While the current big ticket item at the Brooklyn Museum has to be the Christian Dior retrospective, which opened in September, there’s another must-see exhibit tucked way on the museum’s 4th floor: Baseera Khan’s wildly engaging I Am an Archive. On view here are rich and multilayered sculptures, installations, collages, drawings, photographs, an original music soundtrack, and a video. Khan’s cross-media practice investigates othering, surveillance, cultural exploitation, anti-blackness, and xenophobia within our public and private spaces — and proposes avenues for protection and liberation. Her work is extremely timely and a real eye-opener.
Among the artist’s textile works are two pieces from her ambitious (and appropriately named) 2017-2018 project, Psychedelic Prayer Rugs. For the this project, Kahn circumvented restrictions imposed by India on Kashmir, working clandestinely with artisans from that Muslim-majority region with a rich tradition of textile art. Kashmir has been the subject of military actions and two wars between India and Pakistan since Britain partitioned the subcontinent in 1947. Today, violence and oppression is escalating in the wake of India’s withdrawal of the Kashmiri autonomy in 2019.
On the above rug you will surely recognize the Pink Triangle symbol of ACT UP, an international grassroots organization working to end the AIDS pandemic. Formed in 1987, ACT UP reclaims the symbol used to identify and persecute LGBTQ people during the Holocaust. Their call to action, “Silence = Death,” is aimed at governments and individuals alike. Kahn includes a fragment of an Urdu poem on the rug that translates, “the right to speak can be taken away, but not the right to stay silent,” reflecting on refusal and silence — or even interiority – as a political strategy.
I AM A BODY, also designed by the artist and manufactured in Kashmir, references the iconic I AM A MAN poster designed for the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Worker’s Strike, in which Black men who worked as garbage collectors organized and won better pay and work conditions. The posters reframed the 1800s abolitionist slogan “Am I not a man and a brother?” as an assertion of dignity and power — not a plea to white people for humanity.
Here, Khan honors the centrality of the body in their work, and in labor and liberation movements, particularly in African American social movements that often pave the way for broader social transformation. Placing the slogan on a prayer rug highlights the connection between the fortitude of the body and the rhythms and rituals of the mind and spirit — all necessary for change
Basera Khan’s I Am an Archive Will Be On Exhibit Through July 10th, 2022 in the Brooklyn Museum’s 4th Floor Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.