SHOOT THE WOMEN FIRST! Under the Pink of Navine G. Khan-Dossos’s Targets / Jasmina Tumbas

Navine Khan-Dossos, Bulk Targets 1-100, performance for Shoot The Women First at The Breeder, in collaboration with choreographer Yasmina Reggad. Photo: Alexandra Masmanidi

What’s the lesser of two evils? If a suicide bomber, made to look pregnant, manages to kill her target, or not? What’s the lesser of two evils? If she kills them, or dies in vain?
Nature has fixed no limits on our hope.
What’s the lesser of two evils? If a bomb was fake, or if it was real?

—Björk, “Hope,” Volta, 2007

“Terrorist girls,” “wild furies,” “murderous girls,” “desperate lovers,” “somehow irrational,” “female supermen,” “too emancipated,” and “lesbians.” These are just some of the ways that 1970s German media outlets described Red Army Faction terrorists Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Ensslin, and Susanne Albrecht.1 Women who take up political violence are often infantilized or casually diagnosed to be acting out of neurotic needs, not political conviction. They are pathologized to have father issues, hang-ups about being rejected by men, anger issues because of their sex work background. Alternatively, they are accused of refusing their roles as mothers and desperately emulating the hardness of men.2 Such well-documented prejudices have gone hand in hand with a persistent presumption that cis women are inherently more peaceful than men due to their supposed destiny to bear children. The young RAF women, camouflaged as innocent by their gender, youth, and beauty, charmed their way into police offices and homes of high government officials to execute their terrorist attacks, bringing with them what the German newspaper Der Spiegel in 1977 called “‘violent death in the shape of a young girl.’”3 In fact, these lethal women were often considered more dangerous than their cismen collaborators, precisely for resisting their destiny as peaceful (soon to be) mothers.

Following the RAF terror attacks in Germany, as the British Journalist and writer Eileen MacDonald has argued, the fear of women’s violence informed the decision of West Germany’s GSG-9 anti-terrorist squad to allegedly give the following order to German police: “Shoot the women first.” MacDonald published her book on women terrorists from leftist groups in 1991, based on twenty interviews with members from RAF, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, The Red Brigade (Italy), and the Irish Republican Army. And even though MacDonald was unable to verify that this direct order had actually been given, she spoke to numerous anti-terrorism agents, who agreed that shooting the women first “would be a damn good piece of advice,” or as Christian Lochte, director of Germany’s intelligence-gathering network on subversives, explicitly stated: “for anyone who loves his life, it is a very clever idea to shoot the women first. From my experience, women terrorists have much stronger characters, more power, more energy.”4

Athens-based feminist visual artist Navine G. Khan-Dossos (b. in London, 1982) shares MacDonald’s fascination with women terrorists, but instead of conducting analyses to comprehend what it is that makes a woman politically violent, Khan-Dossos changes the vantage point and considers women as targeted, and as targets. In her solo exhibition, Shoot the Women First, in Athens at The Breeder (February 8 – March 10, 2018), Khan-Dossos set this question of gender and gun violence within a gallery located in the city’s red light district, an area that is plagued by the policing of, and brutality against, marginalized bodies. As Khan-Dossos writes in her artist statement:

The violence represented is not merely physical, but embodies a wider threat to society by those who exist on the periphery of mainstream politics and culture . . . . Within the Greek context, they were shaped by the 2012 arrests of female drug-users suspected of doing casual sex work in Athens, the forced HIV testing of these women, and the imprisonment of those with a positive test result, accused of grievous bodily harm (GBH) by transmitting the virus. The release of the suspects’ personal information by the police to the media led to further stigmatisation and terrorising of female sex workers and women living with HIV.5

This public stigmatization of sex workers and women of color and their classification as bio-terrorists is central to understanding Khan-Dossos’s intervention. In her tripartite set of visual works, the artist conceptually transformed the gallery into a shooting range, including the following elements: Bulk Targets 1-100; Pink Discretionary Command I-XII and Grey Discretionary Command I – VIII; and Below the Belt.

The first set, Bulk Targets 1-100, 2017, constitutes colorful works on cardboard that are identical to the International Practical Shooting Confederation shooting target model, usually sold in 100 piece bulks. These paintings feature abstract geometric shapes that are used to delineate specific target practices for shooters when given commands. Khan-Dossos set the targets in bulks on the floor, so that they could be easily picked up by viewers, with some of the targets adorning the walls in geometric shapes.

Navine Khan-Dossos, Bulk Targets 1-100, 2017. Courtesy of the artist

These interactive objects also became the foundational piece for the performance that accompanied the opening of the show, which included dancers wearing the targets as costumes, following the choreography of Yasmina Reggad. Bulk targets at shooting ranges are usually purchased to be used for shooting practice, and discarded after. One cannot help but see a painful connection to the ways in which designated human bodies share a similar fate, but with the added burden of being stigmatized and villainized, especially women of color who do sex work. Being diagnosed with HIV then means becoming a corporal target, while also embodying an insidiously moving virus and thereby becoming an alleged aggressor: bio-terrorists through exchange of tabooed sexual pleasure. To underline this paradox of being victim but treated as perpetrator, Khan-Dossos strategically interfered in the graphic purity of the Practical Shooting Confederation shooting target model: she added pink triangles, to reference the advent of gay rights movements, and specifically AIDS activism, such as ACT UP’s famous SILENCE = DEATH maxim.

Navine Khan-Dossos, Bulk Targets 1-100, performance for Shoot The Women First at The Breeder, in collaboration with choreographer Yasmina Reggad. Photo: Alexandra Masmanidi

Choreographed to “imitate martial arts-based movements . . . within patterns used by riot police in crowd control situations,”6 Yasmina Reggad’s contribution helped Khan-Dossos transform the stationary bulk targets into moving ones, dancing through space as a form of resistance to the manifest threat of embodying a target. Simultaneously, these moving targets echoed the dispensable lives of marginalized humans in the extreme moment of danger when their bodies are facing the barrel of a gun. And while the performers in a gallery setting can go home at the end of the day, we understand that there is no tomorrow for those others. Is it any wonder that “Hands up, don’t shoot!” has become one of the most important imperative clauses after August 9, 2014, the day Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, Missouri, USA? Or the simple but profound declaration that Black Lives Matter, in a world that is set to destroy them? Bodies like that of Michael Brown, when facing the gun barrels of police forces, are instantaneously reduced to, and transformed into, the abstraction of a target: a body criminalized, targeted, and discarded.

The second set, Pink Discretionary Command I-XII and Grey Discretionary Command I- VIII (2017), are paintings made in the icon tradition of gesso.

Navine Khan-Dossos, Grey Discretionary Command I- VIII, 2017. Courtesy of the artist
Navine Khan-Dossos, Pink Discretionary Command I-XII, 2017. Courtesy of the artist

As the journalist and writer India Doyle observed, the emphasis on the color “pink in Athens doesn’t have the millennial fashion connotations that it does in other European cities. Instead it evokes the colours of walls outside the brothels in the Metaxourgeio area, also the location of The Breeder gallery.”7 These works move from abstraction into barely recognizable features of human bodies, still feigning the official target practice icons. For Khan-Dossos, the gesso “paintings dramatise the impulse to standardize and control bodies that frighten or threaten the state.”8 Along with the translucence of the gouache paint, the use of opaque greys and soft pinks points to Khan-Dossos’s Echo Chamber (2017) at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, a mural portrait of 34-year-old Sherafiyah Lewthwaite (orig. Samantha Lewthwaite). Also known as Natalie Webband and “The White Widow,” Lewthwaite, who is on the Most Wanted list, is a British white woman charged with killing hundreds after converting to Islam and marrying the 7/7 London terrorist bomber Germaine Lindsay. Limiting the visual language for the portrait to geometric shapes, Khan-Dossos evaded figuration in order to anchor representations within the non-figurative tradition of Islamic art.

Navine Khan-Dossos, Echo Chamber, 2017. Het Oog, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, NL. Courtesy of the artist

In a time when Muslim bodies are targeted in wars, by travel bans, quotidian bureaucratic and social discrimination, and violence, Khan-Dossos leaves us with a contemporary Orientalist image of a female terrorist that neither shocks, nor provokes. Instead, it invites contemplation and evades racially charged modes of biometric and facial recognition. For even though it is based on a mathematical grid, it is hand-drawn and therefore inaccurate and based on the artist’s choice, a condition that underlines the imperviousness of the color and the opacity of the entire portrait. What’s more, like in the pink and grey discretionary command paintings, the body is reduced to an opaque but nevertheless politicized set of symbols in pink, a softer version of red, and gray, the softer version of black, both prominent colors of banned and criminalized radical political movements.

Shoot the Women First transforms the gallery into a crime scene. That becomes most evident in the third element of the show, Below the Belt, a 17-inch long wall painting of a standard forensic ruler placed beneath the Pink Discretionary Command I-XII and Grey Discretionary Command I- VIII paintings (visible in the photographs beneath Khan-Dossos’s paintings). Crime investigators usually use forensic rulers to facilitate photographic documentation of evidence at crime scenes, including everything from dust particles to human body parts. At The Breeder, Khan-Dossos’s forensic ruler becomes a continuous artwork that bridges the two floors of the exhibition and encompasses the entire space. Its brilliant title, Below the Belt, reminds us not only that gun violence is always accompanied by injustice, but also that our measure of what constitutes something as unjust is deeply gendered. As such, Khan-Dossos situates the shooting range, and its visitors, within the dominion of gender politics. Maybe Below the Belt then asks us not only to consider what lies beneath our waistline, but to think about what lies beneath the pink.9

For feminists, that which lies “below the belt” has always been acutely relevant. It’s the site of government control, crime, trauma, life, death, and pleasure. When queer and feminist icon Tori Amos debuted her album, Under the Pink in 1994, she noted:

If there’s a theme on Under the Pink, it’s one of self-empowerment—whether it’s women acknowledging the violence in themselves or people coming to terms with the loss of hope. It’s about the refusal to see yourself as a victim, and how to have passion in your life without equating it with violence.10

Refusing to be a victim and seeking self-empowerment became some of the chief forces of inspiration for feminist and queer circles in the 1990s, the era that brought about a massive and conceivably naive interest in liberation on a global scale, feminist emancipation, and racial equality. In the U.S., it was the end of the Bush and the beginning of the Clinton eras, while Europe saw the end of communism and a presumed triumph of democracy, solidified by the televised revolution in Romania, including the live-broadcasting of the execution of the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife by a firing squad on December 25, 1989. “Long live the Socialist Republic of Romania! History will revenge me!” were Ceaușescu’s last words. The site of the execution in Targoviste, Romania, was turned into a museum in 2013, where people can re-visit the place of his demise and take selfies, with the bullet holes in the background and the white outlines of the late leader’s body. These white marks of his and his wife’s dead bodies might even look as innocent and playful as Khan-Dossos targets.

In the U.S., the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s accelerated the ways in which the gay community was ostracized publicly, heralding what would become the canonized figures of queer theory in the 1990s. Leo Bersani embraced the tragedy of this macabre cultural and political situation in his famed 1987 essay, “Is the Rectum a Grave.” He characterized the photograph of a father pointing a rifle at his son from the London Sun, with the headline, “I’d Shoot My Son if He Had AIDS, Says Vicar!”, as giving him the “greatest morbid delight.”11 Bersani’s delight was due to the fact that the son had told the reporter he thought the father would shoot him regardless of AIDS; or worse, though the son did not explicitly state it, for being gay. For gay sex was not only equated with the “gay plague,” but it symbolized the end of procreation, with AIDS posing an even more immediate threat to the heterosexual human race.  Regrettably, there would still be very little left to laugh at for the 17 Athenian women sex workers some 25 years after Bersani’s text. As victims of the misogynist dictum that “female sex workers are a source of pollution threatening the cleanliness of men,” they were arrested and tested for HIV in Athens, undergoing involuntary screening processes by the Greek Centre for Disease Control.12 And they too became threats to, and victims of, the national body politic. Thus, Khan-Dossos’s feminist lens puts forth the argument that Shoot the Women First is not just about the terror political women might pose for Interpol, but the terror of and for those women, who demand to be paid for their labor below the belt.

In Epistemology of the Closet (1990), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick looked closely at the political consequences of language tied to binary assumptions about gender and sexuality, and the concomitant risks for vulnerable and minoritarian positions. Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) and the publication of Monique Wittig’s The Straight Mind and Other Essays (1992) didn’t only change how gender was discussed and perceived, but these feminist texts raised the political stakes that came at the heels of repeated controversies about public funding for the arts, predominantly triggered by sexual orientation and gender identity themed work, including the well-publicized censorship of feminist, queer, and AIDS related content in the United States. The arts became a public crime scene, and those artists who fought for that which lies below the belt, were considered just that: perverted, vulgar, and best to be tucked away and silenced.

But of course, culture rebels. And it often does so with a veneration for violence. The 1990s were a particularly prolific time of revisiting the 1960s and 1970s, and embracing resistance and self-empowerment, specifically for those who found too much “trouble with normal.”13 The year that Eileen MacDonald published Shoot the Women First, the first issue of the feminist samizdat zine Riot Grrrl (no. 1), by Molly Neuman and Allison Wolfe, featured an image of a woman holding a gun, with a background of gridded black hearts. One year later, the 1992 issue of riot grrrl zine Thorn no. 2 by Kelly Marie Martin featured a black pistol positioned above the words AIDS “Big Business, But who’s making a Killing?” a direct reference to activist art group ACT UP’s interventions against the homophobic and racist policies perpetrated by the United States government against people with AIDS. But even more profound was the inclusion of David Wojnarowicz on the cover, who had died during the same year, showing a black and white photograph of the artist with his famous words: “All I can feel is the pressure and the need for release.” By positioning the profile of his face and eyes towards the large gun, along with his telling words, this image too remains ambiguous about what kind of pressure needed to be unloaded, and how.

Finally, who could forget the lesbian and feminist author Valerie Solanas, one of the most infamous examples of releasing pressure through violence, in this case by shooting Andy Warhol in 1968 and generating one of the most radical feminist manifestos of the 20th Century (SCUM Manifesto), memorialized by Lili Taylor’s exquisite performance in I Shot Andy Warhol (1996). It was only two years prior to the film release that Courtney Love, front-woman of Hole, was rumored to have killed her husband Kurt Cobain with a shotgun in 1994. This epic time of blanket aggression against normativity in the early 90s also marked the advent of Gregg Araki’s monumental Teen Apocalypse Trilogy, which included Totally Fucked Up (1993), The Doom Generation (1995), and Nowhere (1997), representing a sex-positive and violent queer generation of emotionally intertwined and exuberant nihilists most poignantly embodied in the famous film still of James Duval wearing a white T-Shirt donning a gun, framed by the words: “I BLAME SOCIETY.”

And cause for blame there was. In 1996, Tori Amos unashamedly reignited Solanas’s politics in her album cover and title: Boys for Pele. Here, the singer sits calmly on a rocking chair, sporting a rifle resting on her spread legs, with a dead cock hanging from the ceiling of a rotten wooden porch, and a snake wrapping around the bottom of her chair. The gun directly references her song “Me and A Gun” (1991), a gut-wrenching testimony about her experience of being raped, released on Little Earthquakes (1992). The dead cock and Amos’s stern and confident look at the camera incited many of us young and hungry teenage feminists and queers with lust for revenge and self-defense, no less inspired by the idea of throwing boys into the volcanic depths of Pele. As if to ask: who needs them anyway?

The famous case of Irianna, a controversy that shows how easily women who date men suspected of terrorist activities end up getting harsher punishment than their male partners, might manifest yet another confirmation of this rage and wish for Pele’s flames. Just a year ago (June 2017), a Greek philosophy student named Irianna was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment because of her boyfriend’s alleged association with the urban guerilla group Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire. Thankfully, the Court of Appeals finally—and unanimously—declared Irianna “not guilty” at the end of June this year. Given that Khan-Dossos’s exhibition was in part dedicated to Irianna, I wonder if we can look at Khan-Dossos’s pink opaques then as metaphorically, and metonymically, loaded guns?

Releasing pressure through violence has been one of the most cathartic ideas underlying the visual program of well-known queer and feminist rebels, such as the Lesbian Avengers, formed in 1992 in New York City, “as a direct action group focused on issues vital to lesbian survival and visibility,” with the signature logo of a lit bomb.14 Beyond using the bomb, this group of primarily white Lesbians also celebrated and appropriated the famous image of Pam Grier from the 1973 blaxploitation film Coffy, just a few years before the ascension of Quentin Tarantino’s career, which also rested in no small measure on the magnificent performance of Grier as Jackie Brown (1997). But unlike Tarantino, the Lesbian Avengers were largely ignored.

Mimi Thi Nguyen resisted the whitewashing and misogynist culture of punk and anarchism by pioneering her feminist zines Slant and Race Riot in the early 1990s, featuring images and voices of queer women of color. The well-known cover of Slant no. 5 (1996) shows a black-and-white drawing of two women standing close to each other and holding weapons in their hands, much like Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis in Natural Born Killers (1994). But here, we see what might be a white woman with a shaved head holding a handgun, looking at the reader with a skeptical face and slight smile; the other women, who appears to be of Asian descent, with short black hair, pierced ears, and a confident gaze, is holding a baseball bat. Next to them both, it says: “because a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.”

Mimi Thi Nguyen, Slant no. 5, 1996. Courtesy of the artist

And why does a woman gotta do what she’s gotta do? In the case of Nguyen, the feminist zines were in part a response to a columnist for Maximumrocknroll, who had made fun of “Asian women’s ‘strange and inhumane genitals’” and who subsequently wrote a song “about wanting to rape her.”15 While such fantasies of raping women of color, and children of color, have haunted them for centuries, the legacy of queer and feminist resistance through embracing violence has allowed victims of such violence to become heroines, such as 12-year-old girl Tui Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe) in Jane Campion’s 2013 Top of the Lake. Tui might have not been able to fight off her white drug lord father from raping her, but she knew how to use guns to defend herself and her unborn child, along with the help of her gay and closeted friend, Jamie (Luke Buchanan) another sexually abused teenager and person of color, who ends up losing his life to protect her. The image of Tui holding the large shotgun with tears running down her face, firing her rage and despair into the air, leaves us with an unforgettable icon of endurance and survival.

This question of enduring despair and crushing vulnerability became profoundly palpable in Guatemalan feminist artist Regina José Galindo’s recent set of works at Documenta in Kassel (2017). In El Objetivo (The Objective), 2017, her body was hidden from view inside a room, which could only be accessed visually by gazing through the looking glass of a Heckler & Koch G36 battle rifle, pointed directly at the artist. She intensified the position of being targeted in a subsequent performance and video also installed at Documenta, La Sombra (The Shadow), 2017, which shows the artist being followed by a Leopard tank. We look directly at her while she is running, in close proximity to her face and whole body, witnessing her struggle, exhaustion, and perseverance. Viewers are haunted by their complicity once the camera moves behind her, taking the vantage point of the tank. On the wall label for La Sombra, the artist writes:

We cannot escape the horror
Follows us
It is our shadow.

The great powers control the arms market, produce them, sell them. Countries in crisis buy them, use them. Germany is among the top five arms manufacturers in the world. Big profits are made by the polemic exportation to conflict zones including some of the Americas. The German law prohibits it, it does not seem to matter, as in any market the objective is money, is power.16

Money and power rule our post-communist world, relentlessly, with gun trade at the center of capital interests. As the feminist art historian and activist Kency Cornejo has written, “among the most fundamental positions Galindo declares through her performance art is the human right to live.”17 Figuration, not abstraction, reigns here; the embodiment of being targeted—being target—and the human strength such a position demands.

I began this essay with the provocative words of the Icelandic singer Björk’s song “Hope.” Unlike Galindo, but much like Khan-Dossos, Björk here leaves the horror of violence obfuscated by the beauty of orientalist tropes, in this case the beats and sounds that underlie her words.18 Upon first hearing the song, one might not even discern what she is singing about. She asks us, point-blank, to determine what the lesser of two evils is in these three related scenarios: 1) “If a suicide bomber, made to look pregnant, manages to kill her target, or not?;” 2) “If she kills them, or dies in vain?”; and 3) “If a bomb was fake, or it was real?” While I have no desire to ponder possible answers, Björk’s choice to write a song about hope that is centered on women terrorists, along with the sanctity of motherhood, all presented with an extreme ambivalence, is noteworthy here. This ambivalence is potent with truth. One must only look at this year’s January 25 article in the New York Times to ascertain the severity of consequences depending on where the political pendulum swings at any given time: “Allies or Terrorists: Who Are the Kurdish Fighters in Syria?”19 This is a life and death situation. If allies, they live. If terrorists, they become targets. For Björk to utter such ethical questions might already be considered “below the belt” by many, and I wonder if we ought to be more shocked about Björk’s lyrics than the lack of critical engagement this song has received.

Khan-Dossos’s work on women terrorists has also received little attention. Looking at her targets made of fun and colorful symbols, one might forget that they are conceptualized as a site of life and death. Similarly, losing oneself in the beautiful patterns of the Echo Chamber mural, reflected in the water right beneath it, one might ignore the weight of the subject matter. Where were the conservative Christian protesters rallying against a monumental portrait of a violent female Muslim terrorist? Where were the right-wing anti-immigrant groups protesting such a mural at the prestigious Van Abbemuseum, sanctioned by Charles Esche, the director of the museum? It seems that the topic of women, even when in the scandalous form of terrorists and violent resisters, remains overlooked. On the other hand, Khan-Dossos’s decision to push for a contemplative space, and not “pull the trigger” directly, so to speak, deliberately camouflages the constant threat of violence in the mystifying pink opaques.

Opacity, camouflage, and invisibility have significant feminist and queer precedents, such as Zach Blas’s Facial Weaponization Suite (2011-2014), Jemima Wyman’s Combat Drag (2008), or Hito Steyerl’s HOW NOT TO BE SEEN A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File (2013), to name just a few. Khan-Dossos builds on these practices, but instead of working in new media, she creates large environments with translucent glazes of gouache and gesso, milky whites that show what’s beneath as they obfuscate at the same time. This more traditional method of painting resists the definitive mark, or a finished look, and often appears amateur. That too is part of Khan-Dossos’s feminist intention: to embrace patterns, the appearance of watercolors, and the idea of decorative works, all elements that have been used in history against women to discredit their work. What’s more, we also never see a gun in her work. She does not indulge in that phallic domain. Instead, she focuses on the target. Makes us targets. Makes us complicit in being future shooters. Makes us aware of our own corporeal vulnerability, our culpability, while we concurrently enjoy the beauty and sweetness of the works. Perhaps Björk was right all along then: “It takes courage to enjoy.”20

Beyond courage, it might also take privilege. As the artist mentioned in our conversation, her own background, as a white non-Muslim woman from the UK with academic training in Orientalist painting and Islamic art and sculpture, puts her in the advantaged position to contemplate without repercussions the issue of terrorist violence and gender.21 Others are much more vulnerable, such as Vaginal Davis, whose epic courage spans decades of art, survival, innovation, and radical frolicking, unmatched in scope and intensity, and embodying an ingenious creativity that José Esteban Muñoz called “terrorist drag.”22 A year before Khan-Dossos’s solo exhibition, Vaginal Davis gave a lecture performance at GenderFest Athens 2017, beginning with the words: “This is my first time, here in Greece, the birthplace of homosexuality.” Davis spoke about the racialized history of the freak in America, along with embracing weirdness as an act of resistance in her work, all while behind herself, she had projected an image of her painting bearing the words: “I am a woman trapped in the body of a woman inside a binder.”23 Terrorism here comes in the form of anti-normativity in all its facets: race, gender, sexuality, art, and age. If Khan-Dosses’s targets diffuse violence in pink and grey opaques, Vaginal Davis—a walking target for hate crime—terrorizes the necropolitical status quo for transwomen of color with her joyous and vigorous survival, endurance, and beauty.

Vaginal Davis is also a formative figure for Bruce LaBruce’s films, whose queer pornographic Raspberry Reich (2004) and most recent feature, The Misandrists (2017), are especially pertinent to the context of Shoot the Women First. In Raspberry Reich, Bruce LaBruce celebrates the legacy of sexual liberation in RAF. It stars Susanne Sachsse as Gudrun Ensslin, who forces a group of male followers to renounce heterosexuality and to embrace radical homosexuality as anti-capitalist revolution. Bruce LaBruce shifts the focus on radical lesbianism in The Misandrists, a film about a fictional Female Liberation Army, a “secret cell of feminist terrorists that is plotting to liberate women, overthrow the patriarchy, and usher in a new female world order.”24 Here too, Susanne Sachsse holds the lead, but this time as the front woman of FLA, who declares: “When violent actions have been directed towards us, as they have continuously throughout history, we are left with no choice but to respond with counter violence. Let the revolution begin.”25 Of course, LaBruce’s films have many feminist art precedents, such as VALIE EXPORT’S Genital Panic from 1969, Niki de Saint Phalle’s shooting paintings, Divine in John Waters’s Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974), and more recently, queer artist Nao Bustamante’s Soldadera.  This exhibition, curated by Jennifer Doyle in 2015, included a speculative reenactment of women fighting at the front lines of the Mexican Revolution, and the design of a bullet-proof gown, Tierra y Libertad – Kevlar® 2945. While Interpol looks to shoot the women first, feminist and queer culture has long defended itself in loud, colorful, trashy, and joyous ways, screaming: to life I say yes!

Khan-Dossos’s Shoot the Women First doesn’t scream out. It is more quiet, serene, and contemplative. The lack of a direct narrative or an explanation for each target leaves space for corporeal closeness and the endless associations I describe above. Like a mausoleum or graveyard, Shoot the Women First demands meditation and vulnerability; the mourning and celebration of life, quietly, on the inside, with flashes of memories filled with passion, longing, disappointment, sadness, and hope infiltrating every image and sound. Possibly even a visual peer to Cocteau Twins’ sonic pink opaques,26 so vivid in my memory of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990-1991). The forensic ruler leaves no space for error: we know this is a crime scene of past crimes, cotemporary crimes, and crimes yet to come. Criminalization is itself always deeply implicated in making perpetrators out of victims, or victims out of perpetrators, depending on the vantage point.  This is also precisely why Khan-Dossos’s pink opaques devastate and invigorate. They remind me of what the cultural critic and queer and feminist theorist Karen Tongson wrote in 2016, after 49 people were shot dead and 53 wounded at PULSE nightclub in Orlando: “Our dignity, our very survival, has always been contingent upon our ability to confront vitriol, violence, and horror with our radical desires for joy, pleasure, ecstatic togetherness.”27 Or let’s return once more to “Hope,” Björk’s song on female suicide bombers, which she ends with these words: “Well I don’t care. Love is all. I dare to drown, to be proven wrong.”

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Khan-Dossos will be showing her target series in At the Gates, a group show curated by Tessa Giblin for Talbot Rice Gallery (26 October – 26 January 2019). The show includes Maja Bajevic, Georgia Horgan, Navine G. Khan-Dossos, Teresa Margolles, Olivia Plender, Susanne Treister, the Artists Campaign to Repeal the 8th Amendment, alongside Jesse Jones’s Tremble Tremble.


  1. Patricia Melzer offers an in-depth study of the oeuvre of Der Spiegel’s texts about RAF women. See “’Death in the Shape of a Young Girl’: Feminist Responses to Media Representations of Women Terrorists during the ‘German Autumn’ of 1977,” in International Feminist Journal of Politics 11: 1 (2009): 35–62.
  2. Melzer, 47.
  3. Melzer adds: “Womanly innocence here is deceit, and hence deadly.” See 46.
  4. Eileen MacDonald, Shoot the Women First (New York: Random House, 1991), xiv.
  5. Navine G. Khan-Dossos, “Shoot the Women First,” Artist Statement, The Breeder, http://thebreedersystem.com/exhibition-details/navine-g-khan-dossos-exhibition/
  6. Navine G. Khan-Dossos, “Shoot the Women First,” Artist Statement, The Breeder, http://thebreedersystem.com/exhibition-details/navine-g-khan-dossos-exhibition/
  7. India Doyle, “Shoot the Women First: Twin meets artist Navine G. Khan-Dossos,” in Twin Magazine (02.03.2018): http://www.twinfactory.co.uk/shoot-the-women-first-twin-meets-artist-navine-g-khan-dossos/
  8. Navine G. Khan-Dossos, “Shoot the Women First,” Artist Statement, The Breeder.
  9. Tori Amos, Under The Pink (U.S.: Atlantic, Europe: East West), 1994.
  10. Tori Amos quoted on Upside Down flyer, February 1994.
  11. Leo Bersani, “Is the Rectum a Grave?” in October 43, AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism (1987): 199-200.
  12. Matthew Weait, “Greece: Matthew Weait on the moral panic over the mass arrest of female sex workers living with HIV,” in HIV Justice Network (May 03: 2012): http://www.hivjustice.net/news/greece-matthew-weait-on-the-moral-panic-over-the-mass-arrest-of-female-sex-workers-with-hiv-2/; Also, see “Greece arrests 17 HIV-positive women in brothels,” in Inquirer (May 03, 2012): http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/186595/greece-arrests-17-hiv-positive-women-in-brothels
  13. Michael Warner, The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000).
  14. Lesbian Avengers Handbook, http://www.lesbianavengers.com/handbooks/Lesbian_Avenger_handbook3.shtml
  15. Lisa Darms, “Grrrl, Collected,” in The Paris Review (July 30, 2013) https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2013/07/30/grrrl-collected/
  16. Regina José Galindo, La Sombra (The Shadow), wall label for Documenta 14, Palais Bellevue, Kassel, 2017
  17. Kency Cornejo, “Migrants that Matter: The Intricacies of Migration in Regina José Galindo’s Performance Art/Migrantes que importan: Las complejidades de la migración en el arte performativo de Regina José Galindo,” in Regina José Galindo: Bearing Witness (Davidson, NC: Van Every/Smith Galleries), 31.
  18. For a critique of Björk’s orientalism, please see Tina Takemoto’s and Jennifer Parker’s “Drawing Complaint: Memoirs of Björk-Geishato” from June 21, 2006, at the opening San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition: Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint. See http://www.ttakemoto.com/bjorkgeisha/index.html
  19. Anne Barnard and Ben Hubbard, “Allies or Terrorists: Who Are the Kurdish Fighters in Syria?”, in New York Times, World News: Middle East: (Jan. 25, 2018): https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/25/world/middleeast/turkey-kurds-syria.html
  20. Björk, “Big Time Sensuality, Debut (1993).
  21. Navine Khan-Dossos in conversation with the author, June 20, 2018.
  22. José Esteban Muñoz “The White to Be Angry”: Vaginal Davis’s Terrorist Drag,” in Social Text no. 52/53, Queer Transexions of Race, Nation, and Gender (Autumn – Winter, 1997): 80-103.
  23. See Vaginal Davis’s performance here, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eN1plWMJfyw
  24. Official film description, The Misandrists, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CEluucs9JjE.
  25. Official Trailer, The Misandrists, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5518756/videoplayer/vi3881416729?ref_=tt_ov_vi
  26. Cocteau Twins, The Pink Opaque (U.S., U.K.: 4AD Relativity), 1986.
  27. Karen Tongson, Facebook post on June 12, 2016 .