The story behind Rasheed Araeen’s Minimalism

Rasheed Araeen, The Greatness of Islamic Civilization, 2011–12, acrylic on canvas, set of 6 paintings, each 152.5 x 122 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Rossi & Rossi.
Rasheed Araeen, Cube as Sculpture, 1966 (2020), aluminium and translucent glass, 61 x 61 x 61 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Rossi & Rossi.
Rasheed Araeen, OPUS HA2, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 160 x 140 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Rossi & Rossi.
Rasheed Araeen, Green Painting IV, 1985-1986, photographs, acrylic on plywood panels, 175 x 208 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Rossi & Rossi.
Rasheed Araeen, People of Karachi, 1955–1958, watercolour, charcoal, pencil, crayon and biro on paper, 24 paintings, 57 x 43 cm each. Courtesy of the artist and Rossi & Rossi.
Rasheed Araeen, Christmas Day, 1979, four photographs, 49 × 69 cm each. Courtesy of the artist and Rossi & Rossi.
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ART AND SUSTAINABILITY

Karachi-born, London-based artist Rasheed Araeen wears many hats, from painter and sculptor to art writer and curator. His second solo exhibition at Rossi & Rossi in Hong Kong showcases a variety of works spanning the mid-1950s to the present; CoBo Social surveys the exhibition and examines the influences that have driven his work.

TEXT: Leanne Mirandilla
IMAGES: Courtesy of Rossi & Rossi

Rasheed Araeen, The Greatness of Islamic Civilization, 2011–12, acrylic on canvas, set of 6 paintings, each 152.5 x 122 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

 

The erosion of local culture—whether language, customs, or art practices—is a function of colonialism. For Karachi-born, London-based artist Rasheed Araeen, the effects have been direct and personal. Although Araeen is currently recognized as a pioneer of British minimalist sculpture, many of the sculptures that he created during the 1960s at the beginning of his art career have been destroyed.

“Many of his pieces were destroyed or recycled to make other pieces, mainly because he didn’t have any galleries to represent him,” said Fabio Rossi, owner and Director of Rossi & Rossi. He goes on to explain that Araeen simply didn’t have enough storage space at home to keep all of his works. “Like with a lot of artists with non-Western origins who lived in the West, he was very much disregarded.” 

 

Rasheed Araeen, Cube as Sculpture, 1966 (2020), aluminium and translucent glass, 61 x 61 x 61 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

 

The original sculptures themselves might be no more, but Araeen retained drawings and conceptualizations, and now that he’s won the international art world’s appreciation, he’s taken the opportunity to re-create some of them. Two such pieces feature in “Going East, Again,” a solo exhibition that’s currently showing at Rossi & Rossi’s Hong Kong location: Cube as Sculpture (1966/2020), which comprises of 12 metal cubes arranged into rows, and MAYZ (Table), edition of 50 (2018), four colourful painted wooden cubes fused together with a Perspex top, doubling up as a table upon which various publications related to Araeen’s work are displayed. Alongside the former is a copy of Making Myself Visible, a collection of Araeen’s articles, essays, correspondence and documentation of his work—including plans for the piece in question.

The exhibition is a reprisal of sorts of “Going East,” Araeen’s first solo exhibition in Hong Kong that was held at Rossi & Rossi in 2015. And much like “Going East,” the current show “Going East, Again” presents a breadth of Araeen’s work from the mid-1950s to the present, including sculptures, paintings, photographs, drawings, and mixed media pieces. 

 

Rasheed Araeen, OPUS HA2, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 160 x 140 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

 

Upon walking into the gallery, I’m faced with two bright works of acrylic on canvas, OPUS HA2 (2017) and OPUS HB2 (2017). The duo immediately announce Araeen’s love both of geometry and of modernist masters such as English abstract sculptor Anthony Caro. Past the entrance into the gallery’s main room is Cube as Sculpture. Together with the paintings, these pieces belie Araeen’s background before he became an artist—he graduated from the NED University of Engineering and Technology with a civil engineering degree in 1962, and was initially pursuing a career as an engineer in his native Karachi. 

“This idea of movement in sculpture was already there [from the beginning],” said Rossi of Araeen, who has also been known to create drawings inspired by the motions of children hula-hooping. “He created one of his first sculptures when he was out in Karachi and found a twisted piece of metal, which was actually a wheel of a bicycle that was burnt and twisted. He brought it home, put it on a table, and said, “this is my sculpture.” 

His contemporaries in Pakistan at the time, meanwhile, favoured the more traditional figurative painting. “Nobody could understand what I was doing,” he stated in an interview with The Guardian earlier this year. This is what spurred his move to London, but relocating to the West resulted in misunderstandings of a different kind. “When he was showing his work, some of the first comments were ‘we can see that you’re doing this because you’re from Pakistan and you must be inspired by Islamic architecture,’” continued Rossi, “which wasn’t really his inspiration at all.” 

 

Rasheed Araeen, Green Painting IV, 1985-1986, photographs, acrylic on plywood panels, 175 x 208 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

 

Indeed, elements related to Araeen’s home country—and its social issues, politics and culture—can be found in his works, but not in so simplistic a fashion. Past Cube as Sculpture are four of Araeen’s mixed-media cruciform panel works created in the 1980s and ‘90s. Each comprise four panels in green, a colour with a number of important associations in Islam including paradise, life, and nature, and five other panels in a cross shape, which references the crucifix that’s omnipresent in Christian religions. Within the panels making up the cross, Araeen juxtaposes the Western world with the Arab world in other ways, incorporating images from popular culture, the media, or even his own personal photographic records. Green Painting IV (1985–86) depicts a young bull while Jouissance (1987–94) shows an ad for a cigarette brand, where a Caucasian woman attempts to offer them to a reluctant woman wearing a hijab, and a picture of a burning building on a television screen. 

Western culture has been widely disseminated across the globe and, as a result, references to its culture are usually widely understood despite the viewer’s background. When it comes to the images in these pieces, however, the viewer would be at a loss unless they had an understanding of Muslim practices and contemporary events in the Middle East: the bull was given as a wedding gift to Araeen’s sister as a sacrifice, while the burning building was bombed in Baghdad during the Gulf War. 

 

Rasheed Araeen, People of Karachi, 1955–1958, watercolour, charcoal, pencil, crayon and biro on paper, 24 paintings, 57 x 43 cm each. Courtesy of the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

 

Facing Cube as Sculpture  is a collection of 24 portraits in different mediums titled People of Karachi (1955–58), appearing as though they’re appraising the sculptures and as varied as the cubes themselves. While it might be tempting to view Araeen’s sculptures and abstract paintings as stoic and neutral, it’s impossible to divorce them from the personal and the cultural.

From 1989 to 1990, Araeen curated an exhibition titled “The Other Story,” which was dedicated to Asian, African and Caribbean artists in post-war Britain. In 1987, he founded Third Text, a journal that examined contemporary art as it intersected with ethnicity and post-colonialism. Since mainstream commercial galleries and museums refused to grant him and other non-Western artists a platform, he was determined to carve out his own. 

In fact, the fight to place non-Western artists on even footing with their Western peers is the crux of Araeen’s artistic career. Although Araeen has been active for over 50 years, his works have only featured in internationally renowned museums and events such as the Tate Modern, MoMA, the Met, the Venice Biennale and Art Basel, over the last decade or so. “And they’re trying to integrate him, not with Asian collections, but more with international ones,” said Rossi. 

 

Rasheed Araeen, Christmas Day, 1979, four photographs, 49 × 69 cm each. Courtesy of the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

 

But although Araeen may have attained a seat at the table alongside Western major players, there are plenty of other non-Western artists for whom that is not the case. At the anterior end of the gallery, in pride of place, hangs Christmas Day (1979), four blurry self-portraits of the artists shot using various reflective surfaces—Araeen representing himself, as obfuscated as it may be. 

 

 

Rasheed Araeen, Going East, Again
15 February 2019–4 April 2020
Rossi & Rossi Hong Kong

 

 

About the Artist
Rasheed Araeen (b. 1935) is a London-based artist, activist, writer, editor and curator. In 1964, he moved to the United Kingdom from Pakistan, where he had initially trained as a civil engineer. Araeen is recognized as the father of minimalist sculpture in 1960s Britain. His work in performance, photography, painting, and sculpture throughout the 1970s to 1990s challenged Eurocentricsm within the British art establishment and championed the role of minority artists, especially those of Asia, African and Caribbean descent.

Araeen has exhibited internationally, with significant solo exhibitions, including Rasheed Araeen: A Retrospective, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands (2018), later travelled to MAMCO, Musée d’art moderne et contemporain, Geneva, Switzerland (2018), BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, United Kingdom (2018–19) and Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow, Russia (2019), among many others.

 
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