Reviewing works by Rasheed Araeen is a problematic task at best. Most reviewers are embroiled by the life and times of the artist and his gargantuan achievements in bringing the western art world to an awareness that the history of art could perhaps be rewritten with a more panoptic viewpoint. But remove the clutter of his feats and his art is easy to grasp because it is unpretentious and truthful in its simplicity.
There are incidents, rather ubiquitous ones, in the artist’s life that correlate precisely to the works he produces and although the event may have occurred four or five decades ago, they are the provenance to which his minimalism harks. He reports that in 1959 in Karachi, he was returning home one day when he saw a burning tire. He was mesmerized by the engulfing flames as they swayed and danced with with an unrelenting movement. He then returned the next day to pick up the fragments of the tire and took it home to call it ‘sculpture’ the only term he knew in his meager art lexicon. Similarly, he observed children playing with a hula hoop one day. Araeen studied to become an engineer and came to London seeking work as an engineer and not as an artist. The architectural scaffoldings that he saw and designed led him to the geometry of his practice and the open-faced modulations of his ‘structures’ as he calls them.
Araeen understood inherently that the objects contained a reality and an exciting materiality within themselves – a truism that has become the cornerstone of minimalist sculpture. But it is only now that Aareen has revised his constructions to fit the white cube of a gallery and there is a shift here. While his art was observed and conceived from public spaces, the transition to the gallery took him many decades and it was the results of his activism that finally made him comfortable enough to make work confined to pre-determined spaces. He fought the establishment and sought to revise their limitations to become more inclusive of hybridity and multiculturism. Araeen’s exhibition at Tate Modern in 2007 was initially conceived in 1968 but it was not until 39 years later and accompanied by revisions that Araeen sealed his legacy as an artist. For the past eight years or so, Araeen has been exhibiting almost continuously in Asia, Europe, Africa and North America but it is 2017 that he will exit the gallery for a show and exhibit plein air – a space that his works possess so completely and where they were naturally born.
The extensions of geometry that Araeen plays with all relate to his Muslim/South Asian heritage. When he created his Homecoming series, it was to incorporate the names of famous Islamic/Muslim philosophers and thinkers into a geometric scaffolding which transformed into abstraction. The very recent series of patterning that he has created are images from Pakistani ‘shamiyanas’ or decorative marquees and from the tradition of ‘Ralli’ a process of quilt making indigenous to Sindh, Pakistan. So while minimalism and nominalism may be identifying labels created by western models of art pedagogy, the kernel of the ideas still stem from Islamic/South Asian tenets.
Rasheed Araeen has only recently begun to exhibit his minimalist sculptures at 80 after a hiatus of 40 years. It is unusual – no! unthinkable actually– for an artist to stay away from the art space for so many decades and still remain relevant. Now that he is back, he has been working and exhibiting with a single minded, focused ardor that belies his years and implies he is making up for lost time.
Yet it is misleading to suggest that Araeen has stayed away from the art world for three decades. In fact, he made a decisive statement by choosing to stop exhibiting in the 1970s after facing discrimination and prejudice from western art institutions against what he termed collectively black artists working in London at the time, comprising practitioners from Africa, South Asia and the Caribbean. He wrote scathing letters to prominent members of the art industry; he created acerbic performance installations and he took out a magazine called the Black Phoenix which had a short life but was resurrected a few years later as Third Text, a journal that gained recognition as one of the leading art journals in the world.
For 30 years, Araeen was on a crusade of sorts, a diatribe-filled warpath to challenge accepted norms in what he exposed to be a hegemonic, narrow, western-centric art industry. Having won that battle, Araeen has emerged as the custodian of minimalism in the UK. His new installations that are a result of a personal ideological itinerary are being exhibited and bought across the world.