The complexity of Rasheed Araeen’s vast trajectory poses challenging issues of interpretation. Its interface with the historical past of art
The complexity of Rasheed Araeen’s vast trajectory poses challenging issues of interpretation. Its interface with the historical past of art in Pakistan of the 50s and 60s, and his subsequent migration to first Paris and then the UK, and emergence as a major player in the international art discourse; these aspects are the tip of the iceberg, besides there being complex issues of interpretation and context of modernism.
Araeen is perhaps the only living artist in Pakistan, who has seen and shown with the early artists such as Chughtai, Zubeida Agha, Anna Molka, Sadequain, and continues to produce new work today. He has been part of the recent editions of Art Dubai, Documenta 14, the Venice Biennial, Frieze Art Fair and other important shows, including an extensive retrospective that opened at the Van Abe Museum, Holland, and is to travel to Geneva and Moscow in 2018. This continuity of Araeen has conversed with the past and the present, with the past as present, and into the future. His is a wholistic approach of producing, writing, editing and curating, with a strong emphasis on responding to the structure of discourse. In his wider approach he is a non-artist, an engineer, who has looked at art and aesthetics closely, but always responded as an outsider. He has chosen to move art outside the prism of the white cube and institution, seen by him as imposed parameters of discourse, that limit the flow of creativity. Araeen has also presented a cohesive body of solutions to questions of the unequal distribution of resources and wealth, championing the cause of the underprivileged and the persecuted.
- He has created a space quite apart from the artistic trends within Pakistan and forged innovative inroads into the issues of (western) modernity. He has moved beyond the present, always, choosing ‘alternate’ solutions and thereby disrupting the norms of artistic directions. It would be a challenging task for any writer to connect the many reference points of Araeen’s vision into one body of work (of writing or curating), as it re-emerges throughout the last sixty years in different forms, but that also connect the present to their histories. At the interface of many histories, of those within Pakistan and in the West, Araeen belongs to many times. I remember writing an article around 2002, when he presented his first draft of the Theory of Nominalism at Suman House, that now houses the Goethe-Institute. Araeen delivered the lecture to an audience of artists, writers and friends of art who listened in a deafening silence. There was only one awkward interruption, when a young artist who was probably bored, decided to leave, and the sound of her heels made Araeen stop till she finally made her way out of the hall. There was not a single comment or question raised. Considering that this was a turning point in Araeen’s career, where he moved his attention to the cultivation of land in Balochistan, it was no surprise that the art community did not and could not relate to the concept of social reform as an art project. Araeen’s idea was to bring the social into the aesthetics of art where the ownership of the ‘art’ would belong to unknown participants in the future. There are somewhat similar examples that we do see within Pakistan, but the relation to land remains largely a fetish of distant and exotic space. Araeen gives the example of Richarg Long’s long walks in distant lands, from where he collected specimens of land and exhibited them in western museums. He criticizes Long and the Conceptual art of the 60s, calling it a blunder of “bourgeois altruism”. It was later published in detail in his book, ‘Art Beyond Art, Eco-Aesthetics: A Manifesto for the 21st Century’ (Third Text Publications, 2010). He writes in the chapter, ‘Return to Balochistan: Nominalizing Bourgeois Aesthetics’:
“Their self-centered discourse offered a fantasy, which they could manipulate conceptually and present as a work of art. If a land appeared, particularly through the camera eye, as a wilderness, it was only because they did not want to see or allow their eyes to penetrate beyond what they wanted to see/ the people who inhabited the land either disappeared from their gaze or became objects”.
This essay, therefore, is an account, of ideas and thoughts around the trajectory of Araeen, and as a context to a brief discussion around the recent work, Shamiyaana: Food for Thought,Thought for Change, that was conceived for Documenta 14, 2017, in Athens. Simultaneously, for Kassel, Araeen installed a reading room with a complete edition of Third Text, that he has edited, with tables and chairs made using this module cubes and diagonals. They “bring together his Structures, with his path making intervention in the critical discourse of post colonialism and globalization through writing and editing”, writes Michael Newman in an essay for the catalogue of Araeen’s current retrospective touring from the Netherlands to Russia. As mentioned earlier, the complexity of the narrative makes it impossible not to connect the overlapping layers of concerns and historical contexts to which he belongs. Araeen is a perfect case of artist, whose work takes you to unexpected directions, in endless detours of discussion. That is one aspect that people in the art community typically resist in Pakistan. Neat packages, praiseworthy accounts of glamorous art and artists do not leave much room for dissent or discussion.
So, let’s begin at this end of history first, looking at his work at Documenta 14, and more specifically the Shamiyaaana at Kotzia Square, Athens. We see a post-modernist, who forges ahead with an idea (and let us also acknowledge the idealism), fearless of the concerns of the (art) market, in fact in total disregard of it. How can Araeen be interpreted in this case? The room for re-interpretation comes later.
One of my concerns, in reading Araeen, after having written on his work, and curating it, is how to make Araeen accessible. One thing that I noticed when curating Home Coming, his mini retrospective, at the VM Gallery, Karachi, in 2014-15, was the lack of connection by the audience of writers, artists and educationists to the work. There were writers who excused themselves because they felt the difficulty of writing on Araeen, and there were those who wrote descriptive ‘reviews’ without attempting to critique. Some of this has to do with the politeness of art writing, and the caution with which we phrase words, the self -censorship we impose, newspaper editors who are vary of backlash by gallerists on artists they show, all because of the affect on their sales. The point is that gallery-based dynamics and control makes understanding Araeen even more cumbersome.
The lack of discussion by the art critics, of course, may stem from the missing connections to histories, which have simply not been studied or critiqued. Our connections to modernity itself have not been studied academically or otherwise. The linkages and knowledge that resides in the study of the many strands of modernity in Pakistan have not been under study, and therefore we have disjointed links, even to the work of pioneers such as Zubaida Agha, whose work Araeen saw in the 50s in Karachi. The influence of the strong black of Zain ul Abedin on Araeen in the early years has only come into discussion recently, as Araeen spoke briefly on it at a discussion at the Lahore Literary Festival, 2016. In the publication, ‘Homecoming’ that accompanied the Karachi show, Ifitkhar Dadi and I wrote about the connections to Anwar Jalal Shemza and the nature of Araeen’s painting, though briefly. Let us remember that apart from being an artist, he is also a critic. He founded and edited ‘The Black Phoenix’, Third Text, and Third Text Asia and has been an influential voice on post- colonial discourse for many decades.
In Athens, the Shamiyaana was situated in the middle of the Kotzia Square, an important meeting point with municipal buildings on one side and the financial district on the other. Kotzia Square which had been run down and abandoned for many years, was revived by immigrant families, with a food market started nearby, in the 1980s. Fokidis, in conversation with this writer, remarked on the fragility and criticality of the work. It was installed right in front of the municipality building and the Greek National Bank on the other side, making visible the precarious economic condition of Greece, its growing number of homeless: “Rasheed Araeen approached Athens and its perplexity in the most sensitive way. He seemed to be able to hear the city’s voice, it’s needs, and its possibilities. His Shamiyaana, in its four colors and patterns, as it stood critically in front of the town of Athens, invited a multiplicity of subjectivities to mingle freely-beyond restrictions caused by a set of factors and the configurations of power as we know them. Rasheed probably thought that time, interaction and the return of lost dignity is what people needed to co-exist in profound ways. The food was cooked fresh and served for over three months in the wounded space of Athens. And offered a possibility for this special meeting-between different constituencies, lonely souls, people carrying different urgencies, that do not necessarily meet. The experiment worked. By approaching the city, in its platonic sense, the polis- not as a mere site but as a body of fluctuating citizens, Araeen brought back, the warmth and security of the broken domesticity, that used to be an essential force in the location-and an alternative to the western idea of the welfare state. Shamiyaana was a gesture that continues beyond time and space as was embodied by all its participants, and beyond Art of course”.
Testimonials from participants have been uploaded on the website of Documenta, many of which are touching accounts of this shared and collaborative work. Katerina Lygonki, an invigilator at Kotzia, emails this writer, on the different levels of participation, such as one lady who used to turn up every day just to make sure that people did not waste food. One gentleman was so inspired that he offered to teach visitors one word of Greek everyday for the 100 days. There are other stories, many of which focus on people and their conversations, those who came together in this curated space to lend support, discuss politics etc. Fokidis says that at one point there were so many people in line for food that fights broke out, and the organizers had to give colored tokens.
The Shamiyaana speaks of the resilience of the artist, who, undeterred by current or past trends, made this generous gesture of bringing participants, many locals, refugees and tourists in tolerance of each, in this shared space. Ofcourse, this was another structure by Araeen, this time outside a museum or a gallery, carrying the vision of past many years. If we look into its history, we see the work where Araeen photographs the collective meal shared of Qurbani food by his family. Titled, ‘I Loves it, It Loves I’ (1983). This was shown at the Pentonville Gallery, London in 1983, and was a take on Joseph Beouy’s, “I Love America; It Loves Me”.
We see these recurring concerns in Araeen’s work through the years, addressed in different forms. Even his work around Nominalism stem from the desire to grow crops and do collective farming in order to break away from the dependency of repressive governments. In the context of Pakistan, the concept and structure of Shamiyaana can become a new model of aesthetics. It can at least expand the discourse and link the artist to his social context in a more meaningful manner. It can shift the emphasis away from glamour, spectacle and appropriation of western models of consumerism. It can also inject participation across the cities within the city, cut across ethnic and social divisions. If Araeen is bringing what already exists in the social realm, he is also using this work to critique a system, and more importantly, to find collective solutions where the artist is the interventionist.