The great philosopher Socrates in 399 B.C. said that “an unexamined life is not worth living” prior to drinking a bowl of Hemlock poison by order of the Jury for not recognizing the Gods recognized by the State and questioning too much of what was going on around him. Thought provides us the ability to question and creativity provides us the ability to view the question in different light and color – in a new perspective and in some cases to provoke thought and invoke strong sense of emotions.
Amin Rehman (b. 1957) is a Toronto based neo-conceptual artist, with a take on geo-socio- political developments. Using his creative license and perceptive instincts, he questions what appears on the surface to be true, projected by media and lobbyists in global politics and social surroundings, and forces his audience to get out of their comfort zones to think and search for answers. He chooses his words carefully and uses them effectively to paint a powerful picture.
Amin Rehman is a lucid expositor and a vivid writer. Art and thought – even political thought, are not incompatible. But the politics of the palette are seldom as simple as red, yellow and blue.
Rehman brilliantly composes ‘catchy’ phrases from speeches, euphemistic words from news media, political slogans, holy books and works of fiction to raise questions of global importance that take aim at social imbalance, corporate greed, political maneuvering and media manipulation of reality. His chosen medium is encaustic and inspiration Islamic calligraphy and tile making to get his point across.
Although the commonly used idiom “a picture is worth a thousand words” is often true, but in Rehman’s case, a few carefully chosen words paints a powerful picture. This is clearly evident from the chosen titles of his works and his past exhibitions, which include; “Creative Insecurity” at the Harbourfront Gallery in Toronto (2004), “Market Values” at the South Asian Gallery of Art in Oakville (2005), “Erasing Borders” at the Queens Museum of Art in New York (2009), “White Wash” at the Art Gallery of Mississauga (2011), “A is for….” at the McIntosh Gallery in London (2012), “Other Histories” at the Thames Art Gallery in Ontario (2014) and his most recent exhibitions by the same title at the Zahoor-ul-Akhlaq Gallery and the Chawkandi Gallery in Lahore and Karachi.
Rehman’s art is thought provoking, unquestionably bold and right in your face. It reflects a strong criticism and concern for social and political game playing and double standards. He is extremely effective in raising his voice and awareness individually and through collaboration with important writers and scholars.
Rehman’s recent collaborative work encompasses the issues of globalization, neo-colonialism and aggressive world capitalization and who better than Tariq Ali, a writer of international repute who has written extensively on such issues for the last four decades. Rehman’s research and interest in Tariq Ali is the continuity of Rehman’s previous work on the Iraq War, a prime case of globalization and colonialism. Rehman says “this collaboration has been a natural partnership of an artist re-examining a writer’s work. It has expanded the vocabulary of my text.” During their respective writing and art careers, both Ali and Rehman have not changed their viewpoints or compromised on their beliefs. In this regard, this collaboration is complementary and synergistic.
Some may ask the question “Should art be political? And why an artist must paint the ugly reality when he/she can paint beautiful pictures?” However, a more profound question might be in the context of an increasingly polarized, corporatized and radicalized world, whether we can really afford for it not to be.
It is the white matter in our brains that sets the context within which we experience any and all art. It is viewing in the present informed by the past. In fact, what art “IS” changes all the time depending on social and political context. Art is now understood as the way in which an artist responds to reality.
That reality at present of contemporary society and geopolitical developments is a crazy mix of chaos and instant communication. We live in a world of iPhones, Facebook and Instagram. It takes only a few moments to load a recorded event, frame thoughts, form perceptions and mobilize people. The highly successful “Black Lives Matter” and “Occupy” movements are a case in hand.
Rehman is a man of few words. He says “like activism, my content is very much ‘up-in-your-face’ but my every day studio practice has allowed me to keep a fine balance between politically charged content and maintain my artistry. I feel, when working on provoking and politically charged issues there is a danger of being lost in the currents of the sentiments of the content. As an artist one needs to know how to manipulate the content so that the creative elements are not overwhelmed by the strong activism.”
Rehman has received extensive training in fine art and art history. He studied at the National College of Arts and the University of Punjab in Lahore, Pakistan and the University of Manchester in UK. He received his MFA from the University of Windsor in Canada. His work has been shown in over 100 exhibitions internationally.
As a child, Rehman always had an interest in looking at his father Ustad Bashir Uddin’s collection of manuscripts and miniature paintings which contained Kufic, Sulus and Nastaleque calligraphy. And then, if you have been brought up in Lahore, Pakistan, you cannot escape the calligraphy on Mughal architecture, in particular the 16th century Wazir Khan mosque with its spectacular calligraphy and inlay work.
Rehman had never used calligraphic text in his work until 9/11. He says, “It really changed my formal way of painting issue based work, which I had been painting since the early 1980’s.” In his early ‘conflict’ based installations, like Peace Taxi (Toronto, 2002), Creative Insecurity (Toronto, 2004), Black Holes (University of Technology Gallery, Sydney, 2007) and India Bazaar exhibition, he was using Arial and American typewriter fonts to convey the messages. The use of Talib or Arabic like writing styles was based on his research for the “White Wash” series. Rehman experimented with the Talib squared font in English intertwined with Kufic to create a third font. At first, it looks like the text is in Arabic; then the “Englishness” of the word makes the viewer comfortable and clears the perception of an Arabic text as a language of terror. Several of Rehman’s work uses Arabic, Urdu or Persian looking fonts to make identity statements rather than making calligraphic decorative expressions.
Rehman’s work is distinct, politically charged and ahead of its time. While his preferred medium has been encaustic, a very old and difficult medium, adopted by only a few, as one has to work with hot wax and a laborious process of pouring, drying and casting. He skillfully carves his words into the encaustic tiles and then painstakingly inlays them – a process I witnessed in the studio. He has also worked extensively with Mixed Media, Vinyl, Metal and Neon to create his highly compelling installations.
A different destiny lay ahead is the title of his most recent solo exhibition held in Toronto. One may also loosely associate this title to the current political discourse relating to the historical US election of 2016. When I asked Rehman what he thought of the US elections, Donald Trump, Brexit, ISIS and global politics in general – all very dense and shocking subjects. His answer, “Like the exhibition’s name we can only wonder what lies ahead and look to confront and understand the issues we face before we come to any conclusions, which will hopefully lead to solutions.”