“What drag does is help me challenge perceptions surrounding queer Muslim bodies and to more easily articulate those intersections,” says Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, grandson of late Pakistan PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In a freewheeling conversation with Gaysi, Bhutto discusses art, using humour and satire, and what it means to be a queer Muslim man in the United States.
Q. We operate within strong cultural discourses of what it means to be a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’. Were you truly able to step out of them and create your own personal masculinity?
No, not at all, I still work within frameworks that are guided by concepts of masculinity and woman-ness or femme-ness and all the spaces in-between. But it also depends on what you mean by ‘we’. There are many facets of south-Asian societies that are less concerned with how men behave, how colourful their clothes are or if they are holding hands with male friends or simply laying their heads on their friend’s shoulder. My work attempts to re-invent masculinity, to investigate its softer side, more effeminate side, more flowery side. These elements of masculinity were once celebrated in south-Asian cultures but since colonialism and American cultural imperialism, they have been rejected by many within the more ‘Westernised’ and elite circles of our societies.
Q. Could you share a few pictures of your work with us that reflect new possibilities of masculinity?
Source/Pull Ups, Archival inkjet print on cotton fabric and embroidery thread, 6 x 4?
Source/Leg Stretches, Archival Inkjet Print and hand sewn printed polyester, 36 x 40?, 2016
Q. You create gender trouble through your performances. How did that happen?
My performances are multiple and diverse. I have a series of performances, where I pray with female Iranian artists in public spaces in San Francisco, which are not in drag. Instead, they address broader issues — including Islamophobia in the US — and challenge gender roles expected of people within the Muslim community. Drag is just one aspect of my performance practice and it does not necessarily frame everything that I do. Drag is a part my practice in the same way that movement, monologue and satire are. I think it is important that artists see the full range of their capabilities, what mediums suit their subjects, and whether they need to be limited or go beyond the art form they are used to.
What drag does is help me challenge perceptions surrounding queer Muslim bodies and to more easily articulate those intersections. I perform in drag in both fine-art spaces and nightclubs. The reason I do both is to connect with a broader public. I got into drag through meeting and connecting with the drag community here in San Francisco.
Q. Do you think humour can be used in a subversive way? How do you use it to communicate your queer politics?
Humour can be used in very subversive ways, but I don’t use it to address queer politics. Queerness is political in itself and can be used as a lens to view the world. It is a way of rebelling against the status quo. I use humour in some of my performances, not to address queer issues but to address racism, Islamophobia and prejudices towards communities with whom I align myself ideologically, politically and culturally. I have used comedy as a form of political satire in performances in and out of drag, and it helps drawing people in. You may have an audience that feels uncomfortable, squeamish or simply not there to be lectured about political matters. Comedy, humour, and satire all help in seducing one’s audience.
Q. Butler says that gender is performative. Do you agree? If yes, could you please share how have you ‘performed’ gender over the course of your life (childhood, adolescence, adulthood)?
That is not a question I feel I can fully address. I do agree and this was something that I read at a very young age and it affected how I viewed gender for most of my life. However, I think many things are performative — our personalities are amalgamations of performances; politics [too] is a performance presented in local, national and international arenas.
Q. Can you share something personal (maybe an anecdote) that can reveal and highlight how you challenge the heterosexual & binary expectations?
I apologize but I would prefer not to speak of personal matters.
Q. What is it like to be a queer Muslim Pakistani man in the US? Do you feel safe and accepted?
Of course not, but I do feel supported. Being a queer Muslim man is like being a Muslim man: doubted, feared, desired, exoticised, made assumptions about. And then in my case, you throw in queerness to complicate that mix much more.
Q. We know that there are obstacles that queer people of color have to navigate to be safe, take risks, and things of that nature. In your experience, how do you find support as a queer person in a foreign land?
Being an artist and performer definitely helps. You have a network of people willing to support you in whatever capacity you may need. Generally speaking, queer communities are often supportive if they are not scared. Fear is what makes people compete and alienate.
Q. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
I am fairly content with who I am.
Q. What other projects are you working on, and what future do you envisage for yourself?
I will be co-curating an exhibition with Yas Ahmed at SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco. The title of the exhibition is The Third Muslim: Queer and Trans Muslim Narratives of Resistance and Resilience. To the best of my knowledge, this is probably the first of its kind in the US, and definitely the first of its kind in San Francisco. We are bringing together 14 queer and trans Muslim multimedia artists from around the US and the world, as well as panelists, performers and much more. The exhibition will be from the 25th of January till the 25th of February.
Q. How do you think young boys and men in contemporary times can be empowered to let go of their privilege (if any) and strong ideas of (macho) masculinity?
Leave some room for other people to take up space.