The Third Muslim: Queer and Trans* Muslim Narratives of Resistance and Resilience (The Third Muslim) opened at SOMArts Cultural Center on January 25, 2018. The exhibit highlights the work of queer and trans* Muslim artists, activists and thinkers from around the world and creates a platform for self-representation. The show is co-curated and organized by Bay Area-based writer and activist Yas Ahmed and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a teacher and visual/performance artist.
When I was a young queer artist (and before I even had that kind of vocabulary) growing up in Karachi, Pakistan, I would often dream of a future world in which queerness and trans-ness would not only be accepted but celebrated in my faith and culture. When I started using art as a tool of expression I began searching the internet for artists who were working in similar themes.
I was convinced for a very long time that nobody was really listening; our issues were not relevant enough for a society that just wanted the next big story. Needless to say, it has been overwhelming to see the incredible response to the show, from local press like SF Chronicle and KQED to write-ups by Afropunk and a mention New York Times.
Our intentions were not only to start a dialogue but to also change the tone of another pre-existing one, a conversation that framed Islam and queerness as being oppositional, you can only be queer or Muslim. Unfortunately, some–not all–of the press around this show reveals that people are still stuck on the initial premise that queer Muslims exist in the first place. We have had to clarify again and again leading questions that ask if we are all frightened people, rebelling against our cultures, traditions and faiths. As if somehow we must be grateful to the fact that we live in this country.
The show welcomes all perspectives on the intersections of queerness and Islam, as long as it is by those invested and involved in the conversation. Islam is spiritual, political and multicultural and being a practicing Muslim in the United States is in itself an act of defiance and resistance against a system that vilifies us at every level. When we speak of resistance and resilience in our title, we speak not of resistance against our own peoples – though the conversation does involve them too – we speak of resistance to the United States of America and its wars in our homelands, the wars that forced us and our families here. We are resilient in the face of policies that make life difficult for Muslim bodies, queer bodies, trans bodies, femme bodies, bodies of color, and those that inhabit all of the above.
I often like to say that queer and trans* Muslims are on the margins of the margins. We’re the in-between, the outside of, existing within understandings of Islam as monolithic, of queerness as white or western or cisgender or able-bodied, of Muslim as other — we exist in this third space, in our full dignity and power. What I appreciate about the stories and work in this particular exhibition is that sometimes we are called upon to question who the outsider is in this conversation.
Whose gaze defines or prevails?
What does it mean to be looked back at by someone often rendered invisible?
If art does its job, the “movement” is to become irresistible, right? In that way, this exhibition is overdue as far as the public platform it provides. As healer and writer Adrienne Marie Brown shared some time ago, things aren’t new, they’re just becoming uncovered. These things–Islamophobia, racism, anti-Blackness, gender-based oppression–are not new for our communities. Neither is survival or the complex ways we heal and sustain ourselves and each other, including building community and creating socially-engaged art. So, when a practical opportunity arose for us to help shape a platform of what some of those stories of resistance have been, currently are–unveiling a range of what it even means to be queer, trans* and Muslim-identified these days–we jumped on it.
Zulfikar and I both believe that it is the job of artists to reflect the times. With The Third Muslim, however, we wanted to do more than that. We wanted to both pay homage to our collective past and reflect the present so that we can reimagine the future.
That is what this exhibition is about–honoring legacy and archive, and building a queer and trans* Muslim revolution–all through storytelling and art.
The closing performance and reception for The Third Muslim — Coming Out Muslim: Radical Acts of Love — is Saturday, February 17th at SOMArts in San Francisco. The exhibition of fifteen different artists dealing with themes of diaspora, displacement and hyphenated identities – is up through February 22nd.
Check out some more work from the collection below: