feb. 22, 2018. For more information, click here.