Zulfi Ali Bhutto – An Artist And A Queer Muslim Activist

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Junior the grandson of former Prime Minister and President of Pakistan Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, has come out as a Queer Muslim in a recent viral video. Zulfi, who is currently living in San Francisco, was featured in the Artist Spotlight Series created by The Turmeric Project, an initiative focusing on South Asian queer artists in America. Political family background did not deter this fearless son of a fearless father from being honest in his take on his career as a multimedia artist, his political calling and activism on gender, masculinity and queer subjects.

Zulfi is not anglicized as one would assume judging from his accent; he’s a Karachiite and a Sindhi by heart. He paints his nails, and loves jewelry. At a gallery in Castro exhibiting Bhutto Jr’s “Mussalman Muscleman” series he is seen flaunting earrings and donning Sindhi Ajrak over his Pakistani kurta and embroidered waistcoat.

Bhutto donning Ajrak at the exhibition of “Mussalman Muscleman” series, San-Francisco, 2017
Bhutto donning Ajrak at the exhibition of “Mussalman Muscleman” series, San-Francisco, 2017

Bhutto earned his bachelors and MAH in History of Art at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He then pursued MFA in Studio Art at San Francisco Art Institute from which he graduated in 2016. Being an ethnic and a religious minority in Trump’s America is more complicated that it could be in the United Kingdom. “I felt like I was a minority politically”, said Bhutto. “I felt like I was a minority in the sense that I was a threatened individual — or I posed a threat.”

Through his art and performances Bhutto is revolting against Islamophobia in Trump’s America. He collaborated with Iranian video artist Zomorodinia and devised Side by Side, a “prayformance” (Bhutto’s word) confronting Islamophobia, as a way to become as unapologetically Muslim in public space as possible.

‘Side by Side’ – Bhutto praying Namaz on Ajrak at Powell and Market Streets in San Francisco, during SantaCon
‘Side by Side’ – Bhutto praying Namaz on Ajrak at Powell and Market Streets in San Francisco, during SantaCon

Bhutto carries his Ajrak everywhere he goes. He is seen praying, prostrating on Ajrak at all iterations they have performed so far.

Bhutto performed his poem titled “Muslim’s burden” in protest against US President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban which deals with the politics associated with being a Muslim. “I am a Muslim because I must bear the burden. The burden to tell the white man that we know what our problems are and we don’t need your friendly bombs”. Speaking about it in the video Bhutto said, “it’s not me. It’s you, the white man. You have called me out… I’m a Muslim because a white man says me so”

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Powerful verses of Bhutto’s poetry “Muslim’s burden” that he performed in protest against Trump’s Muslim ban, Courtesy zulfikaralibhuttoart.com

Many of his projects in Pakistan focus among others on religious minority rights and advancement of art education. His project Young Street Photographers started in 2015 in Neelum Colony, Karachi in an attempt to foster creativity in disadvantaged neighbourhoods and communities. The project has had two iterations in two years.

Young Street Photographers, Exhibition opening, Image courtesy of Humayun Memon, 2016
Young Street Photographers, Exhibition opening, Image courtesy of Humayun Memon, 2016

His another project titled “JISM-QAUM” (BODY-NATION) is a show of fiery patriotism where he posed for pictures under heads “Qaumi Jism Punjab” and “Qaumi Jism Sindh”. The collection also includes images for “Qaumi Jism FATA”.

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Images from “JISM-QAUM” collection, Courtesy zulfikaralibhuttoart.com

Since the video of the Turmeric Project featuring Bhutto Jr’s art went viral in Pakistan many of us feared backlash, especially from the Jiyalas of his grandfather and his father. His friends wondered if coming out as a Queer Muslim to Pakistani audience was really what Zulfi wanted from this video. While some are criticizing his queer identity, the reaction from Sindh is not what any of us could have expected. It is heart-warming to say the least. Some are seen admiring his courage others believe he is another sufi, another dervish Sindh has produced. Except for the staunch advocates of patriarchy who theorize that Zulfi’s painted nails, unconventional appearance, bold art performances are a show of weakness shaming the valorous Bhutto clan, the people of Sindh offered amazing sense of acceptance and support.

Speaking to the Turmeric Project Bhutto says, “there is this stereotype that the representative of the nation is a strong man”, and this idea of strength is “ridiculous”. If muscularity is not Zulfi’s idea of strength and masculinity then what is? “It’s softness”, he answers. He may or may not be a dervish but Zulfi Bhutto Jr. is as fearless and his life as heroic as was of the martyrs’ in his political family. Zulfi is doing his family name proud.

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Shumaila Shahani is a feminist based in Karachi, an advocate by profession and a miscellaneous blogger. She tweets as @ShahaniSays

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