January Issue 2015
Rasheed Araeen’s exhibition, Homecoming, at VM Art Gallery (December 3, 2014 to January 7, 2015) is a prodigious exercise in logistics as almost every serious retrospective is, but more essentially it is an endeavour of monumental proportions because the odds have been stacked against the curator. Imagine trying to introduce a Pakistani artist to a Pakistani audience after he has spanned a 60-year career outside the country. Relish this: an artist who has often said, “I never pursued art, art pursued me.” It gets worse. Araeen has not painted or created sculptures consistently over the decades. In fact, he has never created works for a white cube gallery space, so his trajectory is fractured and infused with tangential ideas like applying for and receiving patents for an object; a disc, associated with an activity he calls ‘discosailing’ and his belief that an artist’s responsibilities extend to the nurturing and protection of the ecosystem for which he has coined the term ‘ecoaesthetics.’ In addition, Araeen’s quest for many decades has been academic and with the publication of the internationally renowned journal Third Text, he has single-mindedly pursued the goal to offer an alternate to the dominant discourse in art scholarship.
In the backdrop of Araeen’s multi-plural undertakings, Amra Ali has achieved what was an insurmountable task and accomplished it with grace and an acumen rarely seen in curatorial endeavours in Pakistan. To resolve issues of this nature is what separates the wheat from the chaff of curators and is a comment on what appears to be a torrent of curatorial activity on the art scene of late. Any curator who cannot support the curatorial framework of a show with at least accompanying rationalised text should not be considered as having any curatorial input, although even the writing of a text is a simplistic notion of a curator’s role.
Ali’s first challenge was the selection of works for the retrospective and her choice of works was a result of well-considered musings. Earlier works from the late ’50s and ’60s, before Araeen left for Karachi, were included as were the latest works he has made since 2010. Also forming part of the show were the minimalist sculptures which have been Araeen’s signature works, the likes of which gained him a permanent place at Tate Britain and earned him the title of Britain’s pioneer minimalist installation artist by Andreas Leventis, curator at Tate in 2007. Through the three sets of works, Amra Ali has given the audience tantalising hints by which to trace the profundities and extensive narratives of this diverse man and artist, instead of putting it all out there which would, firstly, have been tangibly impossible and, secondly, of no particular relevance and meaning — Araeen requires to be simplified in order to be found even if it is in some small measure by an unknowing audience.
Araeen’s early works are lyrical in their spontaneity and their poetic abstraction, with elements of nature playing an imperative role in the fluidity of movement and elegance of strokes. A few incidents in Araeen’s life at a very early age introduced him to the fundamental elements of his art. He espied some children playing the hula hoop; he found a piece of twisted wire and took it home finding its visuals interesting; he saw a tyre burning and when he returned later, the remaining carcass of the metal motivated him to take it home and suspend it. Motion in action and movement in form were the corresponding germinating seeds of all production that ensued in Araeen’s later years. Another essential factor was Araeen’s pursuit in the field of Civil Engineering before he turned to the dialectics of art and academics and it was the study of buildings and materials that informed his practice. The girder grids, the scaffolding structures, the I-beams and the cubes have evolved from that study, coupled with an intuitive response to linear expression.
The greatest challenge in addressing Araeen as an artist and sculptor is the endeavour to locate him suitably in the context of the lexicon of western art. He seems to belong to modernism, post-modernism, contemporaneity and minimalism. He appears to have associative connections to Hanif Ramay, Sadequain, Anwar Jalal Shemza, Anthony Caro and other peers. But Araeen defies location and it is our need as curators and writers to pin him to such encyclopedic niches. Araeen knew of all these artists and yet he trod his own path and defined his own course in history. The fact is that most artists work from one body of work to another defined by ideas that are sometimes internally motivated and sometimes manifestations of outward events. But they get to choose and sift through the cornucopia of ideas that are thrown their way. Araeen never had the luxury of being able to follow this trajectory of thought and production because of the times he was living in when he arrived in England. There was no space for the black artist to produce and exhibit, to be critically acknowledged, to be accepted or rejected as a mainstream artist. The black (and by black Araeen meant Asian, African and Caribbean) artists were looked upon as exotic and the marginalised ‘other.’ He wanted equality of opportunity and began to raise his voice rather than paint or sculpt, and spent the next 30 years protesting against Eurocentric authority as being the standard-bearers of the art industry. Through the ’70s in England, Araeen demonstrated, staged performance pieces, started the Black Phoenix magazine which later evolved into Third Text, the journal for alternate critical studies in art and architecture.
The brilliant new works by Araeen, starkly coloured grids of a popsicle variety, are tied in with the title of the show, Homecoming. Araeen explains that Homecoming “was not only my return to my home in Pakistan but to the history which was submerged under the weight of western culture.” The Islamic heritage that Araeen speaks of is depicted in the paintings which consist of a series of names of Arab philosophers written in an abstract grid. Having made these most recent works in Karachi, Araeen has come full circle and yet, as the circle indicates infinity, we can expect much more from this artist from whom we have only just begun to learn the complexities of our heritage.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s Annual 2015 issue.
Nafisa Rizvi is a writer and independent curator. She was founder editor of ArtNow, the first online magazine on contemporary art.