Qasim Riza Shaheen

  Once upon a time in a distant land I was a boy who danced in six colours. My master demanded my devotion. On the eight day of each week, I s

Talha Rathore
A candid conversation with Isabel Lewis
The Language of Building Bridges


Once upon a time in a distant land I was a boy who danced in six colours. My master demanded my devotion. On the eight day of each week, I sucked my master’s tongue for knowledge. One day I so angered my master that he could no longer speak to his twice-born. Since I knew his love for dance, I searched far and wide until I became a disciple of a courtesan. She taught me how to win back the favours of my beloved. When I finally returned to the abode of my master, I asked him to take me as his bride. I pled. He refused. I ate his heart. Forgive me, for I may have sinned.


ArtNow: You have built up a persona for your art. You are never far from the work. Do you feel anxious that the persona may take over the conceptual significance of your work?


QRS: Personae, plural, in fact! As an artist whose own body is the medium, by definition one can never quite escape oneself. Sometimes in my work my lived experiences or personal relationships magnify to the degree that the event or the memory becomes very little to do with what actually happened. But that doesn’t make me anxious because the alternation and reconstruction of my personae quite often is the work itself.



The process of re-imagination and reinvention allows me to make love to my ego to the point of annihilation. I become so far removed from who I believe I am, that I could potentially dialogue with my refractions over a cup of tea about our collective consciousness. We suggest stories to one another in my study about past episodes and reframing unrequited love within socio-cultural contexts; combining fact and fiction and inviting the viewer to form their own tales and decipher shared mysteries.


AN: There are several thematic inferences in your work, with the most significant being your own sexuality. Is that deliberate?


QRS: I would beg to differ – what is significant in my practice is a contradistinction to heteronormativity as opposed to my personal sexuality per se. As if sifting through queer garbage, my notions of desire speak to potentially anyone’s erotic intelligence. Thematically it is about those unrequited moments where life could have radically shifted had one made alternative choices.

My work is not autobiographical nor is it reflective of my personal life. Over the best part of twenty years, it has become more about the re-presentation of manipulated performance documents for later audiences; and fictionalising my own narratives within new contexts. It is a construction that appears to be intensely personal, private and disclosing. It is a collective memory bank that draws in the parallel-experience of those with whom I have had some sort of relationship.



What I find most interesting is how, inevitably, the manipulated nature of my performance shards raises questions about the place of authenticity. Authenticity in the relationship between my exhibited objects and their viewers, and in the relational nature of viewer interpretation.


ArtNow: In what mode of reference do you talk about your oft-addressed notion of love?


QRS: The modalities through which I represent these notions of love are fragments and residues of affairs and encounters that I hope will resonate with different audiences over time. A dear friend of mine observed that I have always reciprocated love that others have graciously had for me, rather than fall in love with someone off my own bat. I must admit the revelation did take me by surprise!



I guess this imbalance could have prompted some sort of obsessive search for a fictional other-half. Perhaps my fascination for transactional liaisons and courtesan cultures has something to do with that and consequently my works become remnants of artistic declarations packaged as romantic relics.



We are all products of our own histories. In my practice I re-enact falling in love enough times to keep falling for those who don’t tangibly exist – just for the ride. In my new photographic work, I am creating a series of documents with strangers exploring intimate visualisations of being in love.


AN: How much of your work stems from your Pakistani origins and to what extent are you a British artist?

QRS: The way in which one processes information and the experience of National identity is very individual in that one can only speak of the Pakistan that I have known or the Britain that I live in. I don’t feel like the ‘other’ in either country, even though at times, politically or culturally, those around me make assumptions of who and of what I am or should be.



I have been hugely inspired by folklore and the mysticism of Pakistan, just as much as the romantic ideas and interpretations of it from the Diaspora. Contemporary British culture, of which I am a part of, offers me an array of visual signifiers, both transcultural and relatively integrated.


AN: Do you feel you’re a mainstream British artist?


QRS: Yes, as ‘mainstream’ as the nature of my queer and live practice allows me to be. The subsidised ‘mainstream’ in Britain has nurtured my artistic practice and sensibility and has given me a contextual platform to explore, develop and share my work with national and international audiences. Arts Council England, The British Council and major venues and festivals have supported my creative practice through commissions and residencies.



As regards the commercial mainstream: my practice has, over time, evolved into an ephemeral form, defined by process, temporality and live audience interaction. Thus, over the course of my career ‘selling’ tangible works was a rather alien concept for me since my work in its essence is of the moment. Once the moment is contained, it loses its primary intention and no longer remains queer but becomes somewhat sanitised and institutionalised.



My visual art shows have primarily consisted of an array of documentary and supplementary objects produced in relation to my performances; photographs, artefacts, video and audio recordings both for public dissemination and more recently for commercial sale.


AN: Your only mediums are photography, video and performance. Have you ever considered working in traditional mediums like sculpture and painting or does your postmodern sensibility reject these methods of production?

QRS: Your interpretation of the ‘traditional medium’ overlooks the multi-disciplinary nature of my work. Whilst I may not regularly employ mediums like paint or stone, my practice is deeply embedded in traditional or even classical discipline.



I have been under the tutelage of Nahid Siddiqui for over a decade with my ongoing study of the classical dance art Kathak. It is both sculptural and painterly in the particular manner and spirit with which Nahid teaches and disseminates the knowledge of the form. She has been one of my mentors and has often commented on the application of ‘traditional’ rasas in my ‘postmodern sensibility’. Photography, video and performance along with my installations are rooted in historical contexts and performance strategies. Kafi dohe and the qalaam-e-ishq of medieval saints and their lineage reinforce my personal declarations of love.


AN: What is Anokha Laadla?


QRS: (With a smile…) It is from a traditional bandish sung in raag Darbari Kannada most famously rendered by Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, with a twin interpretation of a ‘unique brat’. Nahid bestowed that title upon me when I insisted that I would only learn from her one-on-one and not in a group situation; along with all my other conditions and tantrums! I have a beautiful bond with her which enables us to evolve together reflective of a guru-shishya relationship and beyond. This was around 2003 when I was setting up my company and it felt appropriate to christen it with that name. It has since remained with me throughout my work.



The full title of the Anokha Laadla body of work was Only The Moon To Play With (2004). Rather interestingly my school drawing books are filled with scenarios of playing with the moon. As a child I also used to think that monsters were coming to get me. So I would find ways of immortalising myself in the most fantastical ways so that they could never completely remove me from my world. Perhaps, that early play seeped into my adult consciousness and flourished into an artistic practice! Even now from the very embryonic stage of my work I strive to achieve a sort of immortality through material traces that are both documentary and theatrical.


AN: Your show at Twelve Gates, Philadelphia, is titled “In a world where there are five women I am the seventh”. What does the gap of the 6th signify?


QRS: On a surface level ‘in a world where there are five women I am the seventh’ is a testimony to the construction of the mythic bride both through the ritual practices and the postures of the newly wed. It is also fundamentally to do with gender as social construction, its binaries and miscalculations. Its meta-language draws attention to the queer child in each of our families that is often unacknowledged. It is a testimony to all the wonder and turmoil that s/he grows up with. The educator that enlightens the rest of the clan with her/his differences – magical yet silenced, fragrant yet invisible.



As an artist I assign myself the role of the seventh as a mediator between the five that exist and the sixth that is unacknowledged, marginalised and subjugated. Jonathan D. Katz in his essay in my publication ‘Nine acts of reciprocity (2010)’ suggests that I have set myself “the difficult task of explaining one group of queers to the other, the leaky to the un-leaky”.



Twelve Gates Arts is an extraordinary gallery which is home to many artists. It takes both a considered and confident curatorial stance with the works it presents and strives to extend the South Asian creative experience into the Diaspora without prejudice or bias.


AN: Have you ever exhibited in Pakistan? (If not) Would you like to?


QRS: I was associate professor at the National College of Arts (NCA) in 2007/8. I was based in the Lahore campus in the MA (Hons) Visual Arts department and the Theatre Arts department in Rawalpindi. For a period of time, I was also the international resident artist at NCA and exhibited my end of residency work entitled Dropping Tears Together (2007) with my MA students at Al hamra National Gallery. I also had a solo show at Salima Hashmi’s gallery Rohtas II in Lahore entitled ‘Only when the moon shines blue (2008)’ which was an exhibition of the performance shards of ‘Only the moon to play with (2004)’. I have been invited for a few projects recently and there are talks in the pipeline – I hope to exhibit more in Pakistan in the near future.


To view more of Qasim Riza Shaheen’s works go to www.qasimrizashaheen.com.

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