Tracing modernism

November 27, 2022

In artist Rasheed Araeen’s aesthetics, there is hardly a conflict between modernity and faith

Tracing modernism


any Muslim theorists have referred to differing positions of two luminaries of Islamic philosophy and theology, Al-Ghazzali and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). Al-Ghazzali, allegedly resisted the course of reason (derived from recently discovered Greek thought) and supported dogma and tradition whereas Averroes favouredreliance on logic and laws of nature. Al-Ghazzali found greater acceptance in the contemporary Islamic society. Many academics see this as a cause for Muslim culture’s preference for convention andaversion to scientific thinking resulting in its deteriorationand inferiority in comparison the Enlightened Europe and the West.

Recently a Pakistani scholar, Mohammad Abdullah Shariq, has refuted this thesis in his book about the differences between the two Muslim philosophers, claiming that Al-Ghazzali was not opposed to reason and empiricism. One can accept or reject this argument, but one cannot deny the impact of Averroes not only in Muslim societies, butalso on the West. Rasheed Araeen, in his publication Islam and Modernism, explains that “Ibne Rushd’s work was particularly important. He argued that there was no contradiction between the divine message and the secular knowledge; they actually complemented each other.”

What Araeen writes about Averroes’s concepts, he practices in his art. In Araeen’s aesthetics there is hardly a conflict between modernity and faith or between abstraction and spirituality. He draws the link between the Ka’ba and the cube (or Cubism), elaborating: “it is the Spirit of geometry, originating from the Ka’ba and then travelling the historic movement of ideas, and reaching Europe after about thirteen centuries, which in fact connects Cubism to the Ka’ba.”

In his art Rasheed Araeen imbibes this phenomenon. Here concepts of Islamic geometry breathetogether with the construction of hard-edge abstract art. At his recently concluded solo exhibition,Islam & Modernism (October 20 – November 19, Aicon Gallery, New York City) Araeen has shown works which on the one hand relate to Islamic geometry and calligraphy and on the other can be understood and admired as combinations of flattened forms, a contemporary sensibility that invokes the feeling of sublime.

If one subscribes to these two layers of his imagery, one also recalls the writings of American abstract expressionist painters like Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt and others, proclaiming their canvases as stimuli for a transcendental experience: gazing at a paintingmay transport one to another realm, time, hemisphere or universe.

Or it may not; but how could one assume that a visitor to the Museum of Modern Art in New York or Tate Modern in London is not prepared for the subliminal/spiritual encounter in the presence of a Rothko, a Kline, a Motherwell; because you enter an art museum carrying the load of art history and act in a prescribed manner. The behaviour is probably not different from visiting a religious site.

Even if one is anticipating a viewing and is equipped with the relevant information about what awaits one in the halls of a gallery/museum, the virginal exposure to an artwork is an unforgettablehappening. Size, material and techniquedetermine the power of an artwork. The power is not physical, political or moral; it is metaphysical. It is the power of memory: what survives in an individual’s mind is purely personal, sensory and lasting.

One feels that the art of Rasheed Araeen, which reverts to Islamic geometry, but does not revive it as a sentimental substance, has the capacity to converse with a spectator in more than one tongue. One comes across multiple facades of Araeen at theAicon Gallery (an establishment that hosted his first solo exhibition in 2010 in its London location, before the work went places – includingMuseum of Modern Art,Metropolitan Museum of Art and Solomon R GuggenheimFoundation).

Besides the fact that Rasheed Araeen has participated in several prestigious group exhibitions, like the 57th Venice Biennale and Documenta 14; the question arises what makes the work of this old man ofmodern art (borrowing the title from his contemporary artist,Richard Hamilton)“so different, so appealing.”Probably, it is the alternating paths towards exploring an artistic and cultural legacy.

Presented in his paintings are the names of Muslim philosophers, inventors, mathematicians etc; in grids and patterns so you recognise the identity of the individuals or you read it as a composition of varying hues. In both versions/views, Rasheed Araeen is referring to the aesthetics of calligraphy, in which arecognisable text has a non-verbal sensation as well. Tis is not unlike the tone (harsh, soft, high, low, pleasant, angry, flirtatious) that conveys more than what is said; or the handwriting which reveals additional information about the personality of the scribbler, beyond the dictionary definitions of what is inscribed.

Thus, with their geometrical, calculated and minimal division of space, forms and a profound chromatic scheme, Araeen’spaintings are readable as Arabic script and as notes on modernism.

What appears simple, basic and easy, is often impossible to achieve. Poets, writers, artists, musicians reach that stage after years of striving. The latest paintings of Rasheed Araeen, reflect the grand old master’s arrival at a point/sposition that connects to his stance of being other, a rebellion, and a socio-political commentator – and his preference for a pictorial language devised centuries ago, but still smells new. Araeen employs this diction as a parallel and potent aesthetics, like his works from 1980s (which, with predominating political/popular culture imagery, were constructed on geometry – occasionally the geometry of Union Jack).

Compared to his previous body of work, his recent creations have colours that seem to reverberate, vibrate, advance, rotate, dance – even diffuse. One gets the sensation of luminosity, illumination and vibrancy from his acrylic on canvas – like the work in neon with the word Allah emanating light. The artist’s excursion into geometry is evident in several minimal and modern sculptures. Extending basic shapes of a triangle, cube, hexagon Rashid Araeen constructs complex structures in varying and engaging hues.

Neither paintings nor sculptures on display at the Aicon Gallery New York, are manually fabricated by the 85-year-old artist. These must be executed by a team of assistants – a strategy reminiscent of the traditional (Islamic) art production, besides the strategies of modernism. For making a miniature painting, completing a fresco, composing a mosaic, or copying a holy book, more artists than one typically participated in the production because the execution of a work of art was not confined to a single individual, but to a group of professionals, if not the entire society. In the same lieu, modernity – coinciding with industrialisation –was about collective participation/fabrication. Most products are made by many and so can be a work of art (with Andy Warhol’s Brillio box being the epitome of the approach).

This is a way of announcing the death of an author (as proclaimed by Roland Barthes) but at the same instance, recalling a Muslim society, in which a workshop which makes a work of art – an inscription on the walls of Alhambra Palace, a mosaic in Lahore Fort, a text engraving on a Mughal monument – is a shared effort and a collective expression. Rasheed Araeen strives for a state in which there is no Other, there is no artist and no collaborator, no initiator and no imitator – and the past embraces the present.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

Tracing modernism