By Saira Khan
February 20, 2018
Pakistani queer artist Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Jr belongs to one of the biggest political families of Pakistan.
The video, posted on the internet last summer, wasn’t supposed to be the coming-out story of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
It opens with the voice of a man wryly narrating a fictional encounter in which he is asked to leave an airplane for “speaking Arabian.” The words “Queer Muslim Proud” appear on the screen, followed by an introduction to the subject, in neon letters. As audience members in a dimly lit club cheer, Mr. Bhutto appears in a silky dress, dancing to the 1980s hit, “Disco Deewane,” by the Pakistani singer Nazia Hassan. He shimmies and sways, a pink scarf pinned to his hair, light-blue eye shadow reaching up to his eyebrows.
South Asian viewers might not have recognized Mr. Bhutto’s face but they certainly knew his name. In his native Pakistan, the news media voraciously covered the short film. The reaction focused, in a negative way, on him being a queer Muslim man.
“Perhaps I was a bit naïve,” Mr. Bhutto said in a phone interview. “I had been under the radar for so long; I didn’t think people cared as much as they did.”
Mr. Bhutto is a visual and performance artist who lives in San Francisco, and the video about him was created by filmmakers as part of “The Turmeric Project,” a series highlighting L.G.B.T.Q. South Asians living in America. Much of his work, including a recent show at the city’s SOMArts Cultural Center, explores the intersection of Islam, sexuality and masculinity.
But the reason viewers across the world clamoured about the video, and why it continues to stir controversy, was because Mr. Bhutto is the grandson and namesake of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the founder of the Pakistan Peoples Party (P.P.P.), a left-wing political party that held power in Pakistan on and off since 1967. (The current governing party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, is a centre-right conservative group.) After leading the country for much of the 1970s, the elder Zulfiqar Bhutto was overthrown in a military coup and executed in 1979. Three of his children who went into politics, most prominently the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, later suffered similarly violent ends.
Mr. Bhutto was 6 years old when his father, Murtaza, was killed in a chaotic gunfight with the police outside the family home in Karachi; the exact circumstances of his death remain mysterious. Although Mr. Bhutto said that his immediate family has never pushed him to enter politics, he is considered by many Pakistanis to be the successor to the family’s turbulent dynasty. “Bhutto Jr steps into art world, raises hopes,” a headline in Dawn, one of Pakistan’s leading English-language newspapers, said. In a Facebook comment, one user pleaded to Bhutto, “You are doing nice job but please take lead party of your grand papa we all missing you.”
Equally impassioned but hostile reactions from overseas South Asians to the video centred on Mr. Bhutto’s sexuality, especially on the 10-second-long scene capturing his joyful drag performance. In Pakistan, same-sex sexual acts are prohibited by law, and there are no anti-discrimination laws to protect L.G.B.T.Q. citizens, although the Senate recently approved amendments to a bill that allows trans people to choose their gender without needing to appear before a medical board.
News reports of ostracism, legal threats and attacks against gay Pakistanis, or against those perceived to be gay, are not uncommon; in one highly publicized case, a transgender activist died from gunshot wounds after delays in her medical care. Homophobic comments on Mr. Bhutto’s video, both from media sources and social media users, employed derogatory terms and curses to condemn him and his art. “There was so much negativity when it came out, and the focus was on the drag part of it,” Mr. Bhutto said.
Drag is not openly accepted in Pakistan. The closest thing may be the performances by hijras — transgender or intersex people who were categorized as males at birth but who do not conform to traditional ideas of masculinity. While they do not fit the Western definition of drag queens, they dance and sing at public ceremonies while wearing women’s clothing. At first, Mr. Bhutto was reluctant to discuss his own use of cross-dressing. “But now the cat’s out of the bag,” he said. “Drag is an integral part of my practice; what point is there being shy and tiptoeing around it anymore?”
Mr. Bhutto, 27, began using visual and performance works to explore Islamic identity after coming to the United States, in 2014, to pursue his M.F.A. at the San Francisco Art Institute. Newly arrived in the city, he was shocked by a notorious series of anti-Muslim ads on city buses, paid for by Pamela Geller and the American Freedom Defence Initiative. “It made me want to hide who I was,” he said; at the same time, he added, the explicit Islamophobia “energized me in a way I wasn’t in Pakistan.” Alongside the Iranian artist Minoosh Zomorodinia, he began exploring acts that emphasized and embraced his status as a Muslim in America: together, the two developed “prayformances,” in which they completed the Muslim ritual of praying in public spaces.
It was another act of hatred that spurred Mr. Bhutto to also weave his identity as a gay person into his art. On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen, an American Muslim man, killed 49 people at a popular Orlando gay club. The tragedy, and unsubstantiated rumors that Mr. Mateen may have been a closeted gay man, opened up a rare mainstream discourse, both in United States and in the Muslim world, on queerness in Islam. It became clear to Mr. Bhutto that “people think you’re either queer or you’re Muslim, and that somehow those two things are in opposition to one another.”
During that period, Mr. Bhutto attended his first drag show. “If you aren’t used to it, it’s very impactful: the makeup, the costume, the performance, the songs,” he said. He first tried his hand at drag a few months later, at a local bar. Over time, he began building his performances around music and spoken-word sections that address his religion and cultural background — “which can be surprisingly jarring and political to the audience,” he said.
In the same vein, his mixed-media series “Musalman Muscleman” aims for “interesting confusion for the viewer,” this time through the layering of cheap fabrics from Pakistan over beefcake photos from an Urdu translation of an exercise manual supposedly originally written by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“There are some misguided ideas about what Islam represents and the threat that Muslim men pose,” Mr. Bhutto explained. By combining homoerotic images of muscle-bound men with embroidered sections of flowery cloth, and by emphasizing the calligraphic Arabic script, he seeks to challenge assumptions about Muslim masculinity.
Last fall, “Musalman Muscleman” was included in the Karachi Biennale. Though it was the first time that Mr. Bhutto had been home since the “Turmeric Project” video caused uproar, he said that he wasn’t nervous — he has always made sure to maintain a low profile when he travels to Pakistan. But it would be more difficult to stay incognito if he were openly practicing his art there, which, he said, is why he’s not interested in moving back to the country.
“I respect what my father did,” Mr. Bhutto said. “He dedicated his entire life to a cause, he made himself physically vulnerable for a cause, I respect that — but, honestly, it’s not for me.”
In San Francisco, Mr. Bhutto is busy with his show at SOMArts, “The Third Muslim: Queer and Trans Muslim Narratives of Resistance and Resilience,” which he organized with the artist Yas Ahmed. With hundreds of people in attendance at the opening ceremony, the show has been well-received in the art world — and no backlash in Pakistan. It also features work by 15 queer, trans and gender nonconforming Muslim artists from around the world, including Syria, Iran, and Pakistan.
The exhibition “tackles the representation of Islam and Muslims all over the world but through a queer lens,” Mr. Bhutto said. At least in America, he noted, “these days, identifying as Muslim is more tricky than identifying as queer, funnily enough.”