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Man of the cloth

From Zoroastrian priest to queer punk, Areez Katki stitches himself a coat of many colours. He talks to Dan Poynton.

Areez Katki, Like Birds, Like Fishes, from Like Birds, Like Fishes, embroidery on khadi cloth, 2021. Image courtesy of Tim Melville Gallery

There’s something queer about textile art, Areez Katki would say. Even the act of a male practising these stereotypically feminine media is a “queering” of the dominant cultural narrative. And that’s not the only queer thing about Areez.

But what does “queer” mean? The word is thrown around a lot in liberal circles these days, and it looks like a shapeshifter to many people outside the LGBTQ+ community. Areez’s embracing of the identity is not done lightly though, and is way queerer than simply identifying with the Q in the list. It encompasses not only his choice of art media, but everything from his identity as a migrant, to the use of synaesthesia in his work, and his membership of one of the most invisible religions in the world: the Zoroastrians.

“The broader etymology of the word ‘queer’ actually comes from an Arabic-Persian word meaning twisted, not straight. It was appropriated in English to mean something not quite right – not quite linear,” Areez tells ArtZone from his studio in Mumbai, accompanied by ferocious honking from the streets below, and the vid call interrupted by loud repeated phone advertiser calls. “Queer is a really great term to identify oneself as something not heterosexual, because it also helps me communicate the migrant position. It’s about queerness existing beyond sexuality, which is quite beautiful.”

Even if textile art is having a resurgence these days, it still faces a “fabric ceiling” in the art world due to a gender-based, often subconscious paradigm of textiles as “womanly crafts” rather than true art. “It’s funny how textiles have this really strong political correlation with femininity and have been attributed to a kind of lesser art because of those hierarchies,” says Areez. “My work challenges those hierarchies, but it also hopes to be perceived as beyond simply that craft-form – as a revealing of a deeper conceptual and historic research-based practice.”

To Areez, his art is a “queering” or subverting of the dominance of “heteropatriarchal” history. “The embroidery, the materiality of the domestic threshold, and the subject matter have queer undertones, because it attempts to dismantle some of the presuppositions regarding how the hierarchies of material and subject are dealt with from both masculine and feminine perspectives – it’s challenging those binaries.”

Areez Katki, For Thirty Thousand Years (panel iii), cotton thread hand embroidery on cotton hand-loomed khadi, 2019. Image courtesy of artist and Tim Melville Gallery

However, Areez cautions that the fetishising of textile arts can further entrench their isolation. “With appreciation comes a ghettoisation when you frame it ‘textile art’. It makes it something annexed away from what one then deems as the ‘other’ contemporary arts.”

Areez learnt traditional Persian embroidery from his mother, grandmother, and aunts, growing up in a Parsi household in Mumbai, Muscat, and finally Auckland, where his family arrived when he was 10. “This was not at all normal, but I somehow had this affinity for the ways in which women nurtured me as opposed to how men did. I don't know if that’s a penchant for effeminacy or for rejecting heteropatriarchal values – or maybe just choices made by a child who found more care and comfort in the arms of women who embroidered, knitted, and showed him how to cook.”

And there was a sensuous aspect to the feminine space which would later infuse his art. “The domestic unfolding and wrapping of the body felt far more seductive to me than the boisterousness that is imposed more violently when one grows up in a heteromasculine setting.”

Areez Katki, Caspian Dispersion (install view Bildungsroman), cotton thread hand embroidery applied over flat-woven indigo dyed cotton runner rug, 2018

Areez says his family were very tolerant of this, and also later when he began to embrace his “queer” identity. “There was no trauma; it was seamless and unremarkable. It felt very natural for me to go in that direction rather than the cricket or football field.”

Areez carries his Parsi identity deeply and proudly. The Parsis are Zoroastrian Persians who began migrating to India in the 8th century due to oppression from Muslim conquests. Areez says there are only about 150,000 Zoroastrians left in the world today, mostly in India.

Areez Katki, Dio Dispersion, cotton embroidery and antique mul (c. 1890) on Bombay dyeing tea towels (c. 1940). 2018. Image courtesy of Artist and Tarq Gallery Mumbai

Zoroastrianism’s global influence has been largely ignored in the West since Alexander the Great destroyed the Persian capital Persepolis and its archives.“That’s when Persian history began being told from a Eurocentric perspective. My work tries to investigate, but also reimagine, the erasure that occurred at that time.”

Religious colonialism has also underplayed Zoroastrianism. “Judaism, Christianity and Islam were all informed by the established elemental dualities that were created by the monotheistic Zoroastrian belief system.” And he hints that the West was not the first to come up with many of the values of the European Enlightenment. “The Persians made huge advances in science and even human rights. Cyrus the Great wrote the world’s first known bill of human rights, which is currently at the United Nations in New York. He abolished slavery across Persia during his reign.”

There Is No Other Home But This, on show at the Govett-Brewster, features textiles from Areez and Khadim Ali, an Afghani of the Persian-speaking Hazara ethnicity. “It explores cultural identity removed from its home ground origin – the things behind diaspora, but also the status of migrants and refugees,” says Areez.

Much of Areez’s material for the exhibition was produced in his studio in Mumbai, which is intimately known to him, as it was his grandmother’s home until she died in 2015. “I started working with clay and earth for one of the installations. I’m kind of reimagining an archaeological site, using whenua as a metaphorical but also physical marker of displacement, within a post-colonial as well as an ancient

Persian context.”

Areez Katki, 9 Bars, cotton thread hand embroidery on hand-loomed Khatka textile, 2018. Image Courtesy of artist and Tim Melville Gallery

Areez didn’t always embrace his Zoroastrian identity with such relish, although he was born into the Ervad priestly class. “When I was 10 they had me ordained as a priest. Spending 30 consecutive days of spiritual isolation in a Fire Temple is not necessarily the best idea of fun for a child.” Being a priest also imparts a particular pressure to conform to Parsi norms. “If you are a homosexual, you are ‘other’ than how one must live their life, spiritually but also socially. You break the fabric of how ancient practice is performed. Also, there is pressure to procreate and produce offspring, which I have withdrawn from.” But his New Zealand upbringing removed him from much of the immediacy of this pressure. “Growing up in Aotearoa I made damn well sure that I didn't really hang out with my parents’ friends’ children. A spiritual identity was being negated but a sexual identity was blooming simultaneously.”

However, the roots of Parsi culture remain strong in Areez’s flagship medium, embroidery. He says most diaspora families have a cupboard full of the family’s treasured embroidery pieces, fulfilling some of the storytelling functions of Māori tukutuku. “These are contemporary and historic heirlooms. They’re studied, preserved, and worn on very special occasions. They’re little treasures, kept to make sense of one’s place.”

Areez in his Mumbai studio, photograph by Ashish Shah

As well as serving as Areez’s main technical artistic education, Persian embroidery was a lesson in art as process. “It was pedagogy that happened outside of the classroom, in the domestic space. It’s very precious to me – that early sense of pedagogy without the pressure of being a commercial or cultural output. It was simply done for oneself, not to be exhibited or spoken about as art.”

Areez Katki, Telemachus, cotton thread hand embroidery on muslin handkerchief, 2021 Image courtesy of the artist and Enjoy Contemporary Art Gallery

Areez Katki, Some Retained Delights (installation view), cotton embrodiery on mixed textiles, 2019

However, Areez had to look elsewhere to learn how to “navigate diasporic or queer trajectories”. Punk culture was a major precursor to embracing his queer identity, and the young Parsi boy naturally looked up to one great pop icon born Zoroastrian – Farrokh Bulsara. “He’s now known as Freddie Mercury. The Parsis all love him but don’t want to talk about his sexual orientation. And there’s always that cautionary tale, because if you’re homosexual you’re going to end up like Farrokh.”

Areez Katki, August (Novelli's poetry reading tour), from Hot Mess at Bowerbank Ninow, cotton thread hand embroidery over found khadi handkerchief, 2019 Image courtesy of the artist and Bowerbank Ninow

Areez’s self-expression is more internal than Mercury’s, though. “That idea of performativity I absolutely rejected when it came to my own queer identity. It’s more about a homo-sensual intimacy that exists outside of the public realm of queerness. It looks at the interiority of queerness – also the migrant experience within that.”

And his experience as a member of an ethnic minority pushes him to continually “queer the colonial space”, as in his Essayer series in his Govett-Brewster exhibition. “The plurality of iconography and languages present simultaneously on one surface but also disorientatingly around you in that space. The intention is to disorientate the predatory gaze – the colonial gaze – in order to maintain circular non-linear diagonal trajectories. The ways in which the textiles are swooping and flying are akin to the murmuration of starlings across the sky, done – in one theory – to protect themselves and disorientate a predatory gaze.”

Areez Katki, Folding Screen One: Temples & Shrines (installation view, Bildungsroman), cotton thread hand embroidery on hand-loomed silk and cotton khadi, framed on a pinewood structure designed in collaboration with Bombay Atelier, 2018 Photo Areez Katki

And for Areez, European global dominance has even more profound and intimate effects on his sense of self as belonging to both an ethnic and sexual minority, beyond just his art. “Even today queer identities portrayed in the mainstream media have a Eurocentric perspective. There’s also still a sense of colonial dominance in male homosexual cis-gendered culture. Where, say, I encountered a body on Grindr, if one was of an ethnicity that wasn’t obviously European it’s always a question. And why that’s a question is because of dominance over something that is ‘other’. Those are interesting things that I try to untangle – and disrupt.”

First published in Art Zone #90


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