Art In Conversation
Baseera Khan with Lee Ann Norman
“Ive always been a sort of misbehaved person with materials, with religion, with whatever.”
On ViewBrooklyn Museum
Baseera Khan: I Am an Archive
October 1, 2021 – July, 10, 2022
Baseera Khan works across media from painting and photography to installation, performance, and sculpture to explore the tensions inherent in living in a capitalist society. Through explorations of material—including their own body—Khan makes plain how notions of economy, labor, goods and services, and art itself often serve as rich sites for exploring our accumulated histories, experiences, and individual and collective traumas. Their current exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum invites us to imagine alternate sites that allow us to refuse empire and resist domination, so we might discover a feeling of liberation instead of exploitation.
Lee Ann Norman (Rail): You’ve mentioned before that art wasn’t necessarily directly in your life. Your parents were not artists, but art was all around you. Can you talk a bit about growing up and the influence of art in your life?
Baseera Khan: I grew up in Denton, Texas, and I was there from when I was born to around mid-20s. My mom was a seamstress, and she would bring projects home. At the time, she was working at the Neiman Marcus leather factory. So, she would bring purses and bags with all the tools home, and she would show us how to help her make them because every bag she made, she got a certain amount of money. That’s an early memory of being in a project-related situation that seemed to be highly creative. My dad was a storyteller. He was very creative about how he was trying to explain things that are so simple. But other than that, I grew up around patterns and textures.
Rail: And religion was important and influential in your home also?
Khan: To me, Islam seemed like a highly aestheticized religion, based on what things look like and ritual. I kind of just got caught up in that by the time I was studying art. You know, I did a little art in high school, but I did a lot of it at home. By the time I was studying it—the college I went to is also in Denton, Texas, the University of North Texas (UNT). I really took to art history, the architecture aspects of it. And when I started learning about minimalist art, that’s when I was like: Oh, this is really reminding me of stories that my parents used to tell me when I was a kid about Islamic texts and whatnot. So, I think now in my practice, I definitely think about that trajectory when I'm applying myself to making whatever creative project that I'm making.
Rail: In addition to art history, did you start out studying painting, or were you still trying to figure out your major?
Khan: I started out studying computer science. So, I would bring these C++ books home, and I'll be like, you know, trying to solve these problems in the first pages like: Think about driving down a street, and each street has a house. Count the houses, and then you have a choice of either going right or left at the end of that street. That is how you make a code. You count all the houses, and then you say, “If, then, when, turn left or right.” And I was like this is not for me. [Laughs] I would end up doodling on the margins of the books. And then it was a classroom of 700 men, purportedly men; it was just a different time.
Rail: Right—definitely not a lot of women in computer science fields in college back in the ‘90s, early 2000s.
Khan: Back then it was just computer science. There was no computer art-based programming. The professor was looking at my homework assignments and was like: Well, one thing’s for sure—you’re an artist. The other thing for sure is you’re not good at math. So, I ended up leaving computer science and going into art. I was thinking: Oh, computer science is creative. So let me try that. It didn’t work. [Laughs] Then I was like: Okay, well, graphic design is kind of computer based, and I could get a job doing that, so let me try that. And I failed out of that, too.
Rail: How did that make you feel? That must have been discouraging to experience so early in school…
Khan: Yeah. I didn't really feel like I could do anything. One of the professors, she was writing the curriculum for the art school, she saw my drawings and told me that I had a great hand and encouraged me to take some drawing classes, and I just started soaring from there. I would do eight-hour days, every day, making new drawings back-to-back. I felt like I needed to catch up because I had already spent all this time doing other things. And I was going back-and-forth from learning art history and the typical theory like semiotics.
Rail: Who were some of your influences at the time that made an impression on you as you were studying?
Khan: There were two important professors at the university. One was an installation and collage-based artist name Annette Lawrence, and the other one was Vernon Fisher. There was also a painter named Ed Blackburn, who was really kind and really got me thinking about things in new ways. Vernon Fisher was so conceptual, and he knew how to get you to understand different artists. He was also a painter. I kind of became obsessed.
I’m a secular person, but I have that feeling people have when they are raised up in a religion. They’re always looking for something (or someone) to follow. So, I think I was his follower. I was trying to take his classes. I was trying to understand and get inside his head. And that’s how—why—I became a painter. But it was also just because I was really good at it. And it made a lot of sense: Growing up, making the little Eid cards, and all the creative things that my family needed me to do.
Rail: How was your family responding? How were they experiencing you figuring out that you were going to be an artist?
Khan: Well, I was still living in the same town as my family. They were really scared for me, they didn't understand. They knew I was a solid person, but they didn't understand my moves. There was a little bit of surveillance there, but it wasn’t that bad. They would do things like hide my portfolio of drawings, so I was continually failing out of classes. I would just take the classes over again to try to get my GPA up, and it was hard. I ended up moving out of the house, thinking I was prepared, but I was certainly not prepared for the world.
Rail: And how did that go? What changed for you once you moved out of your parents’ house?
Khan: I did a lot of things that I desired to do, but I didn't tell anybody about it. It’s not like I hid it from my family specifically; I hid it from everyone. So, I would just go to classes, and I would hide my portfolios in one of the rooms, or whatever. There was even a point where there was a huge back area under the stairs in the art building that I just turned into a living room. I would stay there overnight, and do my artwork, and hang out because nobody was there. Nobody took advantage of the art building, so it was like literally living in a mansion. And UNT had just installed a $3.2 billion gymnasium across campus, and I would go there to take my showers. I acted like I lived in a hotel. I didn’t really pay rent. I was building stretchers (because people are lazy, and they were taking painting classes, but then they weren’t making their own stretchers) and working in the wood shop for cash. I kind of was like the house cat of the art building.
I created a lot of space and mythology around what I was doing with my family because I didn’t want to contradict them. But I also didn’t want to lose faith in what I was doing and how I was developing this love and passion for a world of art.
And I got really invested in the Lower East Side—it was the ‘90s, so the music, Basquiat, and ideas of bringing high class down into low class. All that stuff was so cool. I didn’t want to do graffiti or street art. But I wanted to use really cheap materials to do things on the walls like murals. So, I started doing Sharpie murals and Sharpie drawings that I would Xerox copy a couple of times. I was really playing. I mean, I'm playing with scanners now, and I guess back then, I was playing with Xerox copiers. I’ve always been a sort of misbehaved person with materials, with religion, with whatever, you know? If there’s a set of rules, I will definitely follow them, but if I feel like I need to do something outside of it, I’ll try to figure out a way to do it, even if I’m not supposed to.
Rail: Right—even though you were close to home, the place you grew up, you still found ways to discover a strong sense of self within that familiarity.
Khan: One of the classes I took was a watercolor class; it was a requirement. It was the morning of 9/11 when I was bringing over one of my first assignments. I don’t know if you’ve taken art classes, but one of the cheesy things that teachers often do—and they still do it now—is get all these house items and spray paint them all white. And then they bring butcher paper and create these crazy, ugly installations. [Laughs] Then they invite students in and open the windows. The point of it is to understand how to bring color to something solid, right? Yes, you paint a thing white, but you see how complex, a simple color can be. We were supposed to take a little picture frame to frame a certain spot to work on. I decided to paint these two pieces of paper that look like two pillars coming up and in flames. At the time, I was looking at Philip Guston a lot. I wasn’t looking at Philip Guston because I was invested in painting like him, although his painting was amazing. I was invested in his humor. I was really obsessed with the little Ku Klux Klan people in the clown car. I was trying to get behind that because he was such a Jewish man; you know what I mean? Like: the classical archetype of a Jewish man. [Laughs] But he’s playing with the Ku Klux Klan. That was really funny to me. I was trying to do my own version of the plant burning. But then I come to school, and no one’s on campus. And I’m like: “What’s going on?” And I’m holding the Twin Towers in my hand…
I have images of those somewhere. But I think I needed to tell you that story because there is something weird about it—serendipitous—that I can't explain. It has constantly brought me from place to place, and it has me here now having a show at the Brooklyn Museum. It’s something magical that I can't explain.
Rail: I feel like the show at the museum is a real culmination of so many of your ideas around the body, the body in space, materiality… Can you talk a little about getting the show, that process?
Khan: I was teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in 2018 with Rico Gatson, who is a painter and just an amazing community leader, honestly, in my opinion. At some point, he was given a solo show at Karen Jenkins Johnson gallery down the street from the Brooklyn Museum, and he asks me: “Hey, you want to do this together?” And I was like: “Okay, let's do it.” I was thinking about the project I did at SculptureCenter in 2018, for their “In Practice” program, where I made this karaoke spiritual center of love. And I thought that doing this show at Jenkins Johnson with Rico would be a really cool opportunity to build out that side of my practice. The gallery is in a residential area and the exhibition space is set off in a way where the lobby area is the gallery and upstairs is the house. I’m telling you this story because that’s how I met Eugenie Tsai; she is good friends with Rico, and he thought that Eugenie would be a dynamic person to talk about my work with. So she comes to the public program as part of the show, and we talk. There was something that just clicked with us. Fast-forward six months later, Eugenie asks if she can do a formal studio visit with me, and at that time, I was still here in my studio, in my apartment, so I felt shy about it.
So I was like: Yeah, sure. Let’s go to a coffee shop, and I'll show you my work. We sat down for like, two hours, just looking at the art. She gave me a lot of time, and I acknowledged that. And she was like: I’m so astounded by your work, and that I didn’t know you. She's been at the Brooklyn Museum forever. And she didn’t know me. And I've always been living right by the Brooklyn Museum. I think that was why I got the show. But I was asked formally in 2020 to apply to the UOVO Prize. I applied, but I was sick, you know, so she had to extend my application three times because I had COVID. I had a lot of time to think and dream about it, and I decided to apply with the chandeliers. I've seen solo shows by young artists there before, and I thought if I apply with something modular, then even if it ends up in a hallway somewhere in the building, it’s gonna look great.
Rail: What happened when you learned you’d been selected for the opportunity?
Khan: Midway through 2020, I’m walking home from the grocery store, and I get this email saying I got the prize. I got so many pimples trying to keep that little nugget to myself. [Laughs] I couldn't tell anybody—that was one of the more painful things about the prize, you couldn’t tell anybody. So, I just started putting things together, thinking about materials. At some point, it felt unreal because I was like: Oh, I’m thinking about all these things and doing these writings, but I haven't heard from you guys. Are we still doing the show? I think it was like 11 months before the opening that we started having physical meetings, Zoom meetings. They were asking me if I wanted the room where John Edmonds was, which is more formalized like a white cube, or if I wanted this other opportunity, because there are other rooms available on different floors due to COVID. I was like: Let's go for the jugular. I want to see what my work looks like in the Sackler Center around the Judy Chicago piece.
Rail: Wow, and they were open to that? Those spaces are also oddly shaped. How were you planning to work with them?
Khan: Yeah, it became a much bigger deal. I had to think about how I could fill so much space—it’s nearly 6,000 square feet. So, I already knew that one of the rooms would just be filled with Braid Rage, because I had been working on that project during COVID, and the New Orleans Museum of Art wanted me to install and perform Braid Rage, but I couldn't do that. I suggested to them that I make a film instead, so the entire time in 2020, I was making this beautiful film that is now at the Brooklyn Museum. In my head, it was a new project because making a film from a performance is something I hadn't done before. I also had never shown the Blackwater pieces ever because there was so much nudity in them, so it’s a hard work to see. I’m literally drowning in oil, India ink, and water. I decided to just take a chance, and the museum did such a good job writing about me that I felt safe sharing the work in that context.
As I was making the chandeliers, I started to think about the curator’s offer to explore the museum’s collection for another possible project. This was offered to the first UOVO Prize winner, and it was offered to me, and it’ll probably be offered to the next winner, too. As I was looking at these check lists and thinking about all the objects, I was fortunate enough to see them in person a couple of times. I decided to do a performance and photography-based installation, sit inside it, and perform based on rules and regulations of the antiquities. I photographed those and started collaging them. That’s the piece, The Laws of Antiquity.
As I was doing that research and thinking about the legislative policy to create laws of antiquity, and how they were actually created to prevent monopolization and hoarding, I thought about how someone like Trump came in and changed those laws, but nobody would know. This is such an obscure law, right? It usually protects national parks and museums and artifacts, which isn’t on anybody’s radar. But Trump’s changes to policy created a system where you can get on Amazon to try to buy nitrile gloves that conservators use and it costs $500. It created a problem for people on the day-to-day. Part of the project, then, became making nitrile gloves, custom for the conservators and inviting them to photograph with me. There was a lot of care involved, a kind of ballet of the hands and the objects that I was able to photograph.
I felt really good about that work, but felt uncomfortable with the fact that there were artworks and objects that are un-researched in the museum’s collection. I feel uncomfortable around the fact that all these objects are sort of rendered obscure, not seen, not researched. And they’re separate from the natives that maybe they belong to. This idea of stolen culture, stolen objects, is something I feel very uncomfortable about.
Rail: And this led you to create the bust that we see when we first enter the exhibition?
Khan: Right, and it settled my heart about the themes of desire and surveillance, too, and thinking about technology and how it manifests the beauty of surveillance and keeps us in this weird Foucauldian space where we’re constantly feeling free even though we are constantly feeling surveilled at the same time. And we put that upon ourselves.
Rail: I am thinking about the PATRIOT Act, passed quickly after 9/11, where we all just agreed to allow the government to surveil us—access our phone and email communication, check out our banking and credit info—and track us in ways that we’re still trying to understand, because we thought it would help “root out” terrorists, but it’s mostly been used against US citizens. It’s pervasive, normalized in the culture. I don’t know about you, but I never thoroughly read the disclaimers and privacy policies of all the apps and websites I visit, but I think if I read those more closely, I wouldn’t access some of those things because I wouldn’t want to share some of that info it’s asking me to share. I wouldn’t give up my privacy like that.
Khan: Yeah, I mean, we willfully think about it, like: “Oh well,” then make a joke or something. You know, I remember when the elders were like, “I remember when I didn’t want a cell phone.” I don't know that cellular phones and social media are the same thing necessarily, but I get it, I get it, because there's this object that's basically a GPS tracker on your body. And that can give you paranoia. You’re giving people information about you all the time, every day, and now you're giving corporations your information. All that is to say I started to make enough work to realize that the kinds of affliction I personally have felt being raised in a society that seems perfectly fine for me made my family uncomfortable in certain ways.
Rail: What do you mean by that? Do you think that has to do with your parents being raised in a society that had less trust in the government from the beginning, or…?
Khan: I think that I have to understand something larger about the materials I’m using, and that always points to thinking about labor and the kinds of things people are asked to do elsewhere, or oftentimes within our own kind of nationhood, and how the globalization of these materials and the needs—the hyper need of these materials—actually displaces people and creates wars, laws, policies, creates surveillance, demand, supply… and that, for me, is what keeps people from having solidarity.
I did graduate school from 2010 to ’12 at Cornell, and once I was there I understood that for my track—my people, whatever tribes that I come from—it was always about finding sovereignty. That was the only narrative. I wondered why in the places I come from—the complex places I come from—it’s never about invention. It’s always about solidarity and finding how we escape, how we find sovereignty. And so I’m like: “Okay, why is it that there's certain people who are only known for fighting for their body?” In India, there’s flat, dark cells that are like a city block wide where people are born just to grow hair, for exporting to Hollywood, basically. I’ve always been aware of my hair, always. Whether it’s: “Cover it with a hijab,” or “Wow, your hair so long, let me touch it”; or “Your hair falls off your head; it’s everywhere.” I was reading these books on sovereignty—Aime Cesaire and Frantz Fanon, The Darker Nations by Vijay Prashad … At this point, I was like: “Fuck art.” I mean, not fuck art, but like: “Fuck people, and fuck this, I need to learn about why we’re in this mess.” I was fortunate enough to have chosen the dorkiest school, the coldest school, so all anybody wanted to do was sit in front of the fireplace and read. [Laughs]
Rail: This moment made your work take a turn.
Khan: That’s kind of why I make the work I make. I can’t separate the economy, the billions of dollars that are being made, and the bifurcations of that. I think race was always about ownership. During COVID I was getting into The Young Turks. It's a dorky, progressive news platform, but it was a way for me to hear a voice in the apartment all day. I think we all needed that. They started showing clips of boardrooms where executives were saying that we need to figure out how to get people back to work, or our bottom line sinking, blah blah blah. They would say materials and human material, so it was very transparent by 2020 that, like, the CEO of Walmart, thinks that their employees are material. Then there’s all this conversation about how the vaccine is only free because that’s the only way you can get low paid people back into the labor force. Because those people are material. They’re very important, right? They're the resource material for the corporation. Because I’m from Texas, I start thinking about how, in this moment, where 800,000 people have died from COVID, Texas suddenly is making anti-abortion laws in 2021. How is that possible? How is that the most important thing to do right now? A place like Texas where there’s a lot of immigration, a lot of poverty, a lot of factories, they need unseen people—human material—to work. Now, if an unseen person gets pregnant and knows that they can’t have that child, they can’t get an abortion. They’re basically creating another child; they’re creating more material for those unpaid or low paid jobs.
Rail: I know you don’t like to dwell too much on it, but it’s hard not to reflect on the racial element of these issues you raise around art and labor, commodities, material, the economy. I mean, you said you were reading Fanon and those guys talking about decolonial futures and realities.
Khan: For me, identity art is almost as insidious as being pro-life. It sets people into a track that they can never leave. It creates a genre, so you can never leave the identity of those things. But obviously, I use my body in my art, and I'm not white, and I’m talking about material and body and performance. Of course, people are always like: “Oh, Baseera is an identity-based artist,” but no, it’s actually more complex than that. It’s about how economy creates identity, and economy created race. It creates a system where dark-skinned people are pitted against light skinned-people, and then we get intersectional where we have multiplicities pitted against gender and everything in between another, you know?
I just was so invested in painting, but I didn’t feel like painting was allowing for me to exist without judgment and without the ideas that are inscribed upon our bodies. Those things were always speaking for me because painting is silent. Performance isn’t always silent. Sculpture isn’t necessarily silent. I think a painting is such a static thing, and I felt like it was taken from me because I was consistently being misrepresented. And I shut down and didn't make art for a very long time until the Participant Inc., show. Of course, I was making art, but I was like, I’m not doing this anymore. I’m not gonna be a traditional artist. I would say that now I feel like it’s incumbent upon me to go back to painting because paint is a material, and it has a history. Why would I use every other material under the sun and just stay away from painting?
Rail: I think it’s interesting to think about how you can twist and turn and discover what are the limits that you can take a painting to, how you can kind of push that material forward.
Khan: I want to slay that dragon a little bit. I have another solo show coming up soon at my gallery, so I want to take some time to think about the collage scanning and maybe do a collage and painting based show. I think in the next two years people will be standing in front of paintings again, of mine, which is exciting and weird. And who knows what's gonna happen, but I’m excited for that.