‘He had been taught that language was essentially inadequate, that it could never speak what was there, that it only spoke itself…What had happened to him was that the ways in which it could be said had become more interesting than the idea that it could not.’
– A. S. Byatt, Possession, 1990
In her prize-winning novel, Possession, Byatt invokes the mystery of language as much as she invokes the mystery of love. The entire work unfolds like a palimpsest, one narrative passing smoothly over the other, each diaphanous yet each opaque. Language, you realise, can leave you surfeited as well as starved. Language is sadly lacking in the face of phenomena like life that rages unappeased, unappeasable, all around us while we piece together words to form sentences to form pleas to placate the storm. Yet it is also words, languages, poems and entreaties, litanies, tirades, annals, chronicles that help us understand what little we understand of ourselves and the world. Language, then, is an unreliable necessity, an elusive force we try to recruit to voice all else that is elusive.
Amin Rehman is a Lahore-born, Toronto-based visual artist whose oeuvre, to a large extent, has centred on the fickleness of language, its politics and maneuvers. Rehman studied at the National College of Arts and the University of Punjab, Lahore, and at the University of Manchester, UK. His work has been exhibited widely in Canada, UK, USA and Pakistan since the 1980s. Rehman is adept at multiple forms of visual expression, some of which, like painting, installation and performance, he employs repeatedly to state his concerns. These are informed in equal parts by his status as an immigrant and his almost Orwellian distrust of language in the service of propagandist media.
Having been introduced to his insinuative world of hybrid scripts only recently (his latest show in Pakistan was held at V.M. Art Gallery, Karachi, earlier this year), I saw the acute relevance his work had to today’s physical and virtual realities, convergent as they are upon text. What this overabundance of text in greatly varying forms (compare the blithe conspicuousness of billboards to the smallness and incisiveness of tweets and SMSes) has done is both exaggerate and undermine the power of language over our lives. Rehman, in his text-based installations, takes this conundrum further by selecting words and phrases that have imperial baggage and disguising them as decorative calligraphy, aestheticising them so that they appear more like hallowed manuscripts than the insidiously droning news channel tickers they really are.
“All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary,” writes George Orwell in 1984. Rehman’s White Wash (2011) and A is for… (2012) are series that issue from a similar dissatisfaction with the malleability of words. In his vinyl and encaustic installations, politically laden text in English masquerades in Kufic script with diacritics that, because they offer no pronunciatory support to the words, are reduced to mere decorative marks. “At first,” says Rehman in an interview with London-based artist Jamelie Hassan, “it looks like the text is in Arabic; then the Englishness of the words disarm the viewer and removes the perception of the Perso-Arabic text as being in a language of terror. It ultimately rejects the US media’s overwhelming war of words to link the Perso-Arabic languages to the realm of the ‘axis of evil.'” Statements like “imperialism doesn’t stop being necessary just because it becomes politically incorrect” (from Michael Ignatieff’s article “Nation-Building Lite”, published in The New York Times Magazine in 2002) and “stop teaching and running the girls’ school, otherwise you will be slaughtered” (a warning sent to the headmaster of a girls’ school near Kabul in 2009) feature in pieces like The Crises of Occupation and Knowledge on Fire.
These statements appear in gradating gold or blue – dully glinting, beguiling, distracting the viewer-reader from the tough content. Meanwhile, behind them, in a visual monotone, run more sentences in efficient, modern fonts like Arial, half-hidden by the flourishes in front. Through this deliberate mystification, this arbitrary effacing and emphasising of information, Rehman depicts the process of writing history itself, a process timelessly summed up by Orwell in 1984 with the slogan: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
Some of the snippets chosen by Rehman, such as “Final Hours” and “God is on our side, Allah is on your side”, become more pervasive on being displayed as neon installations. The icy beauty of neon light brings out the detachment integral to news, while commenting also on our conflicting relationship with news – our setting too much store by it yet becoming impervious to whatever loss or tragedy it tells of. This brings the question back to whether it is the open-endedness or restrictiveness of language that enables the kind of dissembling we see today in the media. Rehman also raises this question in the series Black Hole l and Black Hole ll (2009), magnifying certain words much favoured by news channels and displaying them in close-set blocks next to each other so that they become almost reflexive, both testifying to and downplaying the degree of control we allow them over our lives.
Dua Abbas Rizvi is a visual artist and writer based in Lahore, Pakistan.