ABJD and Tomorrow We Inherit the Earth
(Sming Sming Books, 2023)
This intriguing collection of screenplays and essays documents Karachi-based artist Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s recent projects. Originally a textile artist, Bhutto has expanded his practice to include performance, installation, and film while maintaining the intricate sense of craftmanship that distinguishes his multimedia textiles. The phantasmic imagery in the book brings together Islamic mysticism, history, art, architecture, numerology, and political events in South Asia and Southwest Asia, while incorporating elements of drag, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. If at first glance these various sources are seemingly worlds apart, ABJD and Tomorrow We Inherit the Earth succeeds in illustrating Bhutto’s theory that certain Islamic traditions can be folded into the larger discourse of Queer theory.
The book is divided into four chapters, each containing a screenplay with an introduction by a guest essayist. Interspersed between these texts are ephemera from the artist’s performances, photographs of the characters, and reproductions of the artist’s drawings and textile works. Noting that Islam has long been othered and marginalized under Western colonialism and imperialism through Orientalism and Islamophobia, the artist combines these different subjects to imagine what a queer Muslim future would look like, what contributor Ronak K. Kapadia describes as “a vibrant post-humanist, multi-species assemblage of power, pleasure, and political possibility.” For example, in the film, Heaven 58, Bhutto takes inspiration from the twelfth century Muslim metaphysical philosopher Ibn ‘Arabî, who understood dreams as interpretative windows into reality, in order to disrupt the storyline of Jean Genet’s 1950 erotic film Un chant d’amour. Adding sound and editing in a number of new queer, drag, and gender-fluid characters in scenes, the artist alludes to BIPOC-led revolt and liberation. Although the film stills included in the book for this specific work cannot give the complete multi-sensory effect of Bhutto’s intervention, Abdullah Qureshi’s accompanying essay aides the reader in visualizing what arriving at a queer Muslim future might entail.
The artist’s alter ego, Faluda Islam, a bald, wing-eyed warrior drag queen adorned in shimmering makeup and futuristic South Asian jewelry and garb, appears as a protagonist in each film, a storytelling device that carries the narrative arc of the series. Islam is a shapeshifter; at times she appears zombie-like, in other instances she wears a full armor suit accented with opulent fabric. Depending on the context and her role in each story, she morphs into a ghost, an alien, a jinn (a pre-Islamic spirit/invisible creature) or a zombie (having, in one story, been resurrected after her death during a queer-led revolution that freed the Muslim world from the political grip of the West). Music, dance, and lavish costumes create a throughline of sensuality, establishing the overall mood of the films while accentuating the underlying theme of Islamic mysticism, particularly the Sufi tenant of devotional love for the divine and the idea that dreams provide a portal through which the deceased can visit. All of the visuals are otherworldly, with overlapping realities and references to the afterlives of martyrs and political leaders.
In Resurrection 573, for example, a poster for the film by Hamza M. Iftikar and film stills bathed in neon light transport the reader to an alternative realm where a slain activist is brought back to life, rising from her grave in Lebanon in order to arrive for her rebirth at a Sufi shrine in rural Pakistan. The stills show Islam’s face as a ghastly sight, her flesh half eaten by the elements and insects. While Faluda Islam’s zombie-like appearance belongs to the genre of horror, such existential questions situate it as part of a larger philosophical tradition. In the film, this resurrection is shown in the form of a dance, as Bhutto is accompanied by two dancers who move with him across the grounds of the holy site entangled in a passionate three-way love affair. The film tells the story of Sana’a Mehaidli, a young woman who was martyred in Southern Lebanon during the Israeli military occupation of the country (1982–2000). She is known throughout the country as the “Bride of the South,” and it is this concept of being married or committed to the land that Bhutto explores through archival footage of the occupation, Mehaidli’s final video address to her family, and his interpretative performance in Resurrection 573. In the included screenplay for the film, Bhutto’s alter ego Faluda Islam asks, “What lies in the marriage contract between flesh and soil?” Political commitment as simultaneously spiritual and amorous runs throughout the book’s selection of screenplays, images, and essays. Through the artist’s futurist reading, Mehaidli’s story underscores the sense of mysticism and deep connection to place that have often been at the center of Indigenous resistance movements.
Bhutto’s ability to reveal unexpected connections across time and space is on full display in ABJD and Tomorrow We Inherit the Earth. Decolonization and the liberation movements that support it therefore become acts of love: love of self, love of community, and a boundless love of the earth. The imaginative cosmology of activist histories, Islamic mysticism, and Queer theory outlined in Bhutto’s book makes a strong case for the transcendental potential of forming alliances and taking refuge in community.