KARACHI: “Why is being Muslim such a political issue? It’s not me, it’s you, the white man, you have called me out… I’m a Muslim because the white man tells me so.” These words sound passionately political. Yes, they are, but they were uttered by an artist — a Pakistani artist at that — in a little less than eight minute video interview that went viral on Thursday. The artist is Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Junior, son of the late Murtaza Bhutto and grandson of the former prime minister of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
Perhaps it’s in his blood to see things through a political lens. After all, as he mentions in the video, his father, grandfather, uncle and aunt — the last one was another prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto — all were murdered. The story of the family is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.
However, the one thing that can be gleaned from the video is that at its very core is an art practitioner. He introduces himself as an artist of mixed Pakistani and Lebanese heritage (his mother Ghinwa Bhutto, who heads the Pakistan Peoples Party-Shaheed Bhutto, is of Lebanese origin.) At the outset he discusses the difficulty of being a queer performer in San Francisco. He switches to the idea of strong men, claims that to him masculinity is softness, and talks about putting together soft and hard images as an artist, using fabric collage, sound bites and videos. Wars in the world take place because of this concept of strength, he says. At that point the video, directed by Urvashi Pathania, cuts to Donald Trump’s speech where he is expressing his intention of a total shutdown of Muslims entering America. Bhutto reacts to it in a performance and describing that performance he raises the question “why is being Muslim such a political issue”.
What kind of effect does an artist belonging to such a high-profile political family have on the artist community of Pakistan and society at large, especially after the video being seen by so many people? And the party his family represents — Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) — is in power in Sindh.
Talking to Dawn Sameera Raja, who runs the Canvas Art Gallery, said, “I’ve known Zulfi [Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Jr] for many years and have been following his art. If somebody is from a high-profile family, more people will see his work, whereas other artists, who may be talking about the same things more openly, will not get noticed. It doesn’t matter what his concerns are. Whatever they are, he has to voice them. Of course, it will get projection because it’s Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, but others will not get that kind of exposure. And that doesn’t just happen in art, it happens in every field.”
Artist Ayaz Jokhio was of the view that it might have some effect on society because of his political background, but in the creative realm it doesn’t mean anything. In the final analysis, it will be his art that will be evaluated, not what he says.
Artist Noorjehan Bilgrami said, “I haven’t seen the video so I’m not in a position to speak about his art whether it’s good or bad, but [him being a known person] it does have an impact on the public much more than anything else.”
Fashion journalist Mohsin Sayeed saw the video as a positive sign. According to him, there was a time when the Bhutto family, like the Gandhi family, was considered iconic. So, when they take such a step, it does influence society. Members of a political family always find themselves under pressures, which is why Zulfi’s video should be taken as a positive step, he said.
Politics often provides fodder to art. It will be interesting to see how Pakistani politics features in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s art, with his progression in life as a creative individual.
Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2017