“I am not a Jewish writer, I am a writer who is a Jew” Philip Roth
With the evolution of human social structure, from tribes and hordes to societies and civilisations, came classifications. As man acquired the habit to form groups, the urge to organise and label objects as well as humans was a natural outcome. A favourite practice in this regard is to gauge a creative personality and attach tags of identity to him. There are national, regional or ethnic titles selected for an individual who may not necessarily fall into that group and instead has diverse and conflicting identities.
Often, this is the case with artists or writers who have moved away from their place of origin and have earned recognition in their lands of residence. Their aesthetic expression can be more about the essence of art rather than connection to one place or the other. In many instances, artists and writers have focused on subjects that were alien for them but created works of great value, especially in their adopted cultures. One example in our surroundings is that of Anna Molka Ahmed who left UK for the subcontinent. She taught, created and exhibited art in Pakistan and is respected as an important painter but never sought or reclaimed her ‘English identity’ or ‘European heritage’. All of these were infused in her work in a seamless fashion.
However, not all expatriates experience the same situation; many have to confront their alien environment and struggle for a rightful stature. Rasheed Araeen is one such artist who left his country but for him this was not a simple matter of migrating from one land to other. It entailed the issue of racial and ethnic discrimination not just in the art world but in other spheres of existence. Araeen has been living in UK since 1964 and, along with making art, is also active in getting the voices of marginalised, coloured and black artists heard.
In Rasheed Araeen’s work, this is an essential issue and he has dealt with it using a language that belongs to the mainstream Eurocentric art. But he has tried to subvert it to a considerable level of success as his work is shown at important venues such as Serpentine Gallery and Hayward Gallery in London, and some of his pieces are part of the Tate Britain Collection. From his earlier geometrical and minimal sculptures to later multimedia constructions, performances and public installations, Araeen has created a distinct space for himself as the artist living in the West but continuously challenging the practice of hegemony instead of falling back to his tradition and heritage (easy and alluring market devices for many).
Rasheed Aareen’s political position is established because of his contribution in establishing the Third Text (founded in 1987) — an important journal to project alternate views and practices which were hardly admitted or accepted as per the canons of Western/European art.
Recently, a book on the artist has been published which encapsulates multiple dimensions of his personality and art. Published by Millennium Media, Karachi The Triumph of Icarus: Life and Art of Rasheed Araeen, is edited by Jean Fisher. It includes 14 essays by different writers who examine various aspects of his art and contextualise it in the details of his life, circumstances and surroundings. The contributors include Guy Brett (author of Introductory essay in Rasheed Araeen’s first book ‘Making Myself Visible’), Jean Fisher (a former editor of quarterly Third Text), art historians Michael Newman, John Roberts, Iftikhar Dadi and others.
All these texts deal with his works from different periods and explore both formal and conceptual concerns in his art. Beginning from his geometric sculptures in the early 1960s which culminate in ‘To Whom it May Concern’ the huge construction for Serpentine Gallery in 1996 to ‘The Golden Verses’ the 1990 installations at separate locations in the UK with a political content to ‘Zero to Infinity’ the 2004 the interactive work at 198 Gallery and ‘I love it: It love I’, a performance during Araeen’s visit to Karachi in 1978, the book provides the background to the man and mind who did not tire and continued to search and find his identity and place on a different soil.
In his own words from his previous book, Araeen states: “Who am I? Where do I come from? How do I a non-European relate to European society I find myself living in but do not belong to? How do I react to its assumptions of white superiority? [These] are the few questions which confront me today and which I am trying to deal with in my work — artwork as well as writing.”
These questions are crucial for all artists wherever they are and their artworks are a means to respond to them, mostly forging an idea of tradition. Rasheed Araeen, on the contrary, is far from these easy courses and discourses, as explained by Iftikhar Dadi in his essay from ‘The Triumph of Icarus’: “Rasheed Araeen has situated his career in the mainstream of modernism that he understands to be universalist and progressive. He draws from his South Asianness and Muslimness, from the progressive legacies of Western Enlightenment, and also from the collective struggles of colonized and the oppressed globally, to chart a trajectory of a critical cosmopolitanism. The artist has never been interested in specifically Islamic issues in his art, and he remains deeply suspicious of ascription of such references to his work”.