In this essay from our February 1998 issue, Guy Brett considers British-Pakistani artist Rasheed Araeen’s innovative blend of abstraction and political critique. Though his works are often formally minimalist, Araeen sets out to destabilize the visual regime of his daily environment and its racial biases—for example, by putting up a billboard covered in Urdu script in a London neighborhood. For Araeen, Brett writes, “political content does not lie in iconography . . . but operates as something broader: relationships, arrangements, configurations.” —Eds.
For the past seventeen months the Serpentine Gallery, idyllically set London’s Hyde Park, has been closed for renovation. While the building work was going on in the background, the neat hedged garden in front of the gallery was preserved as an outdoor site for a series of temporary commissions. Naturally, whatever was placed there would be perceived in relation to the half-demolished building, the coming and going of cement-mixers, the cacophony of hammering and so on, and the organizers hoped for a series of artists’ propositions which would make something of this reality. The first commission, in October 1996, was given to Rasheed Araeen.
Using an obvious means to hand—scaffolding—Araeen produced a beautiful near-cubic structure of monumental scale. Standing some 33 feet high and 39 feet square, it attracted attention from a distance in the milky autumn sun as a light, almost evanescent mass, becoming, as you approached it and walked through the passageways left between the poles, a dazzling mesh of crisscrossing lines. Color was random and delicate: the gray steel poles and the haphazard pink guide markings left by the builders from previous assemblies. There was a visible relationship between the scaffolding of Araeen’s installation and the scaffolds surrounding the Serpentine Gallery itself. While one was artistic and the other functional, both structures used the same materials, the same expert techniques of construction. (Araeen acknowledged the scaffolders who built the work by posting their names and photographs on a documentation board in a nearby site hut).
At first glance, Araeen’s cube seemed an almost faultless demonstration of the Minimalist esthetic of eschewing emotion, symbolism and rhetoric and insisting on the reality of the thing itself, its actual place and time. Yet something prevented one from taking this work simply as a self-sufficient object. Hints of a broader meaning were given by the intriguing title, To Whom It May Concern. These hints were considerably amplified if you knew something about the artist (as most people in the London art world do). In Britain, besides being recognized for his work as an artist, Araeen is known as a tireless campaigner for the visibility of artists who have been marginalized by the institutional system, especially black and Third World practitioners. He is the author of many articles on the implications of Britain’s emergence as a multiracial society. Internationally, he is widely known, too, as the founder and first editor of the influential journal Third Text, a scholarly quarterly set up in 1987 to give what it defined as “third world perspectives on contemporary art and culture.” Many people would expect from him, therefore, a “political” art work in the instrumental sense—polemical, couched in familiar terms of “black struggle,” “neo-colonialism” and so forth.
Instead, they were faced with the lattice cube. Its title, a phrase commonly used in letters of reference, is addressed to anyone who may come across it, and to anyone who may feel that the work’s content concerns them. In contrast to Araeen’s political activities, which have been largely addressed to the white establishment and say, in no uncertain terms, “This concerns you,” both the audience and the message were left open. Open enough, in fact, for it to be seen that, if Araeen was not addressing people on an overt political level, he was not addressing them as esthetes either. While his block of scaffolding may have evoked classic Minimalism, it also could be viewed as a reminder of Minimalism’s true roots. Araeen believes that Minimalism has forsaken its initial concern with presenting a “phenomenological quality, a perception of the exterior world” to become a “precious, formal, gallery art.”1 By using scaffolding on a building site, he seemed to revive Minimalism’s original real-world connections while at the same time deflecting any positivist reading by means of his title.
In fact, such ironic and contradictory strategies in Araeen’s work go back a long way. When describing its evolution over the past almost forty years one is torn between words that evoke a struggle or dilemma, and the opposite: words that suggest a knowing synthesis or fusion. Perhaps both apply. Equally strong in his work have been a current of political criticism, of clearly aimed polemic in matters of social urgency, and an abstract dimension, an enjoyment of the elusiveness and mobility of form, open to ambivalence and imaginative projection. At times one has seemed to dominate, at times the other. Perhaps his refusal to finally separate these aspects is indicative of Araeen’s conviction that political content does not lie in iconography, in the image per se, but operates as something broader: relationships, arrangements, configurations. Conversely, in Araeen’s view, ostensibly “esthetic” or “abstract” forms are not without social implications. Threading a personal path between rigid definitions, Araeen’s work offers a complex meditation on the relationship between politics and esthetics.
BORN IN PAKISTAN in 1935, Araeen moved to London in the mid-’60s. For a time he supported himself by working as an engineering draftsman, the profession for which he had been trained. Many people have noticed a connection between the work he produced during his early years in London and his civil engineering training (for example, in pieces such as Sculpture no. 2, 1965, and 8bS II, 1970, whose regular arrangements of identical structural elements in steel or wood make them clear forerunners of his Serpentine piece). While this connection undoubtably exists, the roots and ambitions of his abstraction are considerably richer; there was something beyond an engineer’s tidy rationale in the genesis of these works. Self-taught as an artist, Araeen proved himself early a rebel against the notions of the professional artist current in Pakistan. In 1959 he staged a provocative dadaist event-sculpture in Karachi by burning a pair of bicycle tires to produce twisted hoops of metal that sat on a rubbish heap. The twisting, undulating lines of his first abstract paintings (1959-62) are also reminiscent of fire and of reflections on water. They look like organic pulsations, later geometrized into the absolute regularity of his ’60s structures.
When Araeen arrived in London, the brightly painted, cut-metal and molded fiberglass sculpture of Anthony Caro, Philip King and William Tucker was in full swing. He was impressed by the freedom in these artists’ use of materials, but he rejected their “compositional” approach to form. In admiration and in riposte, therefore, he produced his own brightly colored reliefs and sculptures using uniform, repetitive lattice structures. As critic Jean Fisher has pointed out, diagonal elements in the lattice add a dynamic movement to the stable configuration of the cube, marking Araeen’s work apart from a schema like that of Sol LeWitt and confirming the validity of his independent formulation of a Minimalist model.2
Abstraction undoubtedly had ideological implications for Araeen, as indeed did the allover, regular structure of the grid (pioneered by Mondrian) for many artists at the time. Traditional composition was held to be based on the hierarchical arrangement of unequal elements, to which Araeen opposed “the relation between equal elements/objects when placed at equal distances in a particular system.”3 This formal equality facilitated the creation of movement and the interpenetration of inside in Araeen’s early work. The model seemed capable of projection on a global scale, environmentally and humanistically. At the time, Araeen identified strongly with the call for universal liberation sounded by the pioneers of modernism in Europe, sentiments found in documents such as the resolution of the Congress of International Progressive Artists held in Dusseldorf in 1922. (“From all over the world come voices calling for a union of progressive artists,” this resolution claimed, as it called for “a permanent, universal, international exhibition of art everywhere in the world.”) In the 1960s, there seemed no obstacle preventing, for example, a Pakistani artist from contributing at the cutting edge of modern knowledge.
In Araeen’s case, the idealism of this great vision was shattered by an intensely subjective experience. In 1971 he read in the newspapers the story of David Oluwale. A Nigerian who came to Britain to study engineering, Oluwaie could not gain entry to a college. He became disillusioned and sank lower and lower on the social scale. Reduced to a life of vagrancy in Leeds, he became the butt of regular and humiliating police aggression and before long died. Araeen was deeply moved by Oluwade’s story and identified strongly with him. It suddenly came to him that the “new space” he had been seeking was a “mythical space which is elevated, privileged and universalized . . . which is inversely proportional to the real space at the bottom of the hierarchical pyramid.”4 For a period Araeen laid aside his abstract art and reconsidered his strategy, eventually producing a stark panel, For Oluwale. Hung like a painting as part of a 1973 group exhibition in London, this work was in fact a kind of notice-board with changing newspaper cuttings and pamphlets referring to the treatment of black people by the police.
Oluwale’s fate fused with Araeen’s own experience, leading to the conviction, fueled by a hundred subtle and gross expressions, that he was seen as an outsider in the art world of Britain. “Whatever I did or produced as an artist had no place in the history [of British art]”, he commented in retrospect, “I had to return, mentally, to the place of my origin, and relate my work to my own culture.”5 Thus began Araeen’s wide-ranging analysis of the enforced marginality of the Third World artist in Britain. As far as his art work is concerned, the interconnection of public and personal is most tellingly expressed at this time, I think, in a series of self-portraits.
The title of the first of them, painted in 1978–79, asked a challenging question: How could one paint a self-portrait? Such questioning seemed necessary, dictated not only by the stark realities of immigrant life in Britain, but also by the enigmas of identity. The constant in these subtle works is a dark, frowning self-image, with wild hair and a lowered, pensive look, but the repeated image is subjected to a number of transformations as the series progresses. It is, alternatively, scrawled over with racist abuse, whitened into a void, fissured and serialized, Warhol-like, in darker and darker shades. In a further self-portrait series, the “Ethnic Drawings” (1982), the lines of the artist’s face appear and disappear in a whirl of Urdu and English script. Hovering on the borderline between drawing and writing, these works question whether one can define oneself or must be defined by others. In fact, for the “Ethnic Drawings” Araeen had two classes of “metropolitan” viewer in mind: those unable to read Urdu, for whom the calligraphy could appear purely decorative and esthetic, and Urdu speakers who could decipher the angry rhymes and satires about “ethnic” status contained in the writing.
At the same time as they address specific groups, the “Ethnic Drawings” also exhibit a general sense of indeterminacy and change, the continuous formation and breaking down of intelligible signs. Araeen seemed to be seeking a personal way of bringing into critical relationship the worlds of fine art, of everyday language and imagery, and of twentieth-century social strife. These realities emerged brilliantly fused in a powerful work of the end of the ’80s, Green Painting II.
A canny reworking of the “less is more” principle of modernist abstraction, Green Painting II is constructed as a simple grid in which a central cross of photographic panels is flanked by painted panels of green. Thin horizontal strips of Urdu script are pasted along the bottom of each photographic panel. The roughly 5 ½-by-7 ½-foot work hangs with a cool look of composure and self-referentiality, which it somehow ironically preserves even after revealing itself to be riven with conflicting meanings. Each component can be read in terms of both abstract generality and topical significance. For example, the images forming the dominant cross motif suggest the gestural brushwork of a violent abstract expressionism, but the cross is in fact made up of color photographs of bloodstains on the ground resulting from the ritual slaughter of a goat in the Muslim festival of Eid-ul-Azha. The green panels at the corners refer to calm voids in the manner of monochrome painting and also to the Muslim green of the Pakistan flag. As in the “Ethnic Drawings,” the Urdu script is both abstract mark and legible writing, its interpretation depending on the viewer’s background and state of mind.
The shock value of the photographed blood stains is such that it inevitably checks a “painterly” response with indication of the real. Probing more deeply into the meaning of Green Painting II, British critic John Roberts has noted how Araeen brings “two conflicting ideological spaces together in a complex play of ironies and inversions.” In the process of “conjoining Modernism (Minimalism) with the primitive (Muslim ritual) within the organizational space of the Modern itself . . . [he] demonstrates the right to use elements of his own culture as components of an international culture.”6 At the same time, Roberts continues, the artist criticizes “the binary opposition between ‘first world’ and ‘third world’ upon which the ideologies of ethnicity and traditionalism (in its conservative and ‘radical’ forms) are based.” To chart the workings of the allegory at another level still, Araeen would seem not to allow Urdu-speaking viewers to derive an easy chauvinist comfort from the Muslim green, since the collaged script confronts them with newspaper quotations of the crass nationalist rhetoric of politicians.
IN RECENT YEARS, Araeen has shown an increasing enthusiasm for pitching his work in the context of, or incorporating within it, the chaotic flux of information and imagery which makes up our daily environment. He seems to prefer making his meaning within the cacophony of street advertising, tabloid newspapers or multichannel TV, rather than claiming the tabula rasa or “blank sheet” of the traditional artist. How surprising and how subtle Araeen’s intervention in the public space could be was shown by his billboard work of 1990, The Golden Verses.
This work was ostensibly a pleasing image of an oriental carpet laid out flat across an entire billboard. The ornamental border formed a frame for passages of large-scale Urdu script, easily visible from a distance. An English translation of the Urdu was given in much smaller type that was semi-camouflaged in the border. The piece was fully conversant with advertising techniques, especially rife in Britain, which engage by visual enigma, riddle or obliqueness—avoiding, in other words, the hard sell of either commercial or political rhetoric. Where it went beyond such strategies was in Araeen’s handling of the diversity of possible readings of the billboard by the heterogeneous audience of urban passersby.
The responses were multifaceted. Western viewers, for example, might have their perceptions of a desirable or exotic object disturbed by the presence of an incomprehensible message, obviously not addressed to them, but proving nevertheless the living presence of another culture on British streets. Urdu speakers, alternatively, reading the blazoned writing, which in this work praises white people in naive and exaggerated terms, might also be challenged and reflect ruefully on the illusion of the European “streets paved with gold” which had drawn them to come and work in the West. But then again, both constituencies might be thrown off-balance by the irony and inversions Araeen had employed.
The artist, who has photographed his billboard in several European cities over a period of time, plans eventually to collate the diverse public responses to The Golden Verses, which have ranged from graffiti to media coverage. Positive responses may be harder to collect than various forms of negativity. These latter included an article in London’s Urdu newspaper, Daily Jang, complaining that The Golden Verses was not art but simply self-advertisement for the artist, and objections from an Asian political group that the poster did not “empower the Asian community.” There was some vandalism from right and left: a swastika in Potsdam; partial burning and a slogan “White people are bastards” daubed by a radical Pakistani group in Cleveland, England, which did not appreciate Araeen’s irony; and somewhere near Victoria Station in London, a slogan which evoked a booted, right-wing National Fronter scratching his skin-head in puzzlement: “What’s it all about, Bongo?”
One of the beauties of The Golden Verses was that Araeen both relinquished control over his work and was able to use it as a revelatory critical tool. On the one hand his project disclosed, as Pennina Barnett noted, “how open ended the process of signification is.”7 On the other hand, by eschewing rhetoric which either polarizes or homogenizes social antagonisms, Araeen was able to draw a distinction between simple knee-jerk reactions—whether of right or left, white or black—and a thoughtful response which admits the complex interconnection between “we” and “they.”
Relishing the graffitied phrase “What’s it all about, Bongo?” Araeen used it as the title of a 1991 installation, a work ostensibly different in theme and treatment. Shown in a London alternative space during the height of the Gulf War, this was his first work to incorporate normal broadcast TV. Four monitors faced one another a small distance apart, like opponents at loggerheads around a conference table, their four channels colliding in a suffocating miasma of incongruous information, among which, of course, was the Western coverage of the catastrophic war. Earlier lattice sculptures of the kind Araeen had produced in the 1960s lay around on the sand-covered floor of the gallery. The random, ephemeral nature of multi-channel TV again located the work and all its elements, including the abstract sculptures, in the everyday flux. In phrases that could easily be applied to What’s It All About, Bongo? critic Jean Fisher has written of Araeen’s work as “an it of enunciation which appropriates the globalized and commodified languages of western culture (among which I would include ‘high art’), contaminates them with another voice, displaces them from their ‘proper’ place.”
Her words could serve as a fine interpretation, too, of To Whom It May Concern, the scaffolding structure on the Serpentine lawn. Displacing scaffolding from its “proper” place, Araeen made a normally dependent, supportive, subordinate structure into an autonomous, thought-provoking entity. In contrast to the categorizing that afflicts so much thinking about art, the work dared to attempt combining political statement, self-portrait and abstract universality in a single entity. To Whom It May Concern also suggested that the recognition of one’s modest place in the universal flux could have an emancipatory charge, expressed in the metaphor of the scaffold poles, which, after the dismantling of the sculpture, became the component parts of an incalculable number of other structures.
1. Rasheed Araeen, in conversation with the writer, October 1996.
2. Jean Fisher, “An Art of Transformation,” Rasheed Araeen (exhib. cat.), Fukuoka, Fukuoka Art Museum, 1993, p. 13.
3. Rasheed Araeen, Making Myself Visible, London, Kala Press, 1984, p. 64.
4. Rasheed Araeen, notes for Paki Bastard (1977), quoted in Making Myself Visible, p. 114.
5. Rasheed Araeen, “Continuity and Change,” Art Monthly, London, no. 200, October 1996, p. 45.
6. John Roberts, “Postmodernism and the Critique of Ethnicity: the recent work of Rasheed Araeen,” From Modernism to Postmodernism: Rasheed Araeen, a Retrospective—1959-1987 (exhib. cat.), Birmingham, Ikon Gallery, 1987-88.
7. Pennina Barnett, “Rugs R Us (And Them): The Oriental Carpet as Sign and Text,” Third Text, London, no. 30, Spring 1995, p. 28.