Baseera Khan: snake skin
New York CitySimone Subal Gallery
November 3 – December 22, 2019
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” memorably describes the eventual fate of all empires: “boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.” And while it has been difficult to imagine alternatives to the current world order that arose after the collapse of the Berlin Wall three decades ago, cracks in the façade are multiplying. At Baseera Khan’s exhibition snake skin, a fourteen-foot-tall by six-foot-wide column constructed from pink foam insulation is horizontally sliced into seven similarly-sized pieces that are stacked, stood upright, and leaned across the gallery. The column’s fluted shaft is relatively architecturally anonymous, but Khan has wrapped it in a patchwork of handmade silk rugs sourced from Kashmir. Exposed sections show the column to be hollow at its core. Precise in conception and form, the work is also exact in its dismantling, including smaller vertical incisions into its surface of rugs and foam.
A signifier of the ruins of empire, Column Number One – Seven (all works 2019) is also the product of technological and cultural intermixing. It combines industrial materials with traditional ones, minimalist sculptural aesthetics with ornate patterning, and individual studio practice with collective craft technique. Like the global networks on which they rely for their transmission, these various elements are both woven together and interrupted: the wrap of the rugs around the column is not meant to be continuous or seamless. In one of her best-known pieces, Khan intervened in this process of international exchange when she had Nike stich the word “Muslima” into the back of a pair of customizable sneakers after the company included “Muslim” in its list of words consumers were forbidden to use (iamuslima ). Apparently, market neoliberalism has its limits, even for the company that practically perfected the current version of globalized production.
The rest of the work in Khan’s show utilizes a strong collage aesthetic that combines prints, rug fragments, and colored plexiglass acrylic. In The Shaft is 5/6 of the Total Height of the Column, a black-and-white image of a section of the column appears in a stony landscape beneath layers of thin blue, yellow, and pink acrylic sheets along with a gestural green squiggle—the mark of the artist’s hands, which appear more literally in Censored Hands (2019) where they hold a copy of Arundhati Roy’s The End of Imagination (1998) open to a passage on sectarian violence in India or in Redacted Frame (2019) over copies of Mosaik—a comic book magazine originally published in the former East Germany—from which cartoon images appear in a couple other collages. 27 Jain (2019) features a triangle of black acrylic beneath a photograph of a destroyed temple complex—a “colossal Wreck” as Shelley might describe it. The visually impenetrable black pyramid highlights the play of transparency and opacity in which all of these collages engage in relation to both medium and message.
The repeated image of scissors is another indication of the artist’s hand and technique in an exhibition that mostly avoids autobiography and references to figuration. Although the collages use photographic images as their foundation, they also resemble assemblages in their layering of acrylic sheets and silk. Framed and encased, these materials take on a sculptural component that pushes against the imagery—like bodies refusing to be contained. As a whole or in pieces, Column is also a body, ornamented and disfigured. In this sense, snake skin asks what has been shed—both voluntarily and involuntarily—and what is to be retained. It also indicates that there is not only one skin to shed, nor one world. The intersecting lines of flight and of repression are many.