In Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, the filmmaker asks, “Have you ever heard of anything stupider than to say to people, as they teach in film schools, not to look at the camera?” Marker praises the direct gaze not as a means of disillusionment, reminding us of a film’s artificiality, but as an expansion of cinema’s power. Images that stare back can implicate the viewer. They gnaw at cinema’s limitations as a one-way medium and foreground the central, and very political, question of relational dynamics in the making and viewing of moving images.

This conception of the gaze is central to the work of Qasim Riza Shaheen and is especially evident in the six screen video installation featured in Stains and Stencils. Shaheen does not see his work as being medium-specific, with text, photography, video and live performance all employed when appropriate. If there is a constant element in each of these contexts, it is Shaheen’s own body. As Shaheen is careful to point out, this is not the same as saying the work is always about him, but rather an acknowledgement that an artist’s own body is the most fundamental medium of all. As he sees it, the body is “a site of translation” on which issues of gender, identity, memory and subjectivity can be performed and interrogated. As a result, his work is deeply process-oriented, with what ends up in the gallery being, in his words, “by-products of lived experience”.

Arriving at moving images from this perspective, Shaheen bypasses the traditional auteurist discourse of cinema, in which the filmmaker is a poet or visionary expressing himself through the camera and, as Anne-Marie Miéville put it, “it is always the one who is directed that is seen, never the one directing.” Instead, by turning the camera on himself, Shaheen opts to destabilise his own power rather than to elaborate it. The camera becomes a situational tool rather than an all-seeing eye.

Using the camera in this way, Shaheen has found a novel way of navigating the dangers of a potentially touristic, patronising project: he has made videos about the transgendered “Khusra” sex worker community in which they never actually feature. As he puts it, his interest was not in “controlling representation but negotiating representation”, and so what we see are six videos for which each of his six friends dressed and co-directed him in performances as them. Paradoxically, by leaving the women off-screen they became empowered in a mutually supportive dialogue: the film becomes a collective expression which is neither “all him” or “all them”, but the product of an intersubjective space made possible by the filmmaking process.

This may give the impression that the pieces lack individuality, but in fact what they visualise most effectively is the construction of personal identities in the face of encroaching limitations. Shaheen’s six performances, each of which was filmed unrehearsed with no retakes, are all shot in the homes and brothels where the women work. The often cacophonous soundtracks give us a sense of the manic off-screen space surrounding them and the installation context of these works—side by side, sounds overlapping—further emphasises the sense in which each woman (it is hard to recognise them all as one person) risks being consumed by the chaos surrounding them, and even overwhelmed by one another.

Resisting this threat of absorption, Shaheen’s presence is steadfast and powerful in each video, his gaze alternately solicitous, imploring and aggressive. The precisely groomed hair, makeup, dresses and theatrically decorated “sets” all figure as acts of defiant self-invention that contest the limits both of Shaheen’s own physiology and the underlying poverty of the context he performs in. To do so, each woman has assimilated the lessons of cinematic illusion into their blood, negotiating their mise-en-scéne—its light, shadow, on-screen and off-screen space—with complete ownership. The women observe their beauty and sensuality at the same time as they embody it: as if they were both the voyeur and the performer, dancing in front of the mirror by themselves. Within this insular self-concern, the viewer can feel like a third wheel. Yet there is something profoundly incomplete in their act too; something that calls out for an answer. Their gaze may be self-aware but it is also full of longing.

Deeply influenced by ancient Islamic saints such as Babha Bulleh Shah, whose poems he grew up with, Shaheen is fascinated by the idea of performance as a way of reaching out to the “beloved”. Seen this way, the performances are not acts of narcissism but attempts to communicate with an absent other: the lost, distant or yet-to-be-discovered lover; the unknown viewer; God. Perhaps the biggest conundrum of Shaheen’s work is the way in which sacred notions like these not only co-exist, but seem to be intimately entangled with, profane notions of lust and objectification. Indeed, Shaheen has said he wants the viewer to be seduced by the images—a performative word that can be both an act of manipulation and deception and an act of affection and roleplay.

A subsequent piece by Shaheen, Queer Courtesan (which he has referred to as a live continuation of Stains and Stencils), expresses this duality acutely. Viewers enter, one at a time, a cubicle where Shaheen performs a one-minute dance as a woman, separated by a two-way mirror in which we see him but he sees only his own reflection. On top of this, a camera observes the viewer, whose face is seen by the others outside waiting for their turn. This displacement plays with hierarchies of seeing and being seen in a way that disrupts and complicates them, rather than abolishing them. Instead of cutting through the complexity in favour of a more politically correct equality, Shaheen simply tries to facilitate spaces in which these subjectivities can freely intermingle and multiply.

In Stains and Stencils, Shaheen inaugurates a space in which bodies are sites of multiple identities and identities can crisscross over multiple bodies—and invites us to join him.


This essay was commissioned and published by
the Cork Film Festival and the Triskel Arts Centre.


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