Hassan Tahir Latif
Managing Editor Hassan Tahir Latif reflects on Rasheed Araeen’s show Islam And Modernism: Past to Present on display at Como Museum (Lahore) in collaboration with Grosvenor Gallery (London). The show is on till July 31, 2022.
“There is an element of optimism in my work,” says Araeen, “for a vision for the better world.”
Our story begins in 1959, with a simple piece of metal wire, twisted and circular, picked up from the street and subsequently turned into Rasheed Araeen’s first sculpture. The contorted metal forms two circles; decades later Araeen would comment that it ‘represents infinity’ (1).
This is the first piece that greets us as we enter Como Museum to experience Rasheed Araeen’s oeuvre. Perched on a table in the middle of the room, the wire (My First Sculpture, 1959), draws you closer, makes you walk around it trying to discern what a young civil engineer saw in it that turned it into his first piece of art. While it is certainly a closed loop, an abstraction on the infinity symbol, for me it also recalled optical illusions that play on the concept of dimensions and movement. Is the wire moving? Or is it just your brain playing tricks on you? Is it a one-dimensional object, such as the Penrose staircase, impossible to fathom? It is this concept of abstraction and optical illusions that form a significant part of Araeen’s body of work, including his latest pieces.
Rasheed Araeen was born in 1935 in Karachi and became a civil engineer before he moved to Europe in the 1960s, and ultimately became one of the pioneers of minimalist sculpture in Britain (2). His decades-long practice—including performance, photography, painting and sculpture—has focused on the way the Other (specifically Black artists) was perceived (or in fact, not perceived) in Eurocentric art circles. Abstract shapes, geometric patterns, lattices, structures—all began to represent his political radicalism. Araeen would then go on to publish several journals and articles for the same; in the process he became one of the most instrumental figures in establishing a Black voice in the British arts (3). Additionally, an exhibition he curated highlighted African and Asian artists who had been creating art tirelessly in Britain since the ’50s but had been relegated to the realm of shadows. His more recent work explores the confluence of Islam and Modernism.
What was true of the many nameless artists who were side-lined by the British art establishment also held for Araeen’s work when he started out. His political commentary through art stemmed not only through observation, but also personal experience. I would argue that this is still true of his art in his country of origin. Araeen has made waves in the global art world through his illustrious career—he's still producing work, even on the cusp of being a nonagenarian—however, when I asked those around me, not many people were aware of him apart from those fully enmeshed in the art world. The art world is rarefied, yes, and even more so on a global level, but it is incumbent upon institutions, including art schools, museums, galleries and cultural centres to more freely disseminate the work of our artists to a wider audience, especially of those who have reached a certain level of international prominence and have effectively pioneered movements. But I digress.
To its credit, Como Museum (Lahore) and Grosvenor Gallery (London) brought Rasheed Araeen’s work to Lahore earlier this year. It began with an unveiling of a sculpture entitled Shan i Lahore, installed in Bagh i Jinnah. The sculpture, symbolic of Araeen’s signature geometric forms in bright primary and secondary colours, is an invitation for the public to engage with his work. The unveiling occurred on the last evening of the Lahore Literary Festival (March, 2022).
Later that week, a talk was held at Como where Araeen, along with Conor Macklin (Director, Grosvenor Gallery) walked us through his body of work. Despite health issues, Araeen was animated, providing insightful commentary into his own past. This was followed by a conversation with artist and academic Nazish Ataullah, who led us deeper into Araeen's mind and practice.
Spurred on by this talk, I visited Como once the show was up. The metal sculpture rightfully retains pride of place in the centre of atrium. Walking around, you’re met with a burst of colour in geometric patterns. A piece entitled Untitled (Opus Series) from 2017 (acrylic on a huge canvas) immediately captures the eye. Triangles, within squares, within circles are painted in bright colours. The pattern produces shapes that superimpose upon the others. The result is pure, kaleidoscopic joy. The longer you look at the piece, the harder it is to look away. This entrancing quality is found in every Araeen piece. There’s a playful element that draws you closer, encouraging you to find newer shapes within it, to break through the optical illusion and perhaps find a secret left there for you by the artist.
I urge people to visit the show at Como and discover for themselves how a scientifically trained mind can also delve into philosophical, existential and religious musings through art based on abstraction of mathematical concepts
Other spaces on the ground floor at Como are host to Araeen’s earlier works. Featured prominently are the Dancing Bodies (Hula-Hoop Series), 1959-1961. These undulating swirls of oil on canvas and board range from the sensuous (Ham Raqs, 1959) to the foreboding (Aag and Aag ka Naach, 1961). I could not stop myself from going back and forth between these three. Ham Raqs flows like water, while both Aag pieces erupt in dark flames. The former almost a balm to the ensnaring black flames of the latter two. Dante’s Inferno came to mind looking at the flames; I wondered what Araeen had in mind painting the flames in black, with the more quintessential red and yellows associated with fire in the background. Was a young Araeen struggling with an understanding of mortality? Were these three pieces, created a couple of years apart, representative of some inner existential crisis?
Representative of deeper emotional turmoil or not, these works were certainly a ‘tremendous pivot in Araeen’s work, between the fey, figurative landscapes and portraits he was making as a young man … and everything that followed’, says Kaelen Wilson-Goldie (4). Walking around Como, you can see this thought in action.
From spirals, hoops and mesmeric flames, we move on to further abstractions. The Almost Abstract series began in 1958 in a manner reminiscent of the surrealist automatic drawing era. Sat at his desk, Araeen began to draw without conscious thought, resulting in lines (vertical, horizontal, diagonal) and the spaces being filled with colours (5). The works produced during this period were my favourite from the entire show. They represented a sense of subconscious urgency. The overlapping lines formed an abstraction of boats, the sort that children make out of folded paper, or the rudimentary form of a sailboat every child makes on their sketchpad at least once in their life.
However, Araeen’s work is far from rudimentary; the Boats: Towards Abstraction (1958-1962) series was another critical moment in his oeuvre. Geometrical patterns that emerged in his work in 1958 continue to inform his practice even now.
Here on, we see a different Araeen at work. The upper floor of Como showcases a variety of his more modern work. Amongst these is a structure that has remained with me. Piaray Lal (1970) is acrylic paint on wood—a deep red geometrical structure, it reminds the viewer of various lattices, bracing struts and other scaffolding used in construction. To me it also resembled a rigid version of the double-helix of the DNA. The intersecting horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines are a play on the links between Eastern and Western thought, a concept Araeen was exploring deeply during that time. These structures form the basis of several pieces. Including the site-specific installation at Bagh i Jinnah and on the rooftop and garden of Como Museum.
Araeen’s philosophical investigations into Islamic thought come to life in the final pieces on display at Como, including his first ever work of wall-mounted neon. Al Nour-The Light (2021) are three calligraphic neon structures in primary colours that spell out Al Nour (one of the 99 names of Allah) in an abstract form. This abstraction can also be found in his series of calligraphic works entitled (and spelling out) Allah (2021). Viewing them is hypnotic. The high contrasting colours of the calligraphy make the words disappear into an abstract form, until all we see are rigid lines in repeating patterns. The optical illusions come back in full force, their own gravity pulling you in closer and closer till you drown in the solid acrylics. The ideas behind these works that explore the place of modernist art in Islam and vice versa are an entirely different conversation, one that the eager mind can peruse through Araeen’s collection of essays (also available at Como).
I stayed there for as long as I could, starting from one point, ending at another, then doing it all over again. I could see why my friend Maliha Noorani (art historian and curator) admired Araeen’s work. It was upon her insistence that I attended the talk at Como and subsequently visited the show. I highly recommend having at least one artist/art academic friend to assist you in navigating this esoteric world and pointing you towards works and people you may not discover on your own.
Rasheed Araeen is certainly someone who should be celebrated for his practice and his political and philosophical struggles. Available to view at Como is also a video documentary that captures the essence of his work to highlight the oppression of Black artists in Britain and the overt racism faced by them and other minorities.
Although his personal battle to not have his work viewed through the lens of post-colonial Eurocentric structures is admirable, I believe he deserves to be lauded in Pakistan for his seamless merging of science and art. In a country where the arts are always under threat of extinction, and freedom of thought is challenged routinely, not to mention the lack of resources to develop critical thought, artists such as Rasheed Araeen are a valuable example of what can be. In my own work with high school students I have noticed an increasing hesitation in parents allowing their children to pursue the creative arts, adamantly foisting upon them the belief that the arts have no place in the ‘real world’. Our educational institutions further divide students into groups modelled on old-fashioned left-brain/right-brain paradigms; this need not be so. I urge people to visit the show at Como and discover for themselves how a scientifically trained mind can also delve into philosophical, existential and religious musings through art based on abstraction of mathematical concepts.
Exiting the museum, you can spot a structure outside in the garden. Zero To Infinity has been rendered for various platforms since 2004 (although the idea first came to Araeen in 1968) (6). Similar to his other lattice works, Zero is made up of brightly coloured wooden cubes, with his signature vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines. His engineering sensibilities once again come in contact with his personal exploration of modernism and minimalism. Commenting on the work, he says, “In terms of the body entering the work itself, touching it, changing it, transforming it constantly—its transformation can go on to infinity. That’s why it’s called from Zero to Infinity. Zero is the static structure of minimalism.”
Viewing this I recalled what Wilson-Goldie said about Araeen’s dancing figures. In an essay she pondered over the significance of his abstractions and their relationship to his more recent work. “Beyond the common visual language of lines, shapes, and colours, is there any real sense of continuity to be found between them or do the late works represent a necessary disjuncture?” (7).
Walking out into the sunlight and staring at Zero to Infinity, I decided in the affirmative. Artists often have different periods of their work, sometimes a departure or ‘necessary disjuncture’ even; in this case though, to my eyes, it all seemed to come effectively together.
Araeen’s artistic journey veritably began with his first sculpture, a piece of twisted wire representing infinity, and that has carried through his work, from dancing spirals that do not seem to have a beginning or an end, to boats rocking on infinite shores, to the essence of the infinite in repeating geometrical patterns and calligraphies, to the soul of the infinite in his Al Nour pieces (with the urban materials paying homage to his first steel structure). All this is seemingly compressed in a structure of lattice cubes that challenge the observer to travel with them to infinity.
(1), (2), (3), (4), (5), (6), (7): Facts on Araeen's artistic journey and quotes are from the show catalogue, also available at Como Museum.
Photos courtesy of the author. All depicted works are by Rasheed Araeen, on display at Como Museum.