A special exhibition highlighting the role of communities often on the margins gets centre stage treatment at the Saatchi Gallery in London, and is also part of a wider celebration and an expression of gratitude and support…
By Suman Bhuchar
It is over fifty years since homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK, however young Asians in same sex relationships still find it hard to come out and feel able to be visible.
Part of this has to do with cultural taboos, prejudice and homophobia within the Asian communities, but some of it also has to do with visibility and representation of the South Asian LGBTQi community within the wider mainstream. This has not been helped by the recent #NoOutsiders protests that have erupted outside schools as parents object to the teaching of the Equality Act to primary school children.
Writer and activist, Ash Kotak is committed to challenging these inequalities and also helping the gay community in Britain connect with each other, through shared stories and mutual support.
To this end, he has curated #BritainWeExist, a series of events, film-screenings, discussions and a play reading highlighting the Queer British South Asian Experience which will take place at the Saatchi Gallery, London over the next four days. (30 Aug – 2 September).
It’s a packed programme beginning with a press launch and conversation with the founders of Club Kali, DJ Ritu and Rita, two dynamic women who created a safe space for South Asian LGBTQi people to come together to celebrate their sexuality as well as provide emotional support and practical guidance for over 25 years, having its roots in the earlier community group, Shakti.
Kotak, through his company, AESTHES!A — an organisation that works with marginalised communities to illuminate new understandings of complex narratives through the creative arts — told www.asianculturevulture.com that: “I am working to embed South Asian Queer History within mainstream history, and what I hope to achieve through these four day events is a beginning of a timeline of our story in the UK.”
One of the things open to discussion is whether the South Asian LGBQTi community has had its ‘Stonewall moment’ or whether individuals have had to strive for equality through small victories gained over time through changing perceptions, breaking taboos or eradicating inequalities in the law.
The Queer South Asian story is not well known or documented and this mini festival is an opportunity to meet artists, thinkers, historians, film-makers and writers to timeline the last 35 years of British South Asian Queer Heritage and explore what is it to be LGBT South Asian and to be Queer British today.
Film screenings include a documentary: ‘The Suitable Boys’ by Farah Durrani made for the BBC East series in 1994, which is introduced by photographer, Sunil Gupta who was one of the participants and Cary Sawhney (now executive director of the London Indian Film Festival) who was the film’s researcher.
Another screening is of a documentary work in development, ‘My God I’m Queer‘ by Matt Mahmood Ogston (founder of the Naz and Matt Foundation) which looks at the daily lives of queer Muslim people.
These screenings and other events are a catalyst to stimulate debate around visibility and representation and in recent years, television soaps have begun to focus on gay Asian storylines such as that of Syed Masood (played by Marc Elliott) in BBC Eastenders (2009 -2012) and ITV’s Coronation Street, featured the story of Rana Habeeb (Nazir) and played by Bhavna Limbachia, who had strong feelings for Kate Connor in the storyline. (2017-2019).
There is also an art display of portraits by artists, Sabira Haque, Qasim Riza Shaheen and Alia Romagnoli. One of the highlights is a play reading of ‘Hijra’, a play written by Kotak. It’s a comedy about a British-born South Asian, called ‘Nils’, who while on holiday in India meets and falls in love with ‘Raj’ who lives in a house of Hijras (eunuchs). A plan is hatched to smuggle Raj as Nils’ wife back to Wembley, and it takes all the resources of Guru Hijra’s supernatural support to avoid disaster thereafter.
The play was originally performed in 2000 at the Bush Theatre /Theatre Royal Plymouth and then in 2002 at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds and there have been calls for it to be revived for a new generation of theatre goers.
#BritainWeExist is curated by Ash Kotak of aesthesia.org and all events are free and will be at the Saatchi Gallery and take place in the basement Education Room, which has a limited capacity of 50 seats plus standing. Some events will be filmed or recorded electronically.
The Press launch will be on Friday (August 30) 2.45pm – 4pm followed with a talk by Club Kali founders.
Full details of the programme are available on https://aesthesia.org/british-queer-south-asian
Saatchi Gallery Weekend funded by the Peter Tatchell Foundation via a private donation. Curatorial advisor Isabel de Vasconcellos (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Saturday, August 31 from 12 noon – 5.30pm – Film screenings and talks
Sunday September 1 1:30 – 5.30pm talks and screenings Monday September 2 2.15pm – 4.30pm play reading of ‘Hijra‘. Originally produced in 2000 at the Bush Theatre /Theatre Royal Plymouth; (West Yorkshire Playhouse) 2002; (New Conservatory Theatre, San Francisco) 2006 (Winner of the Bay Area Goldstar Events Award in San Francisco); Theatre du Nord Lille, France (in French) 2007, followed by a tour around Belgium and France.
Following the launch weekend at the Saatchi Gallery and leading up to the first anniversary of the bringing down (6th September 2018) of British colonial left over law Section 377 which criminalised gay sex in India, #BritainWeExist will continue at Royal Society of Arts in September (date to be confirmed) and then at the Horse Hospital, London on October 11-12, leading to a public art installation across 52 billboards around the UK.