History has a long tradition of being recorded and passed down for generations via song and poetry. “Weight on History,” Baseera Khan’s first solo exhibition in Houston, is a lyrical, psychedelic meditation on contemporary pop culture, queerness, the immigrant imagination, and the past.
One of the most striking and monumental pieces here is Painful Arc (Shoulder-High), 2022, a twelve-foot-eight-inch-high sculpture of an Islamic arch that, via Khan’s ingenious rendering, provides critical insight into historical architecture, sound, and subjectivity. These structures possess an important acoustic purpose within Islamic building design: Their concavities are intended to act as resonators, magnifying and spreading sound waves. Materials including marble and ceramic tiles have frequently been used for their remarkable sound-enhancing properties in the creation of these arches. Yet Khan’s piece is made from plywood and insulation foam, materials that tend to absorb sound. This act of sonic subjugation reads as a playfully subversive gesture. Images of the artist’s own body and a standing microphone are carved into the work, humorously inscribing Khan’s (aesthetic) “voice” into its surfaces.
On a nearby wall are works from the series “Psychedelic Prayer Rugs,” 2017–18. These religious objects are emblazoned with traditional Islamic, queer, and pop-cultural motifs. One of the rugs features an Urdu poem that reads: “The right to speak can be taken away, but not the right to stay silent.” Unfortunately, this sense of quiet does not play a major role in Western political discourse; nonetheless, silence can be a powerful formal element in musical compositions and lyrical narratives. This stillness, however, does not equal voicelessness, especially in Khan’s Acoustic Sound Blankets, 2017–20. These sound-absorbing garments with circular gold-embroidered openings were worn by the artist for various live performances. Perhaps these enigmatic, glamorous vestments were designed to shield Khan from the outside world’s uglier forces, while allowing some kind of crucial physical connection to those nearest and dearest to them.