Baseera Khan is an American Muslim Indian artist working across disciplines to explore the social and political environments that shape us. Her solo exhibition last year in New York, iamuslima at Participant Inc and current work [Feat.] at Sculpture Center, deals with such identities and the “misrepresentations that have led to a very volatile social environment globally . . .” She and I met on the Lower East Side to discuss the pitfalls of cultural misappropriation in our yoga-hungry western world.
BK: You heard about the 2017 Whitney Biennial situation? Here you have two Asian Americans that are curating the show, so that’s monumental. You have, in terms of diversity, the most women or femme-representing people that have ever shown. And you have a lot of POC people that are showing. Then you have a situation that overshadowed that important work, by one white woman in the show representing a figure that triggers issues of authorship, finance, and race relations within media. Everything’s okay up to the point when we ask why she is she painting Emmett Till’s body? Does she understand the trauma and agency of the source material? One of the scholars I follow, Fred Moten, said one simple statement: if you’re going to go there, then you really need to go deep. If you’re a painter and you paint very well because you really went there to understand that medium, then all we’re asking as a black and brown body of people is to understand what you’re appropriating. She was one of many painters that take from similar source material, which is also important to recognize.
Not all appropriation is bad, but the act is essentially rendering the erasure of the source material. When you share however, you reveal the source in a setting where there’s dialogue and practice, you’re asking people to look, see, and see one’s self in the practice. Like a yoga studio, for example, as a practitioner, or in this situation as an artist – one can engage in weighted material privately until there is an understanding. The biggest contention with this painter was she indeed appropriated an image whose source is key, and she entered the work into a market, albeit a museum, into an educational space. Into a place of pedagogy without doing the work necessary to understand her process.
RL: So in the context of a western yoga studio or event, it’s a similar conversation. You have a group of practitioners, spokespeople, and leaders who are predominantly white and appropriating – riffing on, really, the culture and heritage of oppressed peoples.
BK: I don’t see people of color at the events. By events I mean practices that slow down, practices that minimize your belongings, practices that center your soul, practices around yoga and alignment, and all of the things we should be making students learn in public schools. It seems like something that only people from the middle to upper class get to do. And that has looked a certain way for a very long time. We all know that there are POC middle and upper class families in this country, duh, but for a very long time those practices were advertised and centered around a white ideal. For me it’s more than that. It’s how African, Central and South Asia have been colonized and never received reparations. There are these forms of colonization that still exist in those parts of the world. Brown bodies are being shipped over the world to do labor and be in service of capitalist engines and meanwhile there are spaces that are supposed to empower people who then turn around and go to their corporate jobs and continue to bifurcate – and make my family not have agency or make me feel like I don’t have agency. In an abstract way.
RL: That’s interesting how you pair these thing s– that there’s a misappropriation of eastern culture and also a lack of representation and diversity in the appropriating class. Can you talk more about how these are interconnected?
BK: Yeah, they’re related. I don’t know what the answer is, I don’t want the practices to stop. I don’t want a sharing culture to stop. I think it can have a positive return. And clearly doing yoga has helped me. Doing things that center my core or bring strength without weights or going to the gym. Those things have helped me. It’s about how to democratize a system to benefit people whose cultures are being appropriated.
Politically and historically speaking, my family is also Iranian and Afghani, we have African ancestry, and because of colonization and political warfare, our families had to flee and go to India. And then we had to flee from India and go to other places. When you come to a nation and appropriate a culture, it’s not really appropriation, its assimilation, because as a foreigner you have to adopt and adapt . . . or get the fuck out. Part of you is getting rendered and deleted, you are appropriated upon.
So I grew up being super conscious of that, but by ‘99 or 2000, everyone was wearing yoga pants – like you could go to Gap Body and buy a pair. I was like whoa, it’s not just even the practice but the appropriation of clothing and language and everything, by people who lowkey voted for our current administration. It should be a positive thing that people are exploring other cultures, but people’s access to source information is coming from an American, corporate-built position, its about capital gain. If it’s always about consumption, then that’s working against the whole point of body alignment. So historical awareness should somehow be constructively built into the efforts, and I have seen this done well. The conversation of understanding one’s own culture and how their presence in another culture is affecting it in an intersectional way.
This is really important, because western yoga practitioners are really good at “being open” and more and more even seeing their own privilege, but there are still blinders around an actual global conversation.
It’s a conversation I have a lot amongst my friends. I’m really wary of people who are like, this is just for us. I’m more into what Fred Moten would say which is just like, if you want to go there, just go there. Go deep.
I would hate for someone to walk away from reading this and be like, okay well I’m going to take this on as a personal project and go really deep and understand the philosophies of yoga. I think that to understand the philosophy, you have to understand the ways in which everything is complicit and intersectional. The yoga pant itself that’s bought and sold at Gap Body is connected to the Bangladeshi factories that collapsed killing and crushing brown men and women due to terrible working conditions. All of that stuff is also yoga – and if you don’t understand how all of that is complicit then you’re not going deep. You’re just trying to understand something technically.
RL: Right because if yoga is about connection, this being connected, then it can’t ignore the real, actual social systems in which it operates.
BK: In the tenets of eastern philosophy, it goes back to the idea of collectivity. And everything that you do affects all these different places. It’s not about you. It’s never about you.
RL: I want to chat a little bit more about yoga as a philosophy and the culture it comes from and why those things are inseparable.
BK: I always think about politics from the personal and the family first because family shows the ways societies are pushed and pulled. In a country like this, America, we are taught to do everything on our own. There are slogans like “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” It’s based on the individual. In Africa, Central and South Asia, the religions and the family dynamics are all about the collective self. It’s not about shipping someone off to an assisted living center at a certain age, it’s about the birth to death cycle in a very visceral way. And that generates collectivity! And there has also been a big need to collectivity earn rights for drinking water or women’s rights or simply saying no we don’t want to be owned anymore, Britain, France, or Belgium.
When I’m thinking about practices of yoga or systems of strength, I don’t really think about myself, but rather the positive effects around me. I figured out a way in my performance work that’s based on body endurance, instead of saying “I” to always say “my collective self.” I don’t know if it’s possible to get America to think in that way. I don’t know if it would have positive returns but somehow in the yoga studios that I’ve experienced, I still walk away thinking this instructor wants me to take everything I want because I “deserve it.” And that’s just weird. What about stepping aside? Giving a portion of your earnings to someone else to reap all these benefits? The collective self.
RL: I really like how you phrase “my collective self” because it forces you to look at the system but it also doesn’t excuse your own behavior.
BK: I did this play at Abrons Arts Center where I was deconstructing that book Eat Pray Love where the white woman has eaten, “preyed,” and loved upon black and brown bodies, in a capitalistic way. I don’t know if me saying that offends anyone, but yeah, that’s how deep it goes.
Think about it, it’s a white woman who goes to Italy and finds love in India. She has the monetary funds to make a trip like that. She can go all over the world and influence all kinds of people, and then she can be like “Oh I don’t want this anymore” and go somewhere else. She had trauma. She was divorcing from a terrible situation and was trying to find her way out. So I’m not blaming her. I’m blaming the collective her. Because of the way she’s raised and the way her family was raised and the way that America even exists is like, let’s wipe out all these people and let’s build our own colonies and then let’s wipe out these colonies and build on top of those and let’s get a bunch of black people in here and tell them that they’re animals and write that in history and get a bunch of black and brown people and tell them that they’re animals and get them to fight against one another.
And when you bring in systems of yoga, if you don’t talk about colonization on some level, you’re going to turn into an Eat Pray Love. You’re going to be like, “Oh yeah, I’m going to go there and take what I want because that’s what I deserve,” but you’re not really going to think about yourself collectively. We’re trained to do that. We’re trained to be imperial. We’re trained to take. That’s our culture. And it makes sense that all that bad energy needs realignment, so sometimes I think the practice of Yoga in American is a filled with irony.
Kant essentially says that the European is “smart” and the native is “spiritual.” And because they’re spiritual, they understand how to take care of and labor the earth. And it’s through their labor that we will guide them and educate them and reap the benefits so that all of society will be prosperous. But we know what that looks like. We know that it looks like the Bangladeshi factories, and people getting crushed so that we can go to Century 21 and buy yoga clothes to go to our yoga studios. It looks like people in Puerto Rico that are American. It looks like Mexico in 1985, when 10,000 people died in factories and now close to 1,000 people are still dying from an earthquake because the factories haven’t changed. But we can all say that we love Mexican food while we’re walking to our yoga studios. It’s all so interconnected.
And I’m really careful because I’m also the person who goes to Century 21 to buy a ball gown because I can’t afford it. I try to check myself by minimizing my desires. I try to figure out how by minimizing my desire I’m actually increasing my desire for love, food, and living.
RL: So let’s chat a little about another side of this, which is the idea of freedom and liberation. Is it possible to talk about a personal liberation, in a yoga sense, without talking about a collective liberation?
BK: I think there are moments of personal freedom and liberation but I think there are way too many systemic issues for people to achieve a collective freedom. For example, affordable health care affects people like marginalized white men who vehemently voted for Trump. But they don’t even understand the health insurance that they have. And they’re about to have it taken away from them. And they don’t understand it. It’s in moments like that that something becomes so big and affects so many people from different walks of life that hopefully somewhere down the line someone will get together and be like actually we ALL need health care, so let’s move forward as a group. We all know that black people need more agency in America, more rights, so let’s get together. We know that women should vote, and make the same amount of money as men. Let’s get together and move forward. There are clearly so many points in history where we’ve done that, what is stopping that momentum? In the momentum you clearly feel free and there’s clearly liberation. But, I think that on a daily basis, living within imperial patriarchy, in capitalism, it’s impossible to find freedom and agency. But you have moments.