Unpacking the rainbow

July 30, 2023

From his earliest work, artist Rasheed Araeen has been exploring geometry as an inquiry into perfect forms

Unpacking the  rainbow


he moment artist Rasheed Araeen finished setting up his monumental piece of sculpture – made out of 400 units, in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern London, the dismantling started. The artist himself led the disarraying of the symmetrical layout. In this, he was soon joined by everybody present on June 21, inside the most iconic space of the UK’s leading museum. The project, Zero to Infinity, had actually begun in 1968. Its recent placement as the UNIQLO Tate Paly: Rasheed Araeen (until August 27) is another step in its course of perpetual metamorphosis, which one presumes will continue, even after all those who witnessed and participated in this exciting exercise of dismantling.

The installation was composed of latticed construction cubes of identical size, equally divided into four vivid and pure colours (red, yellow, blue, green). Their straight and diagonal lines cut the inner space and created a web of infinite marks when put randomly at the Turbine Hall. In a way these reminded the viewers of the colonnades of the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba; a sequences of pillars and arches with intersecting shapes that transform the physical area into a never-ending location.

From his earlier drawings and paintings based upon the rendering of wind-catchers of Hyderabad Sindh (1962-63), to his later installations (for example To Whom It May Concern (1996), at the Serpentine Galleries, London), Rasheed Araeen has been exploring geometry. More than a fascination, it has been an inquiry into perfect forms, stripping those of unnecessary detail.

One could include his art in the category of minimalism, but in his essay From the Cube of the Ka’ba to Cubism, Araeen says: “In 1970, I was told, as I’ve described elsewhere, that my work was ‘Islamic’; and then in 2007, the Tate declared that ‘Rasheed was a pioneer of minimalist sculpture in Britain’.” He elaborates, “I’ve been contemplating this problem for some time; how to assert my Muslim identity within modernism. He realises that “the issue is not just my identity, but also modernism.”

For every Muslim, artist or not, the cube represents the house of God in Makkah. The simple black block, due to its sparseness, asserts its connection with the purity of the Creator. It is not certain that the French post-impressionist Paul Cezanne was aware of the building in Makkah, but in a letter written in April 15, 1904, to his fellow painter Emile Bernard, he advised him: “treat nature by the cylinder, the sphere, the cone”; a line instrumental in the inception of cubism.

Araeen comments that the “Eurocentric art history tells us that it was Cezanne’s contemplation of geometry as the basis of everything that led to cubism, and what emerged from the geometry in cubism became geometric abstraction. “There was no Islam in it.” In fact, geometric forms were not invented by Muslims, but due to multiple reasons – ranging from iconoclastic to representing divinity – the image-makers of Muslim societies evolved a sophisticated art of abstraction founded on geometry that referred to the supreme being, through an indirect, distant and profound interpretation.

Unpacking the  rainbow

Rasheed Araeen’s work at the Tate Modern is a step towards recognising the presence and potential of infinity in diverse manifestations, forms, combinations and colours. Stripped to the basics, it multiplies in innumerable possibilities.

Geometry is not often visible in nature. Mainly, like all art forms, it is a creation of the mankind.

Muslim artists and artisans recognised that the task of a creative individual is not to mimic nature (like the canvases of Da Vinci and Raphael, or stones of Michelangelo), but to seek the essence of reality, possible in geometry only (not dissimilar to Cezanne). A flower withers, a human being ages, a cloud bursts, but a cube, a circle, a rectangle, remains unchanged – eternal, almost like God.

12-13th Century Andalusian philosopher Ibne Arabi’s doctrine of Wahdat-ul Wujud, in which the “external world of sensible objects is but a fleeting shadow of the Real (al-Haq), God”, can be compared to the Muslim image makers’ act of translating the visible world into the primordial shapes. Following this, Araeen’s work at the Tate Modern is a step towards recognising the presence and potential of infinity in diverse manifestations, forms, combinations and colours. Stripped to the basics, it multiplies in innumerable possibilities. One suspects that if Jorge Luis Borges had art as a side practice, his work would not have been dissimilar to Rasheed Araeen’s interactive installation at the Tate Modern.

The other side of Araeen’s (apparently) formal/ structural/ geometric installation is also relevant. It concludes his life-long quest to wrench art out of institutional domain, particularly, liberating it from white dominance that overshadowed the art world of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. I recall seeing the exhibition The Other Story he curated at Hayward Gallery (1989-90) that represented artists from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean; and reading hostile reviews around the idea of tokenism. However, Araeen did not bend or budge. He persisted in his crusade to dismantle the structure of art based upon discrimination, exclusivity and racial prejudice. Not only his art, but his writings, and his magazine Third Text (copies of its volumes and his other books are available for the public reading at the Bridge, Turbine Hall) fought for a just society with an equal opportunity despite one’s odd accent, dark complexion, strange attire, unusual manners.

The project, which has been previously installed at various venues including the 57th Venice Biennale (2017), is about accepting, admitting and inviting people of every colour, race, gender, age, class to become a participant, a collaborator, a creator in the making of an artwork at Tate Modern, hence subverting and shattering the role of art establishment and empowering those, who once in front of valuable canvases, ambitious installations, video projections feel like an outsider: the passive consumer. The work displayed at the Tate began in 1968. In a text from that year, Rasheed Araeen invites the viewers to: “Touch these structures with your hands; manipulate them… You can continuously create new relationships by constantly changing space by playing with these structures… put them on top of each other. Spread them horizontally”.

The sculptural installation of Rasheed Araeen at the Tate Modern is being continuously re-arranged, revised, ruptured, replayed, re-made, fulfilling the artist’s desire of not being the sole creator, but a single, initial instigator in the long course of art making that happens every moment someone approaches and starts dismantling, composing, piling up these cubes of strong and intense hues. The idea of extending the ownership to those who can’t come close to artwork – let alone touch it, is a means to demolish the barriers between the maker, the viewer and the collector. Visiting UNIQLO Tate Play, Rasheed Araeen: Zero to Infinity provides an opportunity to be the creator of this artwork for a short duration – till you take your selfie next to your composition.

You step into Tate Modern as a visitor, and you come out as a maker of art displayed at the Turbine Hall; what else could one demand or desire?

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

Unpacking the rainbow