The End, Where It Began – Islam and Modernism
The End, Where It Began – Islam and Modernism

In the spring of 2022, the beautiful historical Bagh-e-Jinnah, also known as Lawrence Garden on the Mall Road, Lahore, witnessed the unveiling of a work of art that will forever be remembered as one of its kind ever displayed in the city of gardens— Lahore.

In April 2022, COMO Museum in collaboration with the Lahore Biennale Foundation (LBF) and the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF), paid tribute to one of the greatest sculptors to have been born in Pakistan. The breezy evening revealed to the Pakistani audience a public sculpture of Rasheed Araeen that had never been exhibited in the city before. This show of magnificence was accompanied by a book launch of the artist himself, titled ‘Islam and Modernism’ followed by a panel discussion with the artist and art critic Quddus Mirza and the owner of the Grosvenor Gallery, Conor Macklin.

Sculpture placed at the Lawrence Garden.

The evening was attended by a crowd of admirers of Araeen, after which the sculpture was moved to the COMO museum to become a part of the spectacular exhibit of a combination of Araeen’s works, put together by Seher Tareen, the founder of COMO museum.

As I walked into the beautiful studio space of COMO Museum, located in the heart of Lahore, I was instantly encountered with a piece of wire. What directly drew me to the piece was the unconventional placement of the sculpture. In the middle of the main gallery space, stood a little table, covered with a piece of white cloth with lace borders, putting me into a certain nostalgia. On top of it sat Araeen’s first and earliest piece of art, Steel Wire.

“It was Rasheed Araeen himself who insisted on putting this sculpture in this manner. The table and the cloth on it, both belonged to his grandmother and this was his homage to her”, said Seher Tareen, the curator and the mastermind behind the show.

My first sculpture, steel wire, 1959

The piece of thin wire, very randomly picked up by the artist from a street in his early days, sat there twisted in a manner that almost represented two circular forms, forming a loop of infinity. In 1959, when Araeen sculpted this piece of wire, he had absolutely no idea what art meant to do or where this piece would take him in life. It was a disclosure of his own free imagination. Just like that, as I was looking at this piece, I could not have known then that I would come back to the same piece at the end of my gallery tour.

The premise of this show conceptualized in Seher Tareen’s mind when she came across Zero to Infinity, a sculpture of Rasheed Araeen at the Venice Biennale 2017. Seeing it placed there, she could instantly connect it to some of his earlier works she had seen. The way his multi-colored cubes spoke to her of the vastness of the world within was the moment Seher knew she wanted her audience back home to experience the same.

Walking through the gallery, I could have easily overlooked the collection of abstract paintings displayed in one of the galleries on the ground-floor; mistaking them for works of someone else. For most of us, we know Rasheed Araeen as the pioneer of modern sculptures in Pakistan and as amongst the pioneers of minimalist sculptures in Europe.1 What most of us are unaware of, is the journey that Araeen’s artistic practice has experienced through the decades.

Known as one of the significant figures in establishing a brown/black voice in the British Art scene2, Araeen, through his works has been establishing a dialogue between the Eastern and Western philosophies of religion (in his case – Islam), modernism and the role of aesthetics. Hence the title of the show, Islam and Modernism.

Articulating the essence of time, the exhibition at COMO, Islam and Modernism, is structured across three main sections: from the artist’s early experiments in painting in Karachi in the 1950s and early 60s, his calligraphic panels produced during the period 2017-2021 and a selection of his recent geometric sculptures and wall structures. Thus, although not titled as one, it wouldn’t be an understatement to speak of this show as a small scaled retrospective of Rasheed Araeen.

Throughout his artistic journey, Araeen addresses the challenges of modernity by translating- even juxtaposing- historical notions into his works, and then reworking their approach to Islamic philosophy.

Born in 1935, Rasheed received his formal training as an engineer from Karachi. It was in the late 1950s that he first developed an interest in the Modernism of Art in Pakistan. This is the time when he started experimenting with drawing and painting. His early works are an experimentation with Oil on board, Watercolor/Ink on paper and Gouache. While his later works witness a transformation from painting to sculptures, informed by Araeen settling and working in the West.

The ground floor of the museum consists of some of his earliest artworks. Most of the paintings on display are a rare find. From the personal collection of Taimur Hassan (a Karachi-raised hedge fund manager and Art Collector), to a collection of some of the earliest artworks of Araeen which had never been publicly displayed before in Lahore.

Almost Abstract no. 1, ink on paper, 15 in x 9.8 in, 1959

To my surprise, these artworks were abstract paintings done by Araeen in the late 1950s.
Looking at the bright hues and the jumble of vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines, one could be instantly reminded of the great Shakir Ali. Using watercolor and swirling lines with black ink on paper, Araeen’s paintings titled Dancing Series act as precursor to the sense of movement we later experience in his sculptures. While his contemporaries were busy making figurative art, nobody understood Araeen’s highly abstract sense of colors, shapes and lines.

Another one of his Ink on paper paintings, Almost Abstract no 1., transported me back to the works of the Bengali painter Zain-ul-Abideen and his famine series. While that was the pioneering time of Modernism in Bangladesh, here in Pakistan Rasheed Araeen was oblivious to the effects that modernism was having on his philosophy and his work.

Almost Abstract no. 8, oil on board, 19.25 in x 23.625 in, 1962

Many times, while painting, Araeen was unaware of the existence of his childhood spent around the Karachi Harbor. His series Almost Abstract is evidence of this. What he would draw were all kinds of lines and then fill the shapes in with colors. Later looking at the finished paintings one could clearly see the formation of boats in most of his paintings. This sense of geometry in his abstract paintings was the pivotal point in his life, which defines the trajectory his work was to take from there on.

Untitled (Opus Series), acrylic on canvas, 62 in x 106 in, 2017

The gallery displaying the abstract paintings very perceptively lead the viewer to Araeen’s next two works. One of which is a brightly colored huge canvas from Araeen’s Opus Series. Standing in front of the enormity of bright colored geometry, I could comprehend how Rasheed Araeen’s childhood memories associated with lines and colors had transcended beyond the limitations of time. As mathematical and conceptual the painting seemed, there is something playful about the complementing hues of pinks, greens, yellows and blues. The more time you spend in front of this canvas, the more you can deconstruct.

Noori, painted wood (3 panels together), 47 in x 142 in, 2020

Displayed right next to this canvas is a 3-panel wooden sculpture Noori, almost reminiscent of Islamic architecture with its intricate lattice work which is covered with bright colored diamond shapes that play around with each other like in a state of ecstasy. The very significant decision of placing both these works together provides us with the evidence of how minimalism takes up discrete shapes in Araeen’s works through time.

Zero to Infinity-Lahore, soft wood with semi-gloss finish, 40 x 40 x 40 cm, 2022

Rasheed Araeen has always been celebrated as a practitioner of Public Art in the West. Similar to Noori, the exhibition at COMO also displays two of his sculptures as public art: Zero to Infinity, placed in the lawn outside, and the Lahore Tower placed at the rooftop of the museum. Zero to Infinity is a multi-structural framework built of open latticework cubes in primary colors of red, blue and yellow. With Zero to Infinity, the artist allows the viewer to immerse in the art and move it around making their own arrangements of the cubes, Araeen, therefore, plays his role in de-mystifying the role of art and providing his viewer an equal role in perceiving, understanding and interacting with his art.

Lahore Tower, site specific structure for COMO Museum, 2022

Standing below, and looking up from the main lawn of the museum, one can experience a vertical structure placed on the rooftop made up of similar bright colored and open-latticework frames. While moving through the lawn, I could not help but indulge myself in how this sculpture, Lahore Tower, took up many divergent forms as I moved from one point to the other. The more I looked at the piece from varying angles the more I could comprehend what Araeen meant when he talked about infinity. There seemed to be no end to the comprehension of his sculptures. The only thing that remained constant was the ability of the shapes to keep on transforming.

As I ascended the stairs to the first floor of the museum, I was unaware of the mystic experience I was in for. In 2010, Rasheed Araeen moved back to Karachi for a while. This is the time when the Islamic world was humming and alive unlike Western Europe that was witnessing its peak of economic and cultural decline.3 The early 2010s was the time that Araeen’s practice underwent a major shift: reclaiming his Muslim identity. During this time, he started experimenting with Arabic script using names of prominent Arab scholars.

The very first panel encountered upon entering the first-floor gallery is titled In the Midst of Darkness. Standing afore the huge canvas completely covered with brightly colored letters, leaving little or no space in between, was an absorbing experience on its own. With In the Midst of Darkness, Araeen uses the Arabic script and deconstructs the names into a stylized, highly angular, geometric and abstract form, thus also maintaining a link to the characteristics of his previous practice. With his practice of abstraction, Araeen reclaims his own identity as a Muslim and the contributions of Islam in geometrical abstraction, which had been lost due to the exclusion of Islam from history of modernism. He traces back the origins of Islamic geometry: from Ancient Egypt-Mesopotamia, Greece and to the Arabs, where it engages not only aesthetically but also forms the basis of the intellectual discourse of the Islamic civilization. And through all this he aims to uncover modernism beyond its Eurocentrism.

In the Midst of Darkness 1A, acrylic paint on canvas, 60 in x 80 in, 2012-2013

It was during one of his visits to Pakistan in 1972, Araeen came across a calendar with calligraphy on it which later became the source of the striking calligraphic works we see next. He used the phrase Al-Azmut (The Great) and rendered it in a geometrical, brightly hued, multi-colored and symmetrical arrangement.

Displayed in the same vicinity is his series of ‘Allah’ paintings. Within a minute of standing in front of and gazing into one of these panels, one gets caught up in the optical illusion of movement and hypnotic undertones. Through the use of high contrasting colors and an absolute simplification of something as complex as Arabic calligraphy, Rasheed Araeen achieves the ultimate abstraction of FORM. And as Araeen says, “They no longer then remain words.”

Al-Azmut, acrylic on canvas, 62 in x 98 in, 2022

This led me next to the last and, for me, the most important piece of the exhibition, Al-Nour. With this, Araeen, for the very first time, displays wall-mounted work of neon light panels. The installation, three-dimensional in nature and yet cutting edge, left me captivated for as long as I stood in front of it.  For centuries, the use of Halo (a circle of light), has symbolized the pure and the divine in art. The choice of using neon thus, acts as an impeccable material vocabulary for Araeen’s exploration of the philosophical journey of God in the world from times immemorial to the modernization of the world religions. The thin wire-like form of the letters in Al-Nour along with neon also being a symbol of commercial and industrial materials, thereby encompasses the time-honored association of Araeen with industrial materials, taking us back to where we started from— the first ever steel wire sculpture made by Araeen when he was a student of civil engineering.

With the exhibition ending at the neon wall-mount, one finds herself/himself standing where he/she started from. Like a loop, that keeps on repeating: Infinity. Rasheed Araeen starts from zero, to infinity. Zero being at the foundation of and the inert order of minimalism. And the loop of infinity being the transforming constant. Araeen’s life and his study throughout has been about deconstructing the established discourses of religion and enlightenment, leading to modernism in the European history of art and aesthetics. In his book, Islam and Modernism, Araeen breaks it down for us, repudiating the Hegelian concepts of Christianity and the superiority of Greek art at the base of philosophy of aesthetics. Instead, he goes deeper into it, starting at the Ka’aba and its cubist nature, going further into reclaiming the place of Islam as the basis of geometrical abstraction in the Western modernism that has been long overlooked within a Eurocentric discourse of history.

The artworks, at the COMO museum Lahore, are an allegiance and evidence of Rasheed Araeen, being way ahead of his times. His writing and his art will continue to provide the intellectual foundation for people wanting to look at Islam from the modernist approach.

The show Islam and Modernism by Rasheed Araeen was exhibited at the COMO museum Lahore in March 2022 and remained on display till July 2022.

Title image: Al-Nour, neon lights, 62 in x 85 in, 2021

Photographs Courtesy: Hassan Sheikh and COMO Museum


  1. ‘Islam and Modernism’ by Rasheed Araeen – Published by Grosvenor Gallery, 2022
  2. ‘The Nominal and the Universal: A conversation with Rasheed Araeen’ by Kylie Gilchrist, 2022
  3. ‘Rasheed Araeen’ by Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, 2017
  4. Personal interview with Seher Tareen – Founder COMO Museum and curator of exhibition, Islam and Modernism.


  1. Minimalism and Beyond: Rasheed Araeen at TATE BRITAIN, April-August 2007. Catalog published by Third Text/Tate Britain, London.
  2. Rasheed Araeen in ‘Rasheed Araeen’. Ed. Nick Aitkems, 2017.
  3. Rasheed Araeen: Friends, Mathematics and Philosophy. Rebecca Heald, 2020.

Sumbul Natalia is a Lahore based artist, writer and curator. She graduated in Communication Design from College of Art and Design, Punjab University and went on to do her MPhil in Cultural Studies from the National College of Arts, Lahore. Since then, she has served as a visiting faculty at various art institutes teaching Art History and courses around contextual and critical studies. Sumbul is also the co-founder and curator at the Karbath Artist Residency Program. She currently serves as a faculty member in the Visual Communication Design Department at the National College of Arts (NCA).

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  • Its pleasure reading article critically reviewed, creatively described and professionally written by sumbal natalia.. I have a feeling that I didn’t miss Rashid’s exehibtion after reading it..I wish her more power and precision in her writings..
    اللہ کرے زور قلم اور زیادہ ۔۔

    Fakhar Ullah Tahir

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