After Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous quote on the demise of God, one keeps on hearing other pronouncements and proclamations. One such death notice is about painting, that ‘painting is dead’, often repeated in art discourse whether on an academic level or in a journalistic text or during small talk at the opening reception of an exhibition.
Announcements of such sorts do not hold because a certain style, technique or genre may go out of fashion or temporarily lack popularity, but it is never irredeemable, unlike a dead human being. It resurfaces in multiple forms to confirm the supremacy of the creative act as well as the superiority of a maker over a theorist or critic.
The undying state or life of painting was witnessed at a recent exhibition of Rashid Rana, Scatter in Time, being held at the Leila Heller Gallery in Dubai. The exhibition, that opened on March 9 and will continue till April 22, 2017, coincided with Art Dubai 2017, in which another work of Rashid Rana was displayed at the Leila Heller Gallery’s booth.
Most of us who indulge in art know that Rashid Rana has been using digital prints or video installations as his medium of image making (since ‘I love Miniature’ from 2001). How can then his work classify as painting? The works on the walls of Leila Heller Gallery do not have stains of oil paint, marks of brush handled by the painter, or layers of colour on top of each other. These are just C prints, mechanically and immaculately produced and installed with their glowing DIASEC (acrylic) surfaces. These look different when one sees them printed in small sizes or as thumbnail on a computer screen, but when one confronts them in their actuality in the gallery space, one realises the presence of painterly quality in these visuals.
Not only the painterly quality, but the works are paintings; only the initial canvases are fragmented and rearranged to make new pictures. The genesis of his new works is European classical painting from 17th to 19th century: of Titian, Jacques Louis David, Peter Paul Rubens, Hans Holbein and a few others. The recognisable or sometimes not identifiable images of known works of art are deconstructed to add new meanings to particular works.
Art or artists (if these are two different entities) cannot be viewed in isolation. So, one is aware Rashid Rana lives in Lahore, is heir to the glorious tradition of image making from South Asia and is bound to be seen in the context of his identity. But the genius of Rana is evident in a simple yet essential detail. His work at Leila Heller Gallery does not leave a trace of his territory or location.
To start with, the works are made in a medium that is still associated with Western technology (these were printed in Germany!). More than that, the images originate in the European history and mythology. Interior of a classical setting, abduction of females, tranquil pastures, emperor riding on his steed all remind of a time and place associated with perfection. Not in terms of what it referred to but what it represented; it offered a sense of attainment and refinement transmitted through sophistication in the pictorial language too.
Rashid Rana questions constructs of beauty, or ideal beauty, a concept that was spread with colonial invasion across the globe. So today an art student working anywhere in the third world agrees on one point, the superiority of European art, and its acceptance as the standard. But Rana, moving beyond the mere practice of appropriation, addresses the acclaimed notions of aesthetics by transforming the original images into new compositions.
On one level, it is a contemporary way and view of perceiving previous paintings. But more than just formal, his work has social and cultural connotations without succumbing (or sold) to the snares of identity and heritage. Work like ‘War Within VI’ is about how a European painting is broken (what other word can you use in the present political situation) and then recreated, not only to claim one’s lost place in the narrative of world art history but to connect times and regions through shared acts of violence. Likewise, the manipulation of The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger in ‘Two Ways to A View 11’ confirms that the artist is opening up other pictorial possibilities within a work that due to the contorted perspective of skull has become an icon of image-making.
Rana’s decision to use the past images — from European art history — is not merely an aesthetic choice, it is political. Artists belonging to the ‘periphery’ are assigned certain roles and issues (as was evident at the Art Dubai 2017), either to assimilate Western art, or to present one’s past in a new scheme, or if you are intelligent then combine the two. If they’re more clever, then add a segment about current terrorism, bloodshed, weapons etc. This fulfills the expectation of others who have already made up their minds to view works of artists from troubled lands in a certain way.
Rashid Rana on the other hand operates on a much larger frame of reference. He is not including or incorporating links to violence, but working on a formal level, and deconstructing the canon of Western art history. He does address the element of violence, but on a subtle level. Detached from the classical European art history (both in time and place), he reassembles the structure of pictorial past and its system of values. It signifies how the established art history, hence the history of world, should be viewed in a different order. Rana takes the liberty to break, blend and bring a new vision and version of art history that conveys how the past should be viewed in the present.
In that respect, the reference to a classical painting for transforming into an image relevant to our times — a bomb blast at a roadside anywhere in the world like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria — becomes a metaphor that has a larger implication for the globe that is going through a transformation due to its economic, social, religious and political problems. Rana translates that disjointed order of things through his scheme of fragmented images, which come from a secure, speculator, and superb world. But once transformed or transliterated (as the artist names his body of works) denote a world that is beyond our political grip, but still in grasp of our poetical comprehension of what happens beneath the surface.
Thus the works, which are either a picture of a bomb blast (‘War Within VI’) but in reality a variation on a classical European painting, communicate how the narrative of various periods mean differently when viewed in other times.
In fact, the act of dividing works of masters of European art, besides claiming a right to the world art history (and European, particularly), also indicates how we store images and revive memory. Not in its entirety but in fragments and fractions, and edited with later day events. Much like Rana’s work in which recollection of European art is invoked but in a manner that states more about our present situation than the past. So even though the artist is decoding Western art, his work delineates personal and political condition of people across continents.
Thus the art of Rashid Rana is what novelist Hisham Matar describes: “All great art allows us this: a glimpse across the limits of our self”.