Halfway through this retrospective of Karachi-born artist Rasheed Araeen, a symbol of bourgeois values goes up in flames. Documented in a series of eight photographs, a young Araeen, sporting a Left Bank-style black roll neck, dangles five neckties from a stick and sets them alight with a Zippo. Currently on display at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow, as part of a comprehensive survey of Araeen’s work, ‘Burning Ties’ (1979) is a defiant rebuke to the suited and booted corporate class in the UK, where the artist has lived since the 1960s.
‘Burning Ties’ marked a turn toward the political in Araeen’s work, as the chronological arrangement of this touring exhibition makes clear. The two opening rooms, the first of which was installed personally by the octogenarian artist, chart his progression through a minimalist learning curve. The tender figurative drawings of ‘Views of Karachi’ (1954–56), the earliest works on display, soon give way to abstract canvases filled with wavy forms recalling the flicker of fire, before the artist’s formal interests become geometric in works dating from the mid-1960s. At this time, informed by his training as an engineer and influenced by Anthony Caro’s coloured metal sculptures, Araeen began to construct latticed cubes and rectangles in mostly primary colours. These works aren’t apolitical – Araeen believes in the egalitarian properties of symmetry, a principle used throughout his practice – but they lack the urgency of both ‘Burning Ties’ and the works that would follow.
By the 1970s, the far-right National Front party was marching across the UK, exploiting largely working-class fears of immigration and espousing racist rhetoric on the streets, which Araeen documented in his grid of photographs, When They Meet (1973). Parliamentary politics, too, took a rightward turn at the end of the decade, when the election of Margaret Thatcher and her conservative government caused xenophobic beliefs to intensify: ‘I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people of a different culture,’ Thatcher said in a 1978 television interview, recorded verbatim here on the cover of Black Phoenix (1978–79), Araeen’s short-lived art and culture magazine.
It wasn’t just right-wing racism that Araeen saw; he was frustrated by the limits of multiculturalism and the othering of his work by Western institutions and art critics. As he wrote in the inaugural edition of Third Text, the ongoing journal that he founded in 1987: ‘I began to feel that the context or history of modernism was not available to me, as I was often reminded […] of the relationship of my work to my own Islamic tradition.’ In persisting with the formal language of minimalism precisely because he felt excluded from the movement, Araeen makes a statement as markedly political as that which engulfed ‘Burning Ties’.
The final rooms present a diverse body of works that meld early minimalist experiments with mid-career conceptual work. In Look Mama … Macho! (1983–86), for instance, Araeen returns to his latticed forms, pairing structural elements with images of a virile goat (his symbol for stereotypes of Eastern sexuality) and a photograph of his performance Paki Bastard (Portrait of the Artist as a Black Person) (1977). Fair and Lovely (1985) is a three-by-two grid of adverts for a skin-whitening cream, which appeared in a Pakistani newspaper. In one panel, a white woman smiles demurely alongside the caption ‘colour fantasy for Eid ’85’, demonstrating the invasive influence of Western beauty standards on the rest of the world. What makes this, and so much of his later work, exceptional is how Araeen uses the minimalist grid to implicate the flows of artistic production and consumption. Here, Western forms, those that so often eliminate local variance, are unmasked and repurposed, as Araeen reveals the very struts and girders upon which minimalism is built.
Rasheed Araeen, 'A Retrospective' runs at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow, until 26 May 2019.
Main image: Rasheed Araeen, Opus CST 4 (detail), acrylic on canvas, 2018, 1.6 × 1.6 m. Courtesy: the artist
First published in Issue 203