There are art exhibition opening nights – then there was the opening night of Qasim Riza Shaheen’s exhibition The Last Known Post at the mac in Birmingham.
Elegant women clad in white saris paraded slowly around a marked route. A man fell gracefully to the floor, his profile then marked out in red tape in a crime-scene style.
A tall woman in enormous spiky heels and what looked like an Asian wedding outfit joined the parade, followed by a young man with a topknot and enormous platform boots.
A woman who may or may not have been a gallery assistant approached people and recited to them, as did the man. Then another young man in, er, underpants, boots and a long trail made up of squares of paper incorporating a flag sashayed around. Camp did not begin to describe it.
Traditional Sufi music was played live, and slightly incongruously the drinks came courtesy of Absolut so for the first time ever I viewed an exhibition, and one by a Muslim artist at that, with a vodka and orange in my hand. And I rather liked it.
The performance was called One, and was apparently researched and developed earlier this year with local residents and artists at the National Visual Arts Gallery in Kuala Lumpur.
It certainly made for a memorable night, as did seeing Quasim Riza Shaheen urging on the performers, nattily dressed in a stylish outfit incorporating high boots and a neckerchief. It was no surprise at all that he’d once studied fashion, and at Central St Martins in the late 1980s-early 90s, and the outfits of the performers were all his work. Though he said that now he designs only as part of his artworks.
So on to the main show – which takes some effort to interpret, and that is best done with some careful reading of the excellent guide by mac visual arts producer Craig Ashley.
The story of the exhibition is that it’s based around a love letter to the artist before his 40th birthday, reflecting on their love and proposing marriage. The letter is part of the exhibition.
Other works include a two-screen film of the artist dressed as Amy Winehouse telling of his admiration for her in I Lost My Passport in Your Dream, and a set of photos under the title Father Rock Me, showing the artist’s father and the actor Rock Hudson.
In the photo Samson and Delilah the artist looks worried as actress Vanessa Ahmed caresses his lovely long hair, and in the two-screen film A Bride of Khusro he appears as a woman to perform Kathak Dance moves to a Qawali soundscape, in front of a Sufi shrine in Karachi.
In A World Where There Are Five Women I Am The Seventh is a new commission which allows Shaheen to display his costume-making again, showing five sari blouses around a wedding dress; this apparently leaves space for another woman, a space he describes as ‘gender atypical’.
The obvious interest in gender raises questions, but the vital exhibition guide tells us that the adoption of a feminine persona echoes the gender transformation of the Sufi saints into the eternal brides of their masters, apparently.
Shaheen is an artist who has moved away from the ideas of autobiographical work to play with ideas of what may or may not be true, and create from that. The love letter, the guide tells us, is actually a creation of the artist. At the exhibition opening he said that he likes exploring ideas of relationships, but these are always viewed as romantic relationships – whereas to him his most important relationship is with his Kathak dance teacher of the last 20 years – Nahid Siddiqui, who was at the opening and who appears in his video diptych Arya with him, where he reads the love letter aloud.
It’s a striking exhibition, with layers of meaning and misinterpretation possible. And possibly best approached with a vodka in hand.
* Opening the same night, and which I also managed to visit, was the new exhibition at Eastside Projects.
In the large gallery, Turner Prize winning artist Susan Philipsz has created a new site- specific work called Broken Ensemble: War Damaged Musical Instruments (Brass Section).
It consists of speakers from which come the sounds of instruments damaged in various conflicts in the late nineteenth century, including the Balaklava Bugle, used to sound the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854, and another military bugle damaged by a bullet.
The sounds are as you might expect – but the idea is interesting.