Installation view of “I Am an Archive,” with Snakeskin–Column Number 2, Number 6, Number 7, 2019. Photo: Jonathan Dorado, Brooklyn Museum, © Simone Subal, Courtesy the artist and Simone Subal Gallery, New York

A Conversation with Baseera Khan

Baseera Khan’s multimedia practice engages with intertwined social, political, and economic histories and their effects on the diasporic body, often through acts of deconstruction and collage. Braidrage, an ongoing project featuring 99 resin casts of parts of the artist’s body, as well as a performance and video in which Khan scales those same casts repurposed into a rock wall, in part confronts the fragmentation and commodification of people and objects by economic forces. Khan explores a similar displacement of traditional Islamic patterning, engaging with objects from the Brooklyn Museum’s Arts of the Islamic World Collection, and merges that ornamentation with architecture in a series of collages and in Snakeskin, a series of monumental segmented columns, made with architectural foam and handmade silk rugs. Khan’s current exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, “I Am an Archive,” unpacks the breadth of their production, including 11 new artworks, plus other major works from 2017 onward. 

Sculpture magazine: Why is collage a useful methodology or idiom for you?
Baseera Khan: There’s a physical act involved in collaging, but it’s also a mental disposition. I think that for a very long time, growing up within the U.S., going to traditional art school and being asked to focus on material, and being taught how to use those materials and traditional forms, it kind of caused a disassociation. Through that disassociation, I collapsed and didn’t feel like I could even make. I didn’t see the value in reproduction. I didn’t see the value in illustration. Then all of a sudden I started to collage—even if it was a mental act, I was collaging image on top of image with paint; I was collaging image on top of image in a more traditional sense, where I was cutting things out and pasting them on top of each other. And then at some point, I was like, I’m not going to even make art anymore, in the sense of contemporary art in the market. I didn’t stop making, but I stopped participating in contemporary art. And in 2017, which was an important year for me, I started to develop collaging—it even happened through installation, where I’m layering one thing on top of the other and revealing something to hide something else. Or I’m stacking things to where you can see how thick the layers are. So collaging allows for me to bring a lot of things into an arena that maybe don’t necessarily fit together in a traditional sense.

I Arrive in a Place with a High Level of Psychic Distress, (Blue), 2021. Chromogenic photograph and laser-cut acrylic, 62 x 37 in. Photo: Stephen Takacs, © Baseera Khan, Courtesy the artist and Simone Subal Gallery, New York

Sculpture: There are so many elements there: photographic—scanning your own body, textiles, this really great use of color. Color is one of the formal qualities that stands out in your work.
BK: I come from an aesthetic form of wanting to adorn myself with monotones. I remember even when I was a child, in first grade or second grade, where I was like, “You know what? I’m just going to do all pink.” Now that I think of it, I was very adherent to monotone pigmentation from a very early age. Then I started to mix colors: I was like, well, black is my color, and so I’m going to add pink and black, or I’m going to do purple and black. And I remember in class we would have to do craft work, and there I started to develop these patterns of black with something, collaging this with this.

Color, for me, was always something I didn’t quite understand, but it was all around me. Traditional South Asian clothing is so bright. There are so many colors. Even with spices, it’s just undeniable. The way that I controlled that environment was to only wear black. When I started to paint, I realized there’s a mental state that comes with color. In the last, say, four years, I’ve actually been implementing old traditions of antiquity in terms of thinking about color. Thinking about traditions that come from looking at your chakra points—you have your root chakra, your heart chakra, your throat chakra, and what not. Those points on your body are in reference to color. And when you see those colors, they affect you mentally, regardless of you knowing that it’s happening or not. Then I started looking at corporate America—I’m really invested in thinking about the economics of individuality of our institutions. And I started to understand early on that there’s a reason why Walmart was blue; this is a tool that’s being used to persuade us to do things automatically. I started to look at those colors and to think about them in my world of collaging or of making sculpture and doing performance. In these recent works, “I Arrive in a Place with a High Level of Psychic Distress,” I’m body scanning and I’m also applying acrylic plates that are cut out in geometric patterns that lay on top of each other to create color. For example, there’s a piece where I have laid pink and green Plexi on top of each other because the heart chakra is green, but it’s pink on the backside. When you see these colors they actually calm you down, make you feel love. You always think about red as the color of love, right? But it’s actually the pink and green coming together and also making purple that can produce love and romance and calmness. That’s a little bit of what I’m thinking about when I’m when I’m using color. It’s an emotional thing for me.

Sculpture: In one of the collages you also use a green screen, but its this really bright green.
BK: I used a pink backdrop, a green backdrop, and a black backdrop to create the new collages, called “Law of Antiquities.” And through that, I’m able to continue this investigation of color. But obviously, in this instance, I’m not using the Plexi; I’m using the backdrops. And the green screen is also a tool: it’s a tool of projection, just like colors for projection. One uses a green screen or a blue screen because media technology doesn’t pick up on those colors; therefore you can collage your body into different spaces.

Mosque Lamp and Prayer Carpet Green (from the “Law of Antiquities” series), 2021. Archival inkjet print, artist’s custom frame, 33 x 24 in. Photo: © Baseera Khan, Courtesy the artist and Simone Subal Gallery, New York

Sculpture: Can you talk about the process behind your more sculptural works, and how you decide on form?
BK: I think that I feel uncomfortable with sculpture being static. So I’m always thinking about its performativity because I think about my body as a sculpture. I’m also doing performance—I’m enacting or reacting to something. It’s hard for me to think about rhetorics of fine art. It’s very hard for me to stomach all of that. All I’m really doing in my studio is learning the tools and technology. That’s the first step—How do you make this sculpture? Do you need to start with a wireframe? Architecturally, you have to make sure that you have a good foundation. Obviously there’s some traditions in that, which are based on math and science and gravity. I adhere to those things. But at some point, I really just kind of throw out the garbage of categories. We live in a modernist society—everything’s categorized. The male and female component itself has been categorized methodically through modern technology. Race is there to categorize us as well. Why should I categorize myself in making art on top of all that? I have control over that environment. When you think about a sculpture, you have to understand that it takes up space. It refracts sound—to put an object in a space is manipulating sound waves. So you have space, you have sound. When you stand in front of the object, and you see the shadow, the shadow is a two-dimensional object. I don’t think about sculpture as this three-dimensional thing that you then translate into a two-dimensional thing, because those things are happening fluidly in front of us all the time. I just think about organisms. I think about my own self, and I think about myself as a suitcase. So what’s in my suitcase? What do I want to provide? What do I want to share? What intrigues me? And so you have this exhibition, “I Am an Archive,” you open up my suitcase, and you have an album, you have collages, you have sculptures. I don’t really think what I’m doing is bizarre. I think that what I’m doing is pretty normal. I’m creating an ecosystem.

Installation view of “I Am an Archive,” 2022. Photo: Jonathan Dorado, Brooklyn Museum

Sculpture: Snakeskin (2019), on view in the current show, is composed of several column pieces, each titled separately as part of a series. I assume there are more, and you decided to configure them in a certain way for this show. 
BK: I made seven for that particular column. Some of them are in permanent public collections—the paperwork was just undeniably extensive, so that’s a clinical, clerical thing that determined why we used the three that we used. With the three, we decided to create a space that looks like a toppled-over ruin, something that you might see in an agrarian space in Rome, for example. But yes, I like working in series; it gives me the opportunity to really hone in on ideas. For example, I could have made one column and said, this is one artwork, but I love the idea—this is going to sound bizarre—of the diaspora of the object. It’s like the object is always whole, but it’s separated and lives in other places. Because I feel like that’s what has happened to my people, and my body, and my soul. I’m a collective self, and I’ve been pushed and pulled all over the world, in terms of my mental consciousness. Why can’t that happen to my artwork, too? In the initial installation, there’s all this control, but then the market divides it and conquers it in all these different parts. I think that the way in which my work is collected is very conceptual, and necessary for me. I work in series, I do make a holistic object, but then I anticipate it getting cut up into parts and sold all over the world, like livestock.

Sculpture: And you did something similar with the resin sculptures in your Braidrage project (2017–ongoing)?
BK: I have started to send parts of Braidrage to places, but I’ve actually just kind of been sitting on that work. It’s been touring since 2017; I’ve now made a film of it. Because of Covid, you can’t really install the work and do the performance, and in terms of my body, I got Covid so I wasn’t able to be as physical as I’ve been before. Making the film enables me to share the work in a different capacity. I couldn’t do the performance live, so I made a film—the translation is sometimes that clinical. That being said, I had initially started to talk about the way that work would get collected in parts. And then at some point down the line, it would be interesting to bring all those parts back together again to do an installation, and the paperwork would then become a part of the artwork. I’m interested in thinking about the way that people are displaced. Most of the time people are displaced through economics—whether that be war, or upper mobility, or even a kid going to school; that’s a kind of displacement based on economics. With the objects that I’m making, as a series they’re a whole, and then as they’re collected and placed in different homes, or institutions, that’s when the real work happens for me.

Installation view of “I Am an Archive,” with Privacy Control, 2018–20. Photo: Jonathan Dorado, Brooklyn Museum, © Baseera Khan, Courtesy the artist and Simone Subal Gallery, New York

Sculpture: Could you talk about the materials that you choose, for example in the Snakeskin works?
BK: The object is made of this architectural foam. One of the things that’s intriguing to me is, in an industry, there are standardized sizes—for example, four feet by eight feet is a very Western, industrial standard material form. You get a sheet of this [foam] at four by eight. And the color of the material signifies its function. When I was working on the acoustic blankets, the black acoustic blanket is in reference to sound dampening, but when you get into the other colors, they’re more sound-eliminating. Or, for example, different color packing blankets all signify a different function. I had the privilege, let’s just say, of teaching an art history class at NYU in 2018. In that class, I was able to discuss the Bauhaus movement. And it was really in that school where Walter Gropius as the founder of Bauhaus was implementing standardized forms. So, you have a doorknob that looks the same no matter where you go in the world. And therefore, your body automatically knows what to do with that doorknob. Those things are very fascinating to me, and that’s how I arrive at the materials I arrive at. You’ll see it in Privacy Control, another architectural material that provides either obfuscation or revelation. You can create a mirror with it or you can see through it; it can create shade or reflection.

Going back to the column, I started to use a sound-dampening architectural foam because when you’re a student you’re asked to use these materials to do your maquettes because they’re really easy to cut into. You can make models and understand form relatively cheaply, and it’s not heavy, so it’s easy to store. That kind of got stuck in my head, and I wanted to make these huge monolithic columns lightweight, but to look heavy. That’s why I used that material. I remember traveling with my father on the George Bush Turnpike in Texas, off of I-35. And we stopped at a mini mart—they’re these little portico-style, quickly built shopping centers off the highways in Texas. And we were picking up something from the drugstore. I looked at this wall, and it looked like something you’d see in Rome or Greece. And I picked the wall, and I saw that it was made out of foam. So we just put some bubble gum in it, and kind of stuck it back, because we were afraid we’d get in trouble. These are the kinds of memories I have. In America, you have fast architecture, and they use that material.

In terms of the more historical object, I was thinking about comic book graphics and political cartoons and how those have always been used as a political tool. I was also thinking about carpets, oriental rugs, and the generation of Islamic patterning that’s been gutted of its political reference. When you think about decorative arts, you don’t think about politics; but the patterns and the graphics on these rugs are indeed very political, and very emotional—people come together and have discussions about their lives while they’re making these rugs. So, I decided to use them to adorn the columns. Calling the work Snake Skin is a move toward the ornament on a snake itself and the way it digests its prey. It sheds its skin as it leaves, and forms a new one. I was thinking about Futurism—Islamic Futurism, Afrofuturism—as a kind of way to deal with power that isn’t just about burning it down. It’s digesting it, making it your own, and then leaving the skin behind.

“Baseera Khan: I Am an Archive” is on view at the Brooklyn Museum through July 10, 2022.