Ayqa Khan is an emerging Pakistani-American Muslim artist based in New York. A self-taught multimedia artist, she creates work centered on the South Asian diasporic experience. Diasporic bodies are always shifting, incorporating, and balancing ideas they encounter in their global and local movements. Khan’s art speaks firmly to this movement and its accompanying sense of wavering between the desire to remain fixed and the desire to play. Diaspora’s mode of migrancy allows her to make use of multiple mediums to explore her unique hybridity and playful ambivalence.
Khan publishes her work primarily on her Instagram page, @ayqakhan, and it is also disseminated through web-based editorial and curatorial projects. Nat Brut’s online residency creates space for the artist and us, the viewers, to focus on the aesthetics of Khan’s work in order to generate dialogue and meaning.
Khan’s work grapples with the notion of taking up space – occupying space, moving in space, imagining a future in space – which is timely, considering Donald Trump’s recent election and the hegemonic turn in dominant American society. The loudest rhetoric within this shift questions the safety of public spaces and whether they are compromised by the simple inclusion of Muslim bodies. The mainstream believes that in order to make these public spaces safe again, or American again, methods of surveillance need to become stricter in the public sphere and extend to the private sphere to register and subjugate Muslim lives. In light of this hegemonic turning of culture, Khan’s recent work seeks to discomfit the watchful gaze of the new mainstream and untidy, simplistic notions of Islam and space.
“...KHAN’S WORK IS DRAWN FROM HER OWN EXPERIENCE AS A BROWN WOMAN NEGOTIATING DIASPORA THROUGH EXCESSIVE BODY HAIR.”
There is no way to look into Muslim space without acknowledging the female Muslim “other.” To enter the private space of Ayqa Khan is to come into contact with her body. Throughout her Insta-oeuvre, shadows and skins of living bodies have a way of inconveniencing the voyeuristic gaze and interrupting the silent interiors decorated with breezy curtains and oriental rugs. In one of her self-portraits, titled Yellow, Khan represents herself in profile against a soft, silk screen. This background performs as a timeless utopia, reminding the viewer that the space could be anywhere and the sitter could be any one of us in hairy undress.
As her Instagram followers will know, much of Khan’s work is drawn from her own experience as a brown woman negotiating diaspora through excessive body hair. According to many South Asian and North American beauty standards, the appearance of excessive body hair on cis-gendered women elicits an abject response. The unaesthetic abject is located at the border between the beautiful and the ugly. When the border appears, the subject experiences, “an acute crisis of self-preservation,” and is unable to cross borders easily.
In Yellow, Khan’s body hair invokes a feeling of being on the opposite sides of the border, with one side looking in and the other side growing. The instinctually circular spread of body hair on the brown skin likens her to a newborn baby, fresh out of her mother’s womb. This moment of fetal insecurity is cut short by the severity of the tight French braid and the heavy jhumka. The young body, wishing to remain cradled in this endless softness, is overwhelmed by these symbols of feminine maturity. Khan effectively uses a timeless background to ground these feelings of claustrophobic unease.
Yellow, Ayqa Khan. 2016
In What are you looking at? Khan is settled on an ornamental rug with her legs bent away from the viewer. A visual shift has taken place in between these past two works because, in this painting, the subject and the background are portrayed in a much more flattened and impressionistic manner. As viewers, we are no longer invited to follow the circular trail of skin on the artist’s body, but rather, we are prompted to take body hair as a corporeal fact. The head of the artist has, for the moment, resolved its opposition with the tidy French braid, giving reins to the long tresses that curl around the shoulders. The background is no longer suffocating; rather, the ornamentation of the setting builds on the architecture of the Islamic home and moves beyond the picture frame.
"KHAN USES ... PHOTOGRAPHIC MARKERS AS PROPS TO PLAY WITH GENDER AND TO SUGGEST THAT TO DRESS BETWEEN GENDERS COULD BE ONE WAY TO LIVE WITHOUT IT. TO TAKE GENDERS OUT OF THEIR INHERITED BOXES AND EXAMINE THEM HELPS US TO SITUATE OURSELVES IN THE 'ENERGY AROUND US.'"
Khan’s images, located in the private sphere, respond powerfully to the 19th-century “history” of European “art,” when the enclosed interior of the harem was an extremely attractive setting for European men who wished to enter the mysterious East through voyeurism. Looking at women without their consent was a way of catching them off guard, and thus knowing the “other” in its unadulterated form. The artist’s embodiment of performativity, especially evident in her photographic work, subverts this notion of purity.
In the photo set, My Mother’s ‘Husband,' Khan performs as a body in between and without genders. She wears a mustache, her father’s traditional Pakistani salwaar kameez, and a kufi hat to consider relationships with men in her life, as well as to explore masculinity as a binary to femininity. Khan stands with her back to the viewer in Photo Two. Her body looks frail as the sleeves run past her fingers and the salwaar pools around her feet. The artist’s faceless refusal to meet the viewer mimics the relationship she has with some men in her life. Often, they take up the position and emotional capacity of “brick walls,” restricting open dialogue and exchange of emotion. To imagine a way out of this, Khan chooses to dress up the conflict and construct a dialogue with her own self.
What are you looking at?, Ayqa Khan. 2016
In the first image of the series, Khan continues the dialogue. She holds an awkwardly stiff pose, with her right hand touching her face and the left lightly balancing on the arm of a chair. Behind her hang two black and white images of men on a delicate vine, extended for the purpose of displaying her personal history. In an interview, Khan identified the men as members of her family.
My Mother's, Ayqa Khan. 2016
Husband, Ayqa Khan. 2016
Looking at this set of photos for the first time was difficult for me because I am more familiar with the aesthetic of the mother and aesthetics of diasporic femininity, drawn from archival images from the 1980s and 1990s. In these images, our mothers pose elegantly and proudly with their female relatives and friends in front of vast open gardens and famous architectural sites. The images Khan has published of her mother on her Instagram page are stylistically different from the two images in My Mother’s ‘Husband.’ While her mother was framed by her fashionability and beauty, the portraits of her male family members were captured in a close-up to emphasize their serious individuality. Khan uses these photographic markers as props to play with gender and to suggest that to dress between genders could be one way to live without it. To take genders out of their inherited boxes and examine them helps us to situate ourselves in the “energy around us.” Khan, a descendant of both feminine and masculine characters, sits in an empty corner of her home to sift through these constructed ways of looking at and living with gendered bodies.
"THE INSTINCT TO DISSOLVE ONE’S BODY IN PLEASURE IS COMPLICATED BY THE DESIRE TO KNOW GOD AND LIVE WITH GOD."
In Self Preservation, a woman sits confidently at a table, which displays a porcelain-white cup of chai and a blue Quran. At least, I assume it’s a cup of chai because that is my choice of drink when I’m locked inside my own container looking for a way out. The woman, dressed in what appears to be a long-sleeved lehenga and choli, leans away from the table and looks at a point outside of the picture frame. She is aware of our gaze, but has chosen to remain focused on herself. Her body, curiously positioned against the flow of the tiles, breaks the feeling of visual coherence, which can be read as a metaphor for her multidirectional point of entry into the religious literature carefully placed on the table. Her reclining posture is not indicative of her spiritual sloth, but rather of spiritual complexity. The woman’s face remains set, even as she wrestles with ideas about personal identity and spirituality. Reading Self Preservation alongside the image of two young women taking comfort in their own and each other’s hairy nakedness, we can begin to imagine how complex and exhausting this mental wrestling is in real life.
The instinct to dissolve one’s body in pleasure is complicated by the desire to know God and live with God. In an interview with Fariha Róisín on the topic of sexuality and spirituality in the Western world, Khan revealed her own experience of living between these two poles: “I’ve always kept Islam and my sex life separate.” But, as is indicated in these images, the artist is beginning to subtly negotiate between them. As the narrative of the young Muslim woman in conflict with society and herself slowly unfolds, the garden’s leafy vines begin to soundlessly flood into her space through the open windows, suggesting for the first time that there exists an outside beyond this solitary space.
Self Preservation, Ayqa Khan. 2016
Friday Pray continues this discourse between outside and inside through its construction of a private space in a public sphere. A number of women and girls, frozen in their separate conversations with God, are represented with their backs to the viewer. The setting has moved from the individual’s space to a communal space, one that is understood as private from people within and outside of its walls. Looking at this image, I am again reminded of Khan’s interview with Róisín, particularly her response to the need for community formation and its drawbacks. She reflects that, “communities aren’t always kind” to people that wish to belong while maintaining strong ties to other, often conflicting, groups.
"THE FULL BODY VEILS TAKE UP THE ROLE OF PROTECTING AND MAKING ANONYMOUS THE BODIES UNDERNEATH. MUSLIM WOMEN RE-ENTER PUBLIC DISCOURSE AS ARMOURED AGENTS IN ORDER TO RE-SHIFT HEGEMONY WITH THEIR STRONG COUNTER-HEGEMONIC MOVEMENT."
Khan has fabricated this visual pastiche to illustrate people’s uneven membership to communities. Every anonymous body in this image is engaged in their own spirituality. Some women are adjusting their headscarves, while others sit comfortably, having fixed theirs only a moment before. Some are arriving while others are departing. Some are immersed in themselves while others are casually surveying. Thus, the private feminine space of the mosque becomes a place for heterogeneity and movement. This image in conversation with Khan’s self-portraits complicates the mainstream’s naïve understanding of Islam and the ways in which Muslim people occupy space. She suggests that individuals have a different way of entering into dialogue with their faith and/or culture.
The image of the women in prayer is also helpful because it deconstructs and mystifies the barriers Western society has constructed between the public and private sphere. The sense of intimacy between the women and girls suggests that Muslim people have the means to extend their private lives into the public sphere quite smoothly. Thus, Untitled introduces the new set of Tarot cards Khan has developed. Ace of Wands and The Lovers, informed by Islamic interiors, construct ways for Muslim people to move into and occupy public spaces.
Friday Pray, Ayqa Khan. 2016
Ace of Wands can be read as the decision to determine one’s future and take up more space. A hairy brown hand, abstracted from the body, elegantly holds on to a wand in a pretty cloud of possibility. In contrast to the classic Rider-Waite deck, the hand is placed within the cloud rather than extending out of it. This difference is meaningful because it informs us that even as the artist moves outside of her private sphere, she still draws strength from its confines and feelings.
The Lovers takes visibly Muslim bodies and locates them in a soft, blurry future. In this futuristic universe, with a happy sun rising beyond the borders of the ocean, Khan implicates space in the formation of identities and relationships. The two bodies are not only adamant in taking up space carved out for them by their diasporic histories, but — through their public intimacy — they are also engaged in building upon it. Returning to Khan’s exploration of gender and sexuality in Homeostasis, we can recognize an extension of her dis-articulation of traditional ways of being and loving in the private sphere. The full body veils take up the role of protecting and making anonymous the bodies underneath. Muslim women re-enter public discourse as armoured agents in order to re-shift hegemony with their strong counter-hegemonic movement.
Yellow, Ayqa Khan. 2016
Ace of Wands, Ayqa Khan. 2016
Yellow, Ayqa Khan. 2016
The Lovers, Ayqa Khan. 2016
Ayqa Khan’s new work can be seen as counter-hegemonic located in a counter-space, constructed during and after the Trump Election. The victorious movement of racist, misogynist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic ideologies into America’s dominant public sphere requires us to return to the private sphere and rethink the public sphere. Her work invokes American public and private as an idea, which is always in the process of forming and re-forming again. It is in veiled and half-veiled shadows that artists like Khan have room to build themselves up and embrace the future.
Ayqa Khan is a self-taught multidisciplinary artist. Holding no degree in Art, her mediums include digital image, video, painting, digital illustration and writing. With a focus on diaspora bodies and alternative realities, Khan is interested in exploring the psychological lenses in which we view our own selves and others. She uses virtual platforms as her main space to display work and engage with audiences. Her work has been exhibited in numerous spaces including The Queens Museum and Cooper Union, and has spoken at the institutions, New York University, Columbia University and Wellesley College.
Harnoor Bhangu received her Bachelor of Arts in History of Art from University of Winnipeg, where she is currently working on her Master of Arts in Cultural Studies: Curatorial Practices. She focuses primarily on South East Asian, Central Asian and Middle-Eastern artists who interrogate gender, religion and diaspora in their work.