Rasheed Araeen, born in 1935, is a London-based conceptual artist, writer, and curator. He graduated with a degree in civil engineering from the Unive
Rasheed Araeen, born in 1935, is a London-based conceptual artist, writer, and curator. He graduated with a degree in civil engineering from the University of Karachi in the 1950s. In 1964, he left behind his career as a civil engineer to pursue art in London and has been working as a visual artist and writer since. Hailed as one of the pioneers of Minimalism in Britain, his artistic practice includes drawing, painting, photography and performance.
After arriving in London and encountering the work of modernist sculptor Anthony Caro, Araeen went on to produce the first of several objects which he referred to as ‘structures’ – brightly colored modular forms which viewers could reconfigure and that were often left in public spaces. These pieces went on to form his defining voice in matters of culture and identity. They were modular, geometric, and freestanding and mounted structures which reflected his engineering training. For Araeen, the cube and, with it, grids and diagonals, were dialectal, which meant they embodied a logic of forms where “the notion of change or transformation is the expression of the movement of the spectator”.[i]
Araeen’s work from this period is marked not by heavy industry but by a sense of play. The drawings that he made in Karachi before moving to London – organic squiggles that overlap from top to bottom on the paper – were apparently inspired by hula-hooping children. In 1974, Araeen produced The Floating Discs in which water was to carry away his objects, as far out as the open sea. This piece was essential in creating interaction with the public, who were meant to launch the discs themselves. In a commentary that he wrote in 1974, he states that the “changing relationship is my basic concern, the significance of which does not lie in mere beautification of the environment but to create an environment that reflects new ideas and concepts.”[ii]
In 1972, he joined the Black Panther Party, the revolutionary Black Nationalist and socialist organization active in the United States from 1966 until 1982. In 1989, Araeen curated ‘The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain’ at the Hayward Gallery in London, a significant exhibition that attempted to engage with the colonial and post-colonial past of Britain with regard to the racism, inequality, and ignorance of other cultures that Araeen felt pervaded British life. The exhibition featured twenty-four artists and generated expected controversy along with many heated discussions.
Araeen sought to demonstrate and legitimize the suppressed history of a modernist aesthetic among British visual artists of African, Caribbean and Asian ancestry. The focus of Araeen’s discourse was the stark absence of Black and Asian artists from the history of British modernism and national patrimony, which could only be attributed to racial discrimination. As Jean Fisher says of Araeen in the Tate Papers, the museum’s research journal, “Araeen must be credited as the only commentator persistently to draw attention to the need for British Black and Asian art historical research at a time when, on the one hand, artists were being categorized either by ethnicity or by socio-political concerns that distracted from the material, historical and philosophical evaluation of their work proper to the discipline of visual art; and on the other, public funding for so-called ‘ethnic minority arts’ primarily meant the ‘folkloric’ or ‘community arts projects’.”[iii]
‘The Other Story’ subsequently toured to Wolverhampton Art Gallery and finally the Cornerhouse in Manchester where it closed on 10 June 1990. It is one of the key exhibitions that over the last twenty years have affected the ways in which a previously closed art world was opened up to issues around post-colonialism, migration, exile, diaspora and globalization. In 2010, the Aicon Gallery held ‘A Missing History: “The Other Story” Re-visited’ which was an opportunity to look back on these debates at the twenty-year anniversary mark as well as to exhibit the works of eleven of the twenty-four artists in the original show and two artists who were not in the show.
By 1975 Araeen had turned to writing that focused on the racist and imperialist legacies that still prevail and haunt the mainstream of art discourse in the West. He founded the art magazine Black Phoenix in 1978, but produced only three issues. In its first issue, Black Phoenix tentatively called itself a ‘Journal of Contemporary Art & Culture in the Third World’, promptly shifting focus in the other two issues that were to form this short-lived publishing venture. The magazine was to provide a platform for discussion, a channel for the exchange of ideas relating to the cultural predicament of mankind in the era of advanced capitalism and imperialism.[iv] Later on, the magazine was resurrected and launched by Araeen as a theoretical art journal, Third Text.
Araeen published “Black Manifesto” in the first issue of the Third Text. “Black Manifesto” went on to become the mission statement for what followed as a struggle against the Eurocentric production, dissemination, and legitimization of knowledge. It directly critiqued the institutions of the British art system from the perspective of non-western artists resident in the country.[v] Araeen’s aim was to change the system, not just merely poke and prod at it for the purpose of discussion.
In 1980, Ikon Gallery in Birmingham asked him to join an exhibition. His proposal was declined when the other ten artists refused to show their work alongside his. Araeen had proposed the following: he would perform the slaughter and consumption of a goat (according to a Muslim ritual) and along with the actual performance, he would display and tear up the pages of a contemporary art history book.
It was then that Araeen decided to use verbal language to express himself rather than only rely on objects that would only be presented within the confined walls of a gallery space. An important book in his career as art critic is Making Myself Visible, which brought together a selection of his articles, essays and correspondence with gallery directors and funding bodies, interspersed with documentation of his multi-disciplinary work.
From 1978 to 1985, Araeen produced a series of self-portraits that were directed at showing the world a ‘different’ face, one that is not Western. This series of works came as a surprise in comparison to his earlier sculptural pieces. He uses his face as a canvas, questioning the notion of identity in the art world. He smeared his face with text, mainly insults and news clippings from Pakistan and its Islamisation at the hands of a new Government at that period of time.
A new type of work emerged in 1989, titled Golden Calf. An arrangement of four Andy Warhol portraits of Marilyn Monroe and panels of silk-screen photographs detailing what appears to be a crowd of mourning women in the remaining four corner sections, a fallen Iranian soldier lies in the center in a pool of blood. The work seemed to unmask the violence in a divided world, depicting the West as it is represented by global media and its cultural icons. Then onwards Araeen’s work seemed to stem from a juxtaposition of Western culture and his own Eastern heritage, a form of cross-cultural mapping.
His most recent retrospective, launched at the VM Art Gallery in Karachi, looked back at Araeen’s many achievements in the art world as both an acclaimed writer and artist. Fifty-two of his works were on display, featuring realism, surrealism and abstraction along with many pencil sketches.
Rasheed Araeen has been a pivotal figure in helping establish the voice of the East in mainstream art. His relentless pursuit has given identity to third world artists and allowed them to be heard and seen as beings without any stereotypical confinement.
Aniqa Imran is the Manager of FOMMA Trust and graduated from Indus Valley in 2012 with a Bachelor’s in Fine Art.
[i] Martin, C. Non Compositional and Non Hierarchical, [online] retrieved from https://www.getty.edu/museum/symposia/pdf_stark/stark_cmartin.pdf
[ii] Buddensieg, A. Visibility in the Art World—The Voice of Rasheed Araeen, [online] retrieved from http://www.globalartmuseum.de/site/publication1_text2_2
[iii] Fisher, J. The Other Story and the Past Imperfect, [online] retrieved from http://www.tate.org.uk/download/file/fid/7273
[iv] Contemporary Cultural Index, The Black Pheonix, [online] retrieved from http://www.ccindex.info/iw/black-phoenix/
[v] Asia Art Archive, Mapping Asia, A Conversation between Chen Kuan-hsing and Rasheed Araeen, [online] retrieved from http://www.aaa.org.hk/FieldNotes/Details/1222?lang=eng