Rasheed Araeen’s new work on display at the COMO Museum can be connected to his earlier paintings in terms of abstraction
n his latest book, Islam and Modernism, Rasheed Araeen recounts, “In 1970, I was told…. my work was ‘Islamic’; and then in 2007, the Tate declared that ‘Rasheed was a pioneer of Minimalist sculpture in Britain’”. “But how could both be true?” asks Araeen. His work, currently on display at COMO Museum of Art Lahore, provides the answer. The show comprises his first sculpture from 1959; a number of paintings from the early sixties; and later canvases, sculptures, and a neon installation, all created between 2017 and 2022.
The artist has been making art as well as engaging in activism. Living and working in the UK, he has produced in multiple formats and media (including his writings), which challenged the colonial mind-set of the United Kingdom. He fought, through his works and words, against the policies of marginalisation, the practice of demonisation and the course of classification when it comes to artists of colour.
Now the term ‘artists of colour’ seems as odd as an establishment called Doctors Hospital; because artists express through colours and doctors practice at hospitals. But, colour also signifies another context. Black, brown, yellow are labels to describe those not from a race, which happens to be calling the shots in the world of politics, finance and culture. Rasheed Araeen spent a life-time – since he left Karachi for London in 1963 – resisting the prevalent prejudice against artists who did not belong to the mainstream and mostly originated in the former colonies. A number of self-portraits with xenophobic graffiti (picked from the streets of London), compositions dealing with the commodification of women, political violence, and racial rhetoric form the aura of an artist who pushed his point at a time when the doors of high art were shut for outsiders.
Somehow an artist’s life is unpredictable – and usually more surprising than a detective novel. What one sees could later prove different from what appears on the surface. There may emerge a new cause, an unforeseen clue. This happened in the case of Rasheed Araeen. Today his acceptance, inclusion and prominent position in the mainstream (read: Western) art is primarily based not on his politically-charged works, but on what can be identified as Islamic and minimal in the same breath.
And that breath is the geometry. In his book, Rasheed Araeen suffices the philosophical background of sacred geometry, in contrast to secular modernism; but as in every art form, there is a hidden bondage between sacred and secular, content and form, meaning and appearance. In Araeen’s recent works one also reads this merger. If a viewer is aware of their latent layers of geometry or is able to decipher calligraphic shapes, these works are linked to the realm of Islamic art, but for someone else these could be remarkable pieces of minimal art.
The truth is that his work encompasses both descriptions. An artist is not a one-dimensional, or two-dimensional, or even a three-dimensional being in his/her creation. He/she possesses multiple, often diverse, if not conflicting identities. So, the work easily transcends quickly conferred tags. In that respect, Rasheed Araeen’s art justifies both classifications, and many others, including the idea of abstraction, existing in his earliest works. Canvases such as Ham Raqs, 1959; Almost Abstract,1962; Aag, 1961; Aag ka Naach, 1961 (and several with the same title but of varying numbers) signify the artist’s move from a representational vocabulary to an abstract/ stylised idiom. You may spot boats or flames, or fire, yet what you see is a network of horizontal, vertical and diagonal marks, expressionist in nature, but echoing an ancient custom of translating/ transforming forms of nature into man-made shapes.
Now the term ‘artists of colour’ seems as odd as an establishment called Doctors Hospital; because artists express through colours and doctors practice at hospitals. But, colour also signifies another context.
These paintings, from a period when the artist was still living in Pakistan, now serve to decode his later and latest creations.
At the COMO Museum, his new canvases (in acrylic paint) a neon installation, and sculptures can be connected to his earlier paintings in terms of abstraction, but the recent works represent a culmination in his surge to find a form in which a mortal’s (read: artist’s) hand/ touch is not important. In traditional arts of many religions and communities, the individuality of the maker was not significant. (Art objects often did not have names of their creators). The entire society assumed the authorship of these pieces, since these were not about flaunting an individual’s skill or craft, but conversing in a shared language.
In that way the works of Rasheed Araeen are traditional, besides being minimal and conceptual, because he travels from one location/ demarcation to other as comfortably as crossing borders between the East and the West. One recognises the triumph of the artist, who is speaking in a tongue supposed to be mainstream, yet saying what he inherits. This situation or solution is not dissimilar to another creative personality hailing from the Indian subcontinent, who adopted English language for his novels, but employed narrative techniques from non-European sources, and even incorporated some colloquial Hindi/ Urdu words, thus finding his own place in the world of literature.
Though Rasheed Araeen talks critically about the author of The Satanic Verses, before the publication of this infamous book, its author was already making waves with his Booker Prize novel, Midnight’s Children, subverting the English language, syntax, hence revolutionising how the English language/ literature would be read in the future. In a similar sense, Rasheed Araeen has transformed the poetics of abstract art or the language of minimalism. As he writes: “it is the spirit of geometry, originating from the Ka’ba …, and reaching Europe after about thirteen centuries, which in fact connects cubism to the Ka’ba”. Because, Araeen believes, “ideas move from one period of history to another, persisting throughout human history and re-emerging after a long period of their being invisible or inactive, creating or influencing new things”. The last line could describe his own art practice (even though Rasheed Araeen was never inactive).
Some years ago, I saw a billboard promoting a brand of biscuits. On the hoarding, there was an electricity bulb with the word light underneath, next was a cigarette lighter delineating the text lighter, and the last one had a pack of cookies, called the lightest. At the COMO exhibition, Rasheed Araeen seems to have become more – the most abstract. A form of art that deals with the essence rather than appearances. Yet, it invokes meanings in the informed viewer; especially those marvellous – non-figurative canvases at his present exhibition (March-July 2022), which reveal “the names of prominent Arab and Persian polymaths, including Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Ibn Rushd” and a few others. Their names in Arabic script are straightened, stylised and situated in a contemporary format.
Similarly, Araeen’s latest Allah paintings and his Al Nour (The Light) made of neon introduce a new dimension into his vocabulary, in which it is hard to differentiate between Islamic or minimal, because both converge so comfortably, and convincingly. Canvases with the name of God inscribed in a seemingly simple yet complex formation, with a colour palette that reverberates like chanting the name of God.
Araeen’s paintings in their sensibility cannot be disconnected from his sculptures/ constructions. Based on purely geometric forms, these sculptures initiate not the word of God but His attributes. God, as we believe, is infinite, and the sculptures of Rasheed Araeen are constructed in a module, to be repeated ad infinitum. His geometry-based and immaculately executed sculptures with innumerable formations of vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines – can be extended limitlessly. Hence they are a metaphor for a universe that is expanding, evolving and joining other universes, without our intention, involvement and awakening.
The author is an art critic based in Lahore