Rasheed Araeen: Equitable Politics
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Rasheed Araeen: Equitable Politics

Acclaimed Pakistani Artist Rasheed Araeen, best known for his contemporary sculptural lattices, exhibited simultaneously and consecutively in three different locations in London in the month of July 2023 including the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. The other two sites, at nine minutes walking distance from each other, are Frieze Gallery on no.9 Cork Street and Grosvenor Gallery on Bury Street. Structures, on display at Grosvenor gallery are his historic and widely recognized bright-hued lattice reliefs on the walls, minimalist sculptures and colorful geometric and calligraphic paintings. Unlike the works at Grosvenor gallery and Tate Modern, the exhibit at no. 9 Cork Street, titled Sixty-Three Years of the Figural include his earlier, more politically-motivated work from a time before the lattices became the defining feature of his practice. The show boasts 18 lesser seen works. Some reference the artist’s identity as a non-white artist struggling to find representation and exposure in London of the 1970’s and 1980’s, while some pieces grapple with his identity as an Islamic artist, a category he did not conform to at the time.

Civilisation (from the Golden Series), Collage and photographs on board. 121.9 x 101.6 cm, 1974-1976.

The works at Frieze Gallery are each more gripping than the last. One thought-provoking and insightful piece is a poster from The Golden Series, a set of four large collages made between 1974 and 1976 that detail his profound understanding as a person of colour and struggling artist in the United Kingdom, while shedding light on the political situation of the country at the time. The collages in this series reference diverse mainstream subjects.  One of the collages titled Civilisation, perfectly encapsulates his viewpoint and struggle. It is composed of a torn poster of the 1969 BBC Art show Civilisation (top half). Right under this is the stock market section of the newspaper upon which the artist has hand drawn the Union Jack. Centralised to the collage, atop the stock exchange report is a cut-out image of Winston Churchill brandishing a gun. On the bottom of the visual are images of immigrants— destitute and in a state of squalor. This piece succinctly illustrates the notion that Britain is built on the back of ‘War, politics, finance, and the Institutions of the State.’1. Interestingly, the television series Civilisation used art to portray and explain the development of life and society; however, it was completely Eurocentric and ignored any indigenous and Eastern Art within the context of ‘civilisation’. All the collages in The Golden Series are equally potent and loaded with profound insight.

The Golden Series (4 Collages), Collage and photographs on board. Each: 121.9 x 101.6 cm, 1974-1976,
Christmas Day, 4 colour photographs, 20 x 30 in each (50.8 x 76.2 cm each), 1979,

Christmas Day (1979) is a work many expats may be able to relate to. It is made of a set of four self-portraits — photos of the artist’s reflections — taken on the tube on Christmas Day. This series is a comment on different cultural practices as experienced by the artist as a new immigrant. Araeen’s native understanding of celebration was in stark contrast to the close-knit, esoteric form of celebration that Christmas is in the UK; people tend to stay indoors with families, streets are empty and shops are closed leaving little to do. Undoubtedly, it is very hard to reconcile the jubilant public celebration, that religious holidays invariably are, in places like Pakistan. There is no time like Christmas in the UK, to make one feel like an outsider; reinforcing one’s sense of displacement, even today.

Falisteen, Photographic print on paper, 90 x 60 cm, edition of 5, 1974

Many of Araeen’s work from the 1970’ and 1980’s, albeit categorised as activism, can be classified as performance art by present day definitions of the genre. One such work is the black and white photographic image Falisteen (1974), where the artist is outside Central London Mosque, distributing pamphlets to raise awareness and funds for medical supplies for Palestine. Similar to this, amongst the work is also a slideshow of his very emotive and powerful 1977 performance Paki Bastard (Portrait of the Artist as a Black Person). It was following this performance, back in the 1970’s, that the artist stated ‘any prescription that marginalised the role of art must be rejected.’ 2

(L) Sab Chalta Hai Funtoosh, collage on paper, 51.5 x 60.3 cm, 1992 (R) Study for Green Painting I, collage on paper, 51.5 x 60.3 cm, 1985

True to his minimalist style, on display are a series of process works from the 1980’s and 1990’s that led to large scale pieces. Albeit 2D, these pieces resonate with Araeen’s geometric sculptural lattices. Collectively called the Cruciform series and technically similar to collages — Araeen cuts out the shape of a cross from a solid green-coloured base, and filled the negative space with politicised images. One of his process pieces titled ‘Sab Chalta hai Funtoosh’ has an image of Salman Rushdi in the centre of the cruciform, flanked on either side and at the top and bottom by political graffiti found in Pakistani cities that call the writer out as an agent of the west. Another process piece titled Study for Green Painting 1, has images of blood strewn streets and sidewalks from Eid ul Azha covering the cruciform shape. Under each blood-filled image is a cut-out from Urdu dailies with political news headlines of the time. These works are exemplified by a disruptive process, marked by cuts and ruptures. The politicised imagery alongside the process of making these is a comment upon the ‘limits of Western modernity itself, pointing at the global structures on which it was founded: colonialism, imperialism, and their attendant mechanisms of abjection.’ The work ‘embodies disillusionment with both Western modernism and with the outcomes of Third World struggle.’ 3

Installation, process drawings for the Cruciform body of works (1985-1995), Frieze Gallery, London

Using art as a tool for activating political struggle and spreading awareness is the linchpin of Araeen’s practice. Although decolonisation is a recently developing phenomenon, Araeen has been involved with the struggles of postcolonial thinking and its impact since 1978 when he initiated the magazine Black Phoenix with Mahmood Jamal, which a decade later evolved into Third Text. It is a critical theoretical art journal highlighting the woes of artists of colour, and the role of colonisation in suppressing indigenous arts and cultural practices alongside developing an archive for artists, researchers and art historians. Part of his politics involved calling out British art galleries for otherising art made by non-western artists by labelling their work ‘ethnic’, consequently racializing art and creating a rift in the art world.

It Was The Time, Acrylic paint on nine wooden discs, 40.6 cm, 1975

Curated by Dr. Sadia Shirazi, Araeen is also exhibiting at Tate Modern, showing his infamous installation, Zero to Infinity, a version of which has been in the institution’s collection since 2007. Despite being in Tate’s collection, their iteration was never made fully available for wider public interaction for fear of ruin, much to the artist’s chagrin. However, now it is now on display in the Turbine Hall, as part of Uniqlo Tate Play, with around four hundred latticed cubes finally available for public activity.4 Inspired by Anthony Caro’s visual language, this piece was first developed as Chaar Yaar by the artist in 1968, a sculptural geometric network consisting of four cubes of nine-by-nine inches, composed of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines. Zero to infinity is titled such because once the structure’s symmetry is disturbed, it is no longer static, it can be reconfigured infinitely through play. Also, a part of the Lahore Biennale in 2020, this piece has always been interactive — it serves as a mechanism to spark conversations and creativity. Moreover, it highlights Araeen’s training in civil engineering and his interest in social interactions, empowering people and awakening political consciousness in his audience.

Purple Diamond, Acrylic on wood, 75 x 69 x 15 cm, edition of 5, 2022

Titled the father of minimalist sculpture in Britain in the 1960’s, one of Araeen’s main concerns has been to provide legitimacy and self-sustenance to art produced in the Muslim world. But he reckons that is impossible to do unless underpinned by theory and legitimised by local art institutions, as opposed to depending on Eurocentric western bodies that have no place for Islam. Despite the current urgent art activity in the Islamic World, Rasheed believes, ‘The task for the Muslim world now is therefore to establish its own institutions, according to its own view of things and values, to develop and promote scholarship, involving theories of art based on its own understanding of history, which would not only liberate it from its subservience to the West but also enable its modern artists to think and create freely and independently. This work of Rasheed Araeen is an attempt towards achieving these objectives.” 5 Based on his experiences, the depth and gravity of his words belies the fact that Araeen is a joy to listen to, with a humour to garner great belly laughs.

‘Sixty-three Years of the Figural’ was on display at Frieze No.9 Cork Street in London from 30th June to 15th July 2023. ‘Uniqlo Tate Play Rasheed Araeen: Zero to Infinity’ was displayed at Tate Modern, London from 22nd July to 28th August 2023.

Title Image: Sixty-three Years of the Figural, 2023, Installation shot, Frieze Gallery, London

Images Courtesy: Grosvenor Gallery

References

Judah, H. (2020, January 16). ‘My Life has been A Struggle Against The Establlishment’: Artist Rasheed Araeen. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/jan/16/rasheed-araeen-interview-restaurant-shamiyaana-stoke-newington

Qalandar, M. (2020, February 28). Lahore Biennale 02: Past Reminders, Possible Futures. Ocula. https://ocula.com/magazine/features/second-lahore-biennale-pakistan/

Press Release, Sixty-Three years of the Figural, Grosvenor Gallery. Frieze, No.9 Cork Street

Third Text, Routledge. www.thirdtext.org/about-us

Dr. Shirazi, S & Araeen. (2023, July 27) Uniqlo Tate Play: Zero to Infinity Rasheed Araeen in Conversation. www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWwGkFbVl-A

Endnotes

  1. Exhibition notes, Sixty-three years of the Figural.
  2. ibid
  3. ibid
  4. July and August of 2023
  5. Press Release, Sixty-three Years of the Figural

Samar F. Zia is an artist and art writer based in London. She regularly exhibits in Pakistan and UK; her work is currently part of the Affordable Art Fair, London. She is a volunteer at Alumni of Colour Association of UAL. Alongside making art she writes for various publications in Pakistan. Zia graduated with distinction in BFA from Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi. She holds an MA in Fine Arts from Central Saint Martins, London.

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