The art of Rashid Rana has been exhaustively written about, and while conducting research for this piece, the mind grew weary of certain terms that pop up ad infinitum; ‘binaries’, ‘duality’, ‘contradictions’, ‘paradox’, ‘dichotomy’. One is tempted to grab onto those strings to navigate through the complex web of the artist’s layered narratives, concerns, influences and commentaries in order to begin weaving a halfway cohesive picture of a massively prolific and multivalent practice. However, despite these themes being prominent across many of the artist’s works, a deeper engagement reveals the limitations of these terms in defining a practice that merely employs them as tools for profounder engagements¾ thus (the risk of) presenting only a condensed and restricted view from within the frame of absolute terminologies; which is exactly what Rana strives to defy. The works of Rana are an exercise in not only breaking out of the boxes one so often gets sorted into, but reconfiguring the parameters of the box itself, if not questioning its very existence to begin with; this, ironically, becomes the prefect way to define his practice in its most simplified form. As Madyha Leghari puts it, “The stronger strain of affinity between his works is not purely aesthetic. Rather, it is his persistent and ironic attempts at transcendence from corporeal limits, whether they are manifested in geography, chronology, culture, tradition or other normative ideas of collectivity. Rana is aware that the ambition is an impossible one.”1
This transcendence, especially in terms of borders and identity, is credited by the artist to his mentor Zahoor Ul Akhlaq, who unburdened the younger generation from contrived and prescriptive notions of identity.2 Rana carries forth Akhlaq’s Post-Modernist explorations of two dimensional space, his investigations of the grid in defining that space, and his views of tradition as something fluid and malleable by the passage of time and movement through space, rather than static and preserved. He refers to Akhlaq as a “non-traditionalist who was interested in tradition.”3
Rana completed his BFA under the tutelage of Akhlaq, and went on to complete his Masters from the Massachusetts College of Art (1991-94) where he developed a “painterly style that was a direct outcome of his mentor’s practice, with the grid at the centre of his attention,”4 which is reflected in the Untitled (1992-93) series of paintings produced during this time. However, unlike Akhlaq, Rana “sought to subvert [philosophies of flatness] with polysemic planes whose aesthetic similarities to minimalism belied their contextual depth.”5 Thus, Rana’s geometric abstractions pulled inspiration from contemporary sources such as the barcode, inserting a layer of commentary into the formal explorations.
These formal preoccupations continue into his work created during the late 90s and early 2000s, the Non-Sense series, with a number of new influences spurred on by developments in the art world. The Pakistani art scene was dominated by the revival of the miniature tradition in Lahore, interpreted through a contemporary lens, and competing with this was a “new concern with popular culture, kitsch, broadcast imagery and the visual detritus of urban life.”6 Media and technological advancements of the 90s had its influence on cultural production, and the establishment of the Indus Valley School in Karachi countered the “deep roots and parochialism of the National College.” Artists like Quddus Mirza, David Alesworth, Durriya Kazi, Iftikhar and Elizabeth Dadi were delving into the urban craft practices of truck artists, cinema hoarding painters and artisans through their collaborative practices.7
This is the art landscape that Rana landed into upon his return from graduate studies. Passing over the miniature revival closer at hand, he gravitated towards the developments in Karachi. However, his engagement with the “popular” was more in terms of visual language and he started collecting images from commercial, mass produced sources such as textbooks, roadside poster stalls, billboards, art history and everyday life. This was a result of a need to reach a wider audience, as he was no longer happy with “an audience of twenty people from the immediate ‘art community’,”8 yet it is questionable whether this cursory engagement through content alone furthered that goal, while the art remained confined to the same audience within the white cube.
These early influences proved pivotal in developing his language as an artist even as he resisted against the idea of a personal style. As a result, the grid is interpreted through mass media and commercially available materials, such as wrapping paper or printed fabric, utilizing the “language of ‘non-art’ or ‘low’ art”, in the series of works that followed. Through one of the more prominent works from this series, What is so Pakistani About This Painting? (2000), Rana used juxtaposed imagery to address the question of forced nationalist and cultural identity. “I grew up (as an artist) at a time where the overarching question was whether your work looks Pakistani or not,” so the intention of the work was “burying the question once and for all.”9
The 90s was also a time of transformation on the political front, with the Zia Regime of the 80s done and dusted, a short-lived hope in the form of provisional democracy opened up new possibilities for the world of art in the form of international cultural exchange, residencies and degree programs. Due to these new found opportunities the artist was able to make the difficult decision to live, work and teach in Lahore in early 2000 while still pursuing an internationally viable career, a luxury his predecessors did not enjoy. Despite this opening up, many of the younger artists at the time were engaging more with the local context, namely the city and the India-Pakistan divide in the shadows of a new war in the making, something to which Rana also responded.10 Middle of Nowhere (2001-2002) is a photomontage of two figures, one near-naked supporting the dead body of the clothed other, both belonging to the artist himself. It is an exploration of identity, nationhood, conflict, borders and the search of self in the ‘other’, as well as questions of authorship, medium, and the place of craft and popular culture in art, through the collaboration with a truck art painter for the backdrop, a landscape transferred to a photograph for the final work.
Wille considers this work a turning point for the artist, marking a shift to photography exclusively.11 “I decided to skip what seemed like a useless step…I haven’t abandoned painting entirely, but at the moment I don’t see a reason for me to cover a canvas with paint.12 This shift, according to Salima Hashmi, was not only an intellectual and formal choice, but was motivated by emotional compulsions in the wake of “losses, severances, fractures, and alienations”, and in photography he found a means to represent truth as well as subjective feeling simultaneously.13
Rana extended his institutional critique further with one of his most seminal works, I Love Miniatures (2002), questioning the “the musty traditionalism of the art academy and its ideological commitments.”14 This marks the beginning of the photomosaic technique, not an innovation of the artist but now most associated with his practice and features most repeatedly in the works that follow. The technique allows the artist to present two seemingly conflicting ideas at once, play them off each other and allow for multiple trajectories to form. The pixelated digital portrait of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan complete with gilded frame is, upon closer inspection, made up of tiny images of adverts and billboards from across Lahore; we see “popular and relatively poor culture within the authoritative lines of the macro-historical Imperial portrait.”15 The work negotiates the disparity between notions of tradition and its links to identity, and the everyday lived experiences of our current reality. “It is very common for you to mistakenly find refuge in the stylistic conventions of the past. I think it’s a trap,” Rana says.16
But according to Madani, this went beyond just critiquing traditionalism. “It was as if he was displaying allegorically the conflict at the very heart of his own practice, his navigation between the poles of tradition and contemporary reality with all its grime and uncontrollable profusion.”17 The work challenges the expectations placed on artists to reflect a forced national identity by the local audience and the international art market alike, instead of giving into them with “stylistic gestures to be associated with the region I have inherited.”18 A Day in the Life of a Landscape (2004) similarly critiques the Punjab Landscape School by presenting the contrast between “what we inhabit, [and] what we choose to represent.”19
The changing mood of the globe during this time created an environment conducive to this new language the artist was developing, due to the recent fallen towers, creating interest in “cosmopolitan styles inflected with local dialects”.20 Signing up with the Indian gallery circuit around this time, rather than looking to the West, also played its part by providing opportunities to show with Indian curators and gain relevance in the larger art discourse,21 while remaining rooted in a local context, which he was beginning to recognize as inescapable.22
Thus, the attempts to surpass questions of identity earlier on proved futile. “Resistance, after all, is a form of acknowledgement,” as Rana puts it.23 However, his views on the matter had gained more nuance. Through works like Identical Views (2004), Ommatidia (2004), and All Eyes Skywards During the Annual Parade (2004), he continued this investigation, especially in light of regional politics. The latter is an image of a mesmerized Pakistani crowd enjoying a military parade constructed with iconic Bollywood movie stills. The simple dichotomy reveals multiple narratives on the complex relationship between the two countries, a “contrast between cultural proximity and political distance” where Pakistan’s love for Indian Cinema is seen as “undercutting the jingoism evident in military parades”.24 This, coupled with the Ommitidia series, also forces us to rethink the intricacies of a ‘Pakistani’ identity, presented here as eclectic, fluid and complex. According to Mirza, the stylistic choice itself “reminds one of the bifurcations of a singular entity,” and thus the “multiplication of identity or its loss” on a formal level.25 Another important aspect is the mirror image, which began in more subtle ways with his earlier works but gained more prominence with the works from this time. It reflects the artist’s investigation of the impossibility of true symmetry, where minute disparities in two seemingly identical halves negate the notion of one absolute truth in favor of multiple perceptible realities.
By this time, the post 9/11 world had taken shape with war and violence in the Middle East. Rana had always been against exploiting political situations and making ‘issue-based’ art, but it was becoming a proximate reality which was difficult to escape from.26 Works like When He Said I Do, He Didn’t Say What He Did (2004) responds to this situation. With suicide bombings now taking place on Pakistani soil, the artist was preoccupied with the notion of “denying attachment to one’s own living flesh” for the promise of unseen rewards.
“The choice to visit a slaughterhouse to photograph an assembly line of killing is not an act of random curiosity…Conflict and carnage, as primordial as life itself, acquired new names and nationalities. The terrorists who disbursed terror on a daily basis were governed by the fervent, unquestioning allegiance to religion.”27 Rana talks about that experience as one of emotional transformation, from one of shock, horror and disgust to apathy, a proof that “there is no one, all-encompassing emotional (or visual) definition for any subject.”28
This is something one can perceive when viewing the works that emerged out of that experience, The Red Carpet series (2007); beautiful Persian rugs in hues of rich red which turn out to be images of carnage from the slaughterhouse. The Garden of Paradise design hints towards the mechanisms used to justify such violence, yet also posit some of the formal concerns laid out by the work through the “transference of a meticulous craft tradition into digital media images and multiple perspectives that run counter to western painting traditions.” 29
This, along with the Veil series (2007), had been the artist’s – or in fact any Pakistani artist’s – most commercially successful works to date, with the first Red Carpet selling for $623,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2008. It is then interesting to note that these works are not the critical high points of the artist’s career, nor reflect his most interesting conceptual or formal explorations. Ironically, the very thing the artist was attempting to break out of, the market had turned him a victim to; “It is easy to understand its popularity: the work combines an apparently Orientalist form with the documentary-based critical stance that’s come to be expected from artists operating within a post-colonial context. While Red Carpet-1 certainly lacks nuance, Rana’s method of appropriation claims a certain degree of relevance in the context of recent digital representations from and of the Middle East…”30
Rana was acutely aware of this, recalling it as a “crazy time” in the art market where he “could have made anything and it would have sold,” and this suddenly made him “self-conscious about the fact that I am playing to the market.”31 He thus decided to halt production on the final Red Carpet, and took stock of the situation. Somewhere around that time the market crash also took place, which “underscored the fragility of financial success and its attached marauders.”32 This was also a time of personal turmoil for the artist, as he was welcoming a new life as well as bidding farewell to an old one, his mother’s. It is apt then that the series that came out of all this was titled What Lies Between Flesh and Blood (2009), and much like previous instances of personal and global political strife, marks an evolutionary leap in his practice.
Flesh and Blood explores the links between sex and violence, and the tendency for both to simultaneously repulse and entice, as the artist ponders their sensational appeal to the art market. The Rothko-esque abstract minimalist color fields are, upon closer inspection, made up of extreme close-ups of skin taken from pornography and fashion magazines, and bloody wounds and exposed flesh from slaughterhouses and medical journals, to “establish a tension between mortality or materiality…and the spiritual, metaphysical and transcendental.”33 The zooming in decontextualizes and dehumanizes the material to the extent of abstraction. There is a return to some of the artist’s formal explorations, which now start to become thematic concerns, while the conceptual threads recede into the subtleties. Following his knack for tearing down established conventions of history through lived truth, the spiritual and the transcendental purity of Abstract Minimalism, its very nothingness is challenged by an infusion of the corporeal, the tangible, that of which we are all made.
This unpacking and undoing of Minimalism is explored in further depth in a series of ‘photo sculptures’, which look at photography as both medium and concept and bring his concerns with 2 dimensionality into the 3rd dimension. He re-introduces readable imagery into the minimalist form of the cube, forcing pixelated images of banal objects from his own surroundings into this simplified structure, allowing both to contradict and disrupt each other. “If abstraction were to be represented by a funnel… my work is the inversion of that funnel. Or like an hourglass. That there is a mass of information, knowledge and ideas that passes through a very narrow, bottleneck and then expands.”34 At the same time, the work also further explores the tensions between fiction and reality by exposing the limitations of photography as a tool for depicting that reality. The objects are photographically transferred onto the cuboid form and displaced into a space that is at odds with its appearance of light and shadow, frustrating its reality.35 Most objects are purposefully generic, as indicated by their titles (Fridge, Stove, Books) but a few betray more specific contexts and add another layer of commentary, such as The Step (2010-11), and A Plinth from a Gallery in Lahore (2010-11).
Dislocation as a concept is also explored through architecture in works such as the Dis-Location series (2007), where the focus is on the displacement of time by using the everyday to create a fictionalized version of the past, “a conclusion of reality…a physical remnant, a residue of the frenetic activities of humans.”36 Along similar lines are the works Twins (2007), Two Dimensions (2007), See Through (2006), and Copyright Violation of a Stock Photo (2006-2007), and culminate into another major work, Desperately Seeking Paradise 1 (2007-8) and 2 (2011). This large-scale architectural sculpture combines many of the artist’s formal and conceptual concerns thus far; 2- and 3-dimensionality, interplay of micro- and macro-images, mirroring, displacement, Minimalism and Abstraction, the grid, relationship of the First and Third World, and the fickle nature of reality. This large cuboid is meant to mimic a chunk of a glittery high rise from a large metropolis (like Dubai, for example, where it was first displayed), transported into the exhibition space, yet is also vaguely reminiscent of the Ka’aba in Mecca, the Muslim holy site, drawing an interesting comparison between the two in light of the title. From afar it seems to reflect a view of a fictional metropolitan skyline, which disappears into the reflections of its present surroundings as one shifts positions, and disperses into micro images of buildings from Lahore as one approaches for a closer inspection, forcing the viewer to circumambulate the piece. In Desperately Seeking Paradise 2, this structure invades into the space from a corner, taking up most of the room as an overwhelming presence, disorienting the viewer.
By this time, the photomosaic as a formal device had gained more nuance and the artist was exploring the depths of its possibilities through an interplay of time and the concept of dislocation interpreted in myriad ways. The Transliteration series, which began in 2011 and is still ongoing, becomes a culmination of these ideas and forms the crux of the artists present concerns, moving beyond the reductive dichotomy of East and West, and towards “a negotiation between the actual and the remote. The actual is close at hand – something one can experience directly with the body as the site of knowing. The remote is knowledge amassed indirectly, from diverse sources scattered across time and space. The result is a meditation on location, both in a physical as well as temporal sense.”37
Through this series the artist explores dislocation of time and space, and through that, notions of truth and reality. Iconic works from Western art history are spliced into pixels, horizontally flipped, and rearranged to resemble media images of disaster, destruction and violence from the present day, drawing linkages across time. The image is no longer stitched together with multiple smaller images, but rather contains ghosts of another image from a different time and space within it, presenting a hybrid and representing something beyond itself. “I want to see more than one image, more than one time, more than one location in the same image”38 Chaos ensues through the act of disruption and the original image is not only dislodged from its historical and geographical context, but also untethered from the burden of representation. This can be seen in the War Within Series (2014-2018), where the artist takes the neoclassical painting Oath of the Horatii by Jacques Louis David and rearranges it to evoke a present-day media image. “History becomes the raw material recontextualized for addressing the present—making the legacy of European colonialism complicit in global contemporary violence.”39 The image posits no absolute truth by presenting multiple views of reality. This idea is also further articulated in works like series Two Ways to a View (2017-18), and the works Familial Unfamiliar (2016-17), One and Not Only (2016-17), and A Seen Unseen (2016-17).
However, as these concerns move into the realm of large-scale site-specific installation works, Rana’s practice takes another evolutionary leap. Through his Transpositions series (2015) presented at ‘My East is Your West’, a collateral event of the 56th Venice Biennale organized by the Gujral Foundation, Rana further attempts to “subvert linear ideas of time and space progressions to offer fractured views of chronology and geography.”40 Again, multiple interests of the artist are explored, from dislocation of time and space to mirroring, the transcending of physical and cultural boundaries, and questions of identity, yet in the most tangible manner yet. Nav Haq calls it a milestone for the artist’s practice; “It draws together the combined results of site-specific thinking about the notion of place, technological application, perception research and participatory experimentation.”41[xli]
The most poignant iteration of this was the project The Viewing, the Viewer, and the Viewed (2015), which linked two remote locations – Liberty Market in Lahore and Palazzo Benzon in Venice – through a two-way live video feed. Identical rooms in both locations extended into each other and created a virtual third space. What results is something sublime, as worlds expand, collide and rupture, and countless possibilities for interactions emerge. According to Osman Khalid Waheed, Chairman of the LBF which organized the Lahore leg of the project, “these are connections that transcend notions of East and West, of otherness. At a time when human migration has become such a contentious geopolitical issue, these moments are priceless and powerful responses.”42 Distances are compressed, as Haq puts it, “You do see something of yourself in the other, yet something is also profoundly different. Asymmetrical mirroring indeed.”43
Opening up the boundaries of art provided a solution towards true accessibility – which the artist had been attempting since the beginning of his career – that democratizes art and erases barriers between art and non-art, maker and viewer, taking art off its pedestal by eliminating the need for an art object to create meaning. “I was interested in proposing the post-Duchampian idea that here in fact “nothing is art”, there is no art object. The viewer doesn’t realize that he or she has become an art object for someone else remotely and vice versa. This is the crux of the entire project.”44
This has now taken a more prominent role in the artist’s practice as he attempts to break the boundaries between art and life. Rana speaks of a manifesto developed along with fellow thinkers, which, like much else the artist does, subverts the idea of a manifesto, as it “would be ever-changing as a result of a possible discourse.” He calls it “Eart – a manifesto of possibilities 01”, and it “is a label that I am proposing for the phenomenon of identification of real-life actions or some major earthen functions, performed through employing poetics that transcend the original function and fall under the domain of creative expression.” This is differentiated from art that mimics life, as it would encompass activity that does not originate from within the premise of art, but would enter into its domain from without, and thus be “beyond ART”.45
While each work, series and project have respective individual concerns layered together with ongoing investigations within it, the overarching agenda to transcend boundaries in every sense and sphere is ever present and becomes the driving force behind Rana’s practice. However, in the latter half of his oeuvre, it becomes clearer that this transcendence has always been in service of his need to reveal the nature of reality, which to him does not reside in a singular isolated view. “Whenever you frame something, whether it’s within a TV screen, an artist’s painting, or an argument, there’s going to be a boundary, a cutoff point, which you borrow or extract from a larger truth. In this inherent sense, my imagination is no exception. My work admits…that there’s no absolute truth. At least it’s not portrayed in my work”.46 This phenomenon is described by Mirza, and later expanded by David Elliot as “the machinery of truth” as opposed to the truth itself. “The idea of a single truth, rather like there being just one manifestation of reality, is clearly a fallacy, although one which many cling to”.47 Rana acknowledges and tackles this as he begins to accept the significance of his geographical and cultural positioning in defining his own perspective, and assert its legitimacy in the face of the hegemony of the center on truth and knowledge. By playing with the hierarchies of time, place, and dimensions in delineating the perceived world and its abstractions onto twenty surfaces, he attempts to suggest “flaws in our ways of viewing them”48 and thus leaves it to the viewer to find their own meaning or version of truth within them.
- Leghari, Madyha, Rashid Rana, ArtNow Pakistan, April Issue, 2016, http://www.artnowpakistan.com/rashid-rana/
- Rana, Rashid, Nukta Art in conversation with Rashid Rana, Nukta Art Magazine, vol. 3-Two, 2008, p. 100
- Ibid., p.100
- Wille, Simone, Modern Art in Pakistan – History, Tradition, Space, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2015, p. 83
- Carter, Ned Miles, Distorting Dimensions, Art Asia Pacific, issue 106, 2017.
- Madani, Adnan, “Thinking Inside the Box: 6 Notes on Rashid Rana”, Rashid Rana Monograph, Chatterjee & Lal and Chemould Prescot Road, 2010, p. 12.
- Ibid., p. 62
- Rana, Rashid, “‘Bodies’ of Work – Rashid Rana in conversation with Rosa Maria Falvo”, Rashid Rana Monograph, Chatterjee & Lal and Chemould Prescot Road, 2010, p. 236
- Rana, Rashid, Ubermensch – A conversation between Rashid Rana and Rohma Khan, ArtNow Pakistan, January Issue, 2019, http://www.artnowpakistan.com/ubermensch-a-conversation-between-rashid-rana-and-rohma-khan/
- Wille, Simone, p. 86-87
- Ibid., p. 88-89
- Interview with Rosa Maria Falvo, p. 234
- Hashmi, Salima, “No TeRRor in Art”, Labyrinth of Reflections, Mohatta Palace Museum, 2013.p. 55
- Madani, Adnan, p. 14
- Elliot, David, “The Machinery of Truth”, Rashid Rana – Everything is Happening at Once, Lisson Gallery and Cornerhouse Publications, Manchester, 2011.P. 43-44
- Interview with Rohma Khan, 2019)
- Madani, Adnan, p. 14
- Rana, Rashid, “The Interview: Rashid Rana and Hans Ulrich Obrist”, Exhibition Catalogue: Perpetual Paradoxes (2010), Musee des Arts Asiatiques Guimut, Clumic Arts Graphiques, 2012, p. 52
- Singh, Kavita, “Meaning, In Its Fragments”, Rashid Rana Monograph, Chatterjee & Lal and Chemould Prescot Road, 2010, p. 26
- Shahane, Girish, “Seeing Double”, Rashid Rana Monograph, Chatterjee & Lal and Chemould Prescot Road, 2010, p. 95
- Farrukh, Niilofur, Making Contradictions Coherent, Nukta Art Magazine, Volume 9-One, 2014, p. 54.
- Rana, Rashid, “Scatter in Time – Rashid Rana in conversation with Madyha Leghari”, Exhibition Catalogue – A Scatter in Time, Leila Heller Gallery, 2017, p. 13
- Interview with Rohma Khan, 2019
- Shahane, Girish, p.43
- Mirza, Quddus, “Most People Are Other People”, Labyrinth of Reflections, Mohatta Palace Museum, p. 38-39.
- Rana, Rashid, “The Artist as His Own Scholarly Apprentice: Narrative of Process and Inquiry in Rashid Rana’s Art Practice”, Interview with Razia I. Sadik, Labyrinth of Reflections, Mohatta Palace Museum, 2013, p.72
- Hashmi, Salima, p. 56
- Hilsman, Michael, “A Moment in Time: Fragmentation and Reformulation in the Work of Rashid Rana”, Rashid Rana Monograph, Chatterjee & Lal and Chemould Prescot Road, 2010, p. 161.
- Hashmi, Salima, p. 56
- Kholeif, Omer, Rashid Rana, Frieze Magazine, Issue 147, 2012, https://www.frieze.com/article/rashid-rana
- interview with Razia I. Sadik, p.72
- Hashmi, Salima, p. 57
- Hilsman, Michael, p. 158.
- Interview with Razia I. Sadik, p.68
- Ibid. p.69
- Hilsman, Michael, p. 156-7
- In an interview with Rohma Khan, 2019
- Rana, Rashid, Rashid Rana: Scatter in Time, Leila Heller Gallery, 2017 http://www.artnet.de/galerien/leila-heller/rashid-rana-scatter-in-time/
- Ludwig, Justine, “Transliterating the Intolerable Image”, Exhibition Catalogue – A Scatter in Time, Leila Heller Gallery, 2017, p. 10
- Interview with Rohma Khan, 2019
- Haq, Nav, “Dimension Intrusion: Rashid Rana’s Spatio-Temporal Practice”, My East is your West, The Gujral Foundation, HarperCollins Publishers, 2016, p. 24-25
- Aslam, Nour, Osman Khalid Waheed, ArtNow Pakistan, February Issue, 2017 http://www.artnowpakistan.com/osman-khalid-waheed/
- Haq, Nav, p. 28
- Rana, Rashid, “Continuous Narrative: An Exchange between Rashid Rana and Sandhini Poddar”, My East is your West, The Gujral Foundation, HarperCollins Publishers, 2016, p. 121
- Interview with Rohma Khan in ArtNow Pakistan,2019
- Interview with Rosa Maria Falvo, p. 236
- Elliot, David, P. 41
- Carter Miles, Ned