As I stand in the waiting area for my one to one with Qasim Riza Shaheen, I watch a live relay of the person in front of me currently having his one to one inside the darkened performance space. He doesn’t know I can see him. He doesn’t know his session with the Queer Courtesan is not so private, not so one to one. His face is a picture of wonder and surprise and through it I try to read what Qasim might be doing.
Although fun, it is impossible to prepare for the experience of Queer Courtesan by watching footage of other unaware audience members. Take it from me, once you enter the space, go inside Qasim’s make-shift peep show booth; once the lights come up on Qasim and he looms large in front of you laden in Indian gold, heavy make-up, chest hair and dressed in his most alluring sari, no amount of preparation will suffice. You forget your reactions are on camera to the people waiting in line outside. You just concentrate on dealing with what’s in front of you. You need to concentrate because it’s not normal. It’s not normal to be sat in a darkened adult peep show booth, it’s not normal to be in close proximity with an oversexed stranger who is feeling himself up and generally making no bones about the fact he/she wants, and is available, to have sex with you. Nor is it normal to see an Asian man in full sari wrapped drag. If this is habitual to you then you are either a hardcore- and perhaps slightly jaded- performance art goer or spend a lot of time online, in sex shops or red light areas.
Even if this is true, and such activity does make up part a large part of your regular performance art going or sexual routine, it is the so called socio-sexual norms themselves – of free (unpaid for), socially acceptable and reproductive sex , as well as gender and sexual identity- that are at stake in Queer Courtesan. And the work makes clear that such norms are intrinsic to who you are and what you do, whether you conform to them or not.
This is the serious subtext that lies beneath the Bollywood kitsch and sexual playfulness of Queer Courtesan. It is a seriousness borne out of Qasim’s two-year period of research with the Khusra (transgendered) community in Lahore, one of many such groups in the Indian subcontinent that traditionally provide singing, dancing and (controversially) sex worker services. Queer Courtesan mimes the costume, gesture and gender of the Khusra in order to force a small wedge into normative institutional practices that would keep us on the straight and narrow, or bent. It allows us to ask is paid for sex not as – if not more – common or regular as free sex? Is there such a thing as free sex? And how can members of the flamboyantly transgendered Khusra of Pakistan – a country that in adhering to Islam is often intolerant of public displays of sexuality – not only be tolerated but also be considered an acceptable form of public entertainment on the street or at Pakistani family parties and weddings? Nestled within these serious questions is a dark side, one in which Queer Courtesan is equally at home.
As the peep-show punter in Queer Courtesan, Qasim is ultimately dancing to your tune; moreover he, his dance and his body are all for hire. Because of this, I was uncomfortable watching Qasim come on to me; the artists’ wantonness, predatory physicality and hybrid sexuality came clearly through the two way mirror that separated us. It is perhaps in keeping with the exciting ambiguity of Queer Courtesan toward a clear position on Khusra’s sex work and the liminal status of the gender on show that when the lights went down and I left Queer Courtesan I had mixed feelings; I felt inspired and thrilled but also dirty, as if I needed a shower, and altogether a little bit queer.
This review was written as part of the Writing From Live Art publication project ’We Need to Talk About Live Art’ at the National Review of Live Art, Tramway, Glasgow Feb 6-11, 2008. Excerpts from We Need to Talk About Live Art are published in RealTime Magazine (Aus) 84 April-May 08,2008.