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Lavanya Bahuguna


Artist & Performer Zulfikar Ali Bhutto On Why One Needs To Listen To Queer & Trans Muslim Narratives

  • IWB Post
  •  August 9, 2018


Zulfikar Ali Bhutto a.k.a Faluda Islam is an artist, performer, and a self-proclaimed zombie Drag Queen. As a multimedia art curator, his work explores the complex identity politics formed by centuries of colonialism and white supremacy.

Currently a resident of Bay Area, Bhutto works as a teaching artist and community arts facilitator who often collaborates with artists and thinkers of colour. In a detailed conversation with IWB, the creative reveals the power of campaigns that he usually designs to highlight the diversity of Islam as a religion and letting his audience envision queer and Trans Muslims who exist happily in the West. “We aren’t just an aggressive brown male or an oppressed female,” declares Zulfikar.

Find the excerpts of the interview below:

Which pronouns do you prefer as Zulfikar and Faluda Islam, your Drag Queen name?

I go by him usually, and in Drag sometimes her, rarely ever they.

Why the name ‘Faluda Islam?’

That’s a very interesting interpretation of my Drag name. I name myself after Faluda – the dessert, sometimes also spelled as Falooda in English. I like the juxtaposition, I am very much a Muslim and love my faith dearly and take it seriously, and however, one can be serious while still being light-hearted and funny. I like the dessert, it’s sweet, pungent and all round oddly delicious. I take on the last name Islam because it presents a paradox for some people and we should get more and more used to paradoxes. It’s important to be able to talk about stereotypes and use humour as a method of conversation wherever it is necessary as long as we can bring the conversation back to reality at the right time.

What inspired you to become a Drag Queen? Take us through this vibrant journey.

The first time I saw a Drag performance was a couple years ago. I had met a wonderful San Francisco-based Drag Queen named Grace Towers when she was not ‘in the face’ as we say, or in simple terms, not wearing makeup. After a few days, I saw her perform wearing makeup, heels, amazing clothes, using witty words and showing some spectacular movements. I immediately understood Drag could be a powerful political performance tool. It had that potential, although I should say that potential is not fully utilized by every Drag Queen.

Later, I met more Drag Queens and Kings. My first performance was with a Drag King named Dani Boi, we performed a duet to the old Bollywood song Piya tu ab to aaja.

Photo of a performance photo credit, Robbie Sweeny

Photo of a performance. Photo credit: Robbie Sweeny

I later took my Drag character to performance spaces and institutions such as the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, the Queens Museum in New York, and Counterpulse while still keeping a foot in the bar and nightclub world of this city. As my performances developed into longer and more political pieces, my character also developed and became more complex.

Where do you find your inspiration from when you choose your wardrobe for the Drag avatar? Also, describe this style in your words.

My Drag name is Faluda Islam and she’s a zombie. She’s less a Drag Queen and more a Drag socialist. She died in the first global queer revolution and was brought back to life using wi-fi technology. She has come back to the past to talk about the future, metaphorically, literally and poetically. She has a beard, exaggerated makeup, she’s missing a tongue and sometimes an eye. She’s messy and bloody due to the wounds she received and the battles she fought.

Faluda’s look is a mix of hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine aesthetics. Imagine a wrestler’s singlets, spikes, chains, diamond nails and five-inch heels together. I make a lot of my own clothes, but in most cases, I put different things together to make a costume. My materials are mostly mirrors, gas masks, chains, flowy fabrics, floral prints, fake gems, scary contact lenses, wrestler’s singlets, and pehlwan langots that I make myself. Occasionally, for a show in a bar or club that isn’t so artsy or complicated, I don styles like a Cheetah print that look sassy.

My inspiration is primarily from rebels and guerrilla warriors of South Asia and the Middle East, who have fought countless wars against Western Imperialism, sometimes in secular and leftist ways and sometimes in much more radical Islamic militant ways. Other inspirations include the Drag Queen Divine and a lot of the punk and gender-bendy Drag of the 80s and 90s that took over the bar and club scenes of New York, San Francisco, and London. Faluda Islam is a deeply misunderstood creature, she doesn’t fit neatly into boxes of good or bad, male or female, sinner or saint. She likes to keep you guessing.

What’s your style like when you aren’t performing?

Comparatively, my day to day wardrobe is dreadfully boring. I like to embellish some of my denim jackets and in general, I don’t actually own any black, grey or beige clothes. I’d say my day to day outfits are more on the colourful side but nothing very special. I also don’t wear makeup unless I’m performing. I’m a ‘wake-up and go’ kind of a person.

Head shot by Nabil Vega

photo courtesy: Nabil Vega

To be both Muslim and queer, how’s life in the modern city of San Francisco where you are often spotted?

People are still so completely shocked in the United States when they hear about queer and Trans Muslim people. To them, that merging of identity is impossible and the general idea here, even in liberal San Francisco, is that to be queer means to reject faith and specifically Islam. I co-curated an exhibition at SOMArts Cultural Center with my dear friend and colleague, Yas Ahmed called The Third Muslim: Queer and Trans Muslim Narratives of Resistance and Resilience. It was a one-month series of events that featured a visual arts exhibition, public panel, and closing performance. In total, 20 queer and Trans Muslim artists, writers, and thinkers either showed work, performed or spoke as part of the series.

The reaction in the media was one of total shock; people were very interested – in some ways sensationally, in other ways, almost anthropologically. The very fact that we exist is mind-boggling for much of the white establishment in this country, both conservative and liberal alike.

Our intentions for the exhibition were to highlight the great diversity of Islam and queerness in the United States and the different relationships people had with Islam, be it through faith, politics and/ or culture. We wanted to challenge the image of the Muslim in the United States because, for most people in the Western World, a Muslim is an aggressive brown male or an oppressed female. This is, of course, an incomplete picture and we wanted to expand both how people saw Muslims but also how people saw and interacted with queerness.

What would your life have been like had you lived in Pakistan?

I honestly can’t comment as to what it would be like in Pakistan. I still go back frequently and have had no bad experiences, there are people who are willing to listen and move forward. There is a very mature Trans movement in Pakistan and behind it, a very small queer movement that is attempting to have some very brave and important conversations.

The Orlando Terror Attack (on gay people by a gay man) proved that homophobia exists within the community, as well. How severe is the issue and do you think conducting art programs to highlight and celebrate queer people’s presence will solve anything?

I think, firstly, it is important not to say he was a gay man. This has not actually been proven and therefore, relies on a lot of hearsay and little to no evidence. He was certainly a very angry young man with a lot of internalized fear, hate, and resentment. His faith and his possible sexuality should be incidental in light of this horrifying act of violence that is, unfortunately, a daily occurrence in the United States, almost always committed by heterosexual cisgender white males.

Homophobia exists in every community. There are many parts of San Francisco and the wider Bay Area where two men or women holding hands is frowned upon and can incite violence and where being a Trans person of colour can get you killed. There is a global problem of homophobia and Transphobia created by centuries of colonialism, patriarchy and a lack of education. Religion is a convenient scapegoat for those willing to somehow reason or proves their hate is righteous.

Answering the second part of that question, I think we should not see art as isolated. Art is the entrance way. In the words of African American author Toni Cade Bambara, “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible”, perhaps this quote is cliché but it is very relevant for artists who believe in art as a conduit of change. Art is the mechanism to attract people, to challenge perception and make people think. We obviously need a lot more action and intention to truly manifest that and it would be unfair to put all that pressure on the artist alone. A movement is a movement because it is collective.

With this, what’s your thought on White-Supremacy that’s currently ruling America?

It’s terrible and the root cause of much of our misery. The Orlando attack is also a form of white supremacy. It infiltrates the minds of many, even brown and black people. It makes us believe that we are not worthy or that our problems are caused by sexual, racial, ethnic and religious minorities and not, in fact, by a system that we all live under which forces us into inequality.

White people are also negatively affected by white supremacy, it is a system that favours the strong and oppresses the weak and we see many manifestations of white supremacy in different parts of the world. Zionism is a good example of a different kind of white supremacy that kills and detains Palestinians in their own land every day, a form of entitlement based on racial and ethnic privileges that are simply assumed and rarely spoken.

Coming back to your artwork, how do you describe your art as a multimedia artist who is also a gender-activist?

I don’t consider myself an activist. My work simply seeks intersections between Islam and queerness. I see Islam as more of a political identity, an identity that meets and includes many other faiths, cultures, and traditions that have either informed Islam’s creation or continue to interact with the faith today.

Currently, my new series Tomorrow We Inherit the Earth envisions a queer and Trans Muslim revolution of high femme warriors who topple Western Imperialism and liberate the Middle-East from the stranglehold of the West. Themes of the apocalypse, war, and revolution are constant for me, they inform my practice deeply as does history and archive. These are all part of a storytelling tradition, reiterating histories of war is either a survival tactic to remember the pain of what happened and not to repeat it or as a way of inciting anger so that we, in fact, continue to inflict more and more suffering. History, in general, is never truly factual, it is a way to set in to write a story that benefits the writer more so than to serve as a tool of truth-telling for future generations.

I employ a multimedia approach because I think materiality is important in thinking of the ways in which an idea can be manifested. This includes the use of archival video to create a futuristic intergalactic message to fabric panels that idolize eternal warriors who never existed and performance to speak of the issues at hand.

I don’t make an extra effort to be politically correct. I do make an effort to be in some capacity respectful and symbolic in my approach so that the work can speak to multiple audiences in different ways.  Political correctness has its place and in some situations it is important but it is not a driving force in my work as it can stifle the practice.

What was the idea behind the photo series ‘Mussalman Muscleman?’ Was it, in any way, to break the common perception about masculinity?

The idea was to play with perception, language, and material. I found it fun showing the work in the U.S where it premiered to a white and American audience who did not understand the script but recognized the imagery. They saw the Urdu text as Arabic and many believed it was some kind of juxtaposition of sacred and profane imagery, others were upset that they were not given access to a translation. Really all the images from the series are directly sourced from an Arnold Schwarzenegger exercise book and I used fabric as my medium, it’s playful and I enjoyed making it.

Mussalmaan Musclemen: Seedha, inkjet print on cotton fabric, chains, embroidery and printed polyester

Mussalmaan Musclemen: Seedha, inkjet print on cotton fabric, chains, embroidery and printed polyester

In Pakistan, people more or less understood what was happening because, for the most part, people could read the script. The playful element here was mostly with gender, using soft fabric to represent hard muscle and there was an almost surgical approach, peeling back layers of skin to reveal the flowery colourfulness beneath a grey and bland masculinity.

Do you have a community of LGBTQ+ members in your city that organises interactive workshops to hold peaceful dialogues with others?

I do have a small community of peers and politically-active people but we don’t really hold workshops. I wish we did more of that. Most of my work takes the shape of performances, curated exhibitions, and so on. We do have plans for organising workshops but based less specifically on racism, Islamophobia, and prejudice. All this is in the pipeline for the next year.

 To know more about this artist, check out his website.

Cover image source: Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (Artist’s headshot as Faluda Islam, photo credit Kalima Amilak)

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