SAN FRANCISCO: Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Junior is the grandson and namesake of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the founder of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). After leading the country for much of the 1970s, the elder Zulfikar Bhutto was overthrown in a military coup and executed in 1979.
Three of his children who went into politics, most prominently the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, later suffered similarly violent ends.
Bhutto jr, 27, is a visual and performance artist who lives in San Francisco. Much of his work, including a recent show at the city’s SOMArts Cultural Center, explores the intersection of Islam, sexuality and masculinity.
He began using visual and performance works to explore Islamic identity after coming to the United States, in 2014, to study at the San Francisco Art Institute. Newly arrived in the city, he was shocked by a notorious series of anti-Muslim ads on city buses, paid for by Pamela Geller and the American Freedom Defense Initiative.
“It made me want to hide who I was,” he said; at the same time, he added, the explicit Islamophobia “energized me in a way I wasn’t in Pakistan.” Alongside the Iranian artist Minoosh Zomorodinia, he began exploring acts that emphasized and embraced his status as a Muslim in America: together, the two developed “prayformances,” in which they completed the Muslim ritual of praying in public spaces.
His mixed-media series “Musaalmaan Muscleman” aims for “interesting confusion for the viewer,” this time through the layering of cheap fabrics from Pakistan over beefcake photos from an Urdu translation of an exercise manual supposedly originally written by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“There are some misguided ideas about what Islam represents and the threat that Muslim men pose,” Bhutto jr stated in a recent interview with The New York Times. By combining homoerotic images of muscle-bound men with embroidered sections of flowery cloth, and by emphasizing the calligraphic Arabic script, he seeks to challenge assumptions about Muslim masculinity.
Last fall, “Musaalmaan Muscleman” was included in the Karachi Biennale. Though it was the first time that Bhutto jr had been home since the “Turmeric Project” video caused an uproar, he said that he wasn’t nervous — he has always made sure to maintain a low profile when he travels to Pakistan. But it would be more difficult to stay incognito if he were openly practising his art there, which, he said, is why he’s not interested in moving back to the country.
“I respect what my father did,” Bhutto jr said. “He dedicated his entire life to a cause, he made himself physically vulnerable for a cause, I respect that — but, honestly, it’s not for me.”