Not many know that the first job of Sadequain, a contemporary of Rasheed Araeen, after he migrated from India was at the Radio Pakistan, Karachi. He was supposed to transcribe poems in good handwriting for singers, so they didn’t have a problem performing live on microphones. Likewise, Rasheed Araeen the maker of abstract sculptures is not known for his earlier work — as a painter of seascapes and portraits in pencil and charcoal.
The recent exhibition Rasheed Araeen: Homecoming — A Restospective at V.M. Art Gallery Karachi (as well as his show last year at Sharjah Art Foundation) reveals this side.
It is not unusual for an artist to have a beginning like this but, in the case of Araeen, this detail has a peculiarity. Trained as a civil engineer (1962) and not as an artist, from an early age what Aareen was creating matched with the art works from any reputed institution. This aspect of being self-taught added a new dimension to Araeen’s art.
The passage from realistic rendering to abstract imagery in many ways is not unique to Araeen. Many of his contemporaries like Sadequain and Shemza were engaged with similar visual experiments. What makes Araeen different is that he moved on to a more formal and pictorial language, combing it with political content.
In the current exhibition curated by Amra Ali, one can find all the links that shaped Araeen’s aesthetics. From his earlier period to later stages, he was dealing with basic geometry and exploring its possibilities. Many of those were abstract canvases derived from the wind-catchers of Hyderabad (1962-63) or inspired from the outlines of floating boats (1962).
All these culminated in his sculptures, each constructed with small, basic units in such a scheme that the whole piece offers a complex vision. Araeen adds colour to these works, thus introducing an optical pleasure for the viewer who, like the patterns from Muslim geometry, experiences a sublime sensation. Examples of this sensibility were visible in his two large scaffolding installations ‘To Whom it May Concern’ (Serpentine Gallery, London 1996) and ‘Where There’s a Will There’s a Way’ (Sydney Biennale 1998). The exhibition in Karachi conveys that visual element in two smaller sculptures in which space and lines are manipulated through repetition and overlapping, hence producing poetry with straight lines and plain colours.
The vocabulary of formal concerns at one point in his life was used for creating works which were comments upon the politics of racial and cultural divide. But, in the Karachi exhibition, none of those politically based works are a part of the display. A large component of the show does depict different means to express his thoughts about the separation of societies.
Rasheed Araeen’s geometric works can be connected to modernistic aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism. At the same time, these may be linked to the tradition of Islamic non-figurative, geometric and calligraphic works in multiple scales, materials and usages. The exhibition communicates a continuing thought in the artist’s investigation of this language, however without much reference to the history of sacred geometry in Muslim cultures. Araeen approaches these concerns with a modernistic position.
In the newly opened wing of V.M. Art Gallery, a group of paintings draw their vocabulary again from the Hard Edge paintings of the 1960s but, in their constructions, refer to something else. More than the urge to elevate a viewer through the interplay of colours and space to the realm of Sublime, these works trace another sphere of cultural/historical transposition. Here the works are composed with the names of six philosophers from Muslim history, like Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Al Ghazzali, Umer Khayyam and Ibn Rushd, in a grid form, a pictorial device that makes these names incomprehensible.
Along with these, a number of works contain the letters about Ishqe Haqiqi (love for divine) and Ishqe Majazi (love for mortals) as well as Guftugu (discussion). All these works impress a viewer with their purity and power of colour, and provide another level of poetics created with the juxtaposition of strong hues. But more then their visual appeal, these remind how a faith due to its present state is often misread as a doctrine of militancy; without realising that it has produced thinkers who were seeking the Truth, and contributed towards the knowledge of mankind. Thus instead of being confined to Muslim culture, they are also considered as part of Western civilization; hence Ibn Rushd is referred as Averroes and so forth.
I remember an essay of Octavio Paz on Alfonso Reyes, one of the great men of letters from Mexico. Paz describes him as a writer with each of his sentence embodied with a thought. While reading this, I thought that what Paz wrote about Reyes describes himself too. Looking at Araeen’s homage to thinkers from Islamic history, one feels that Raseed Araeen has also joined this league. Because painters are not just the maker of images, they are also writers and commentators on their times.
The Homecoming of Rasheed Araeen is a way of seeing the art, world and the art world in another context. It is to know that for a creative person, despite the many returns, there is no point of arrival. It is always a perpetual journey. Like what Gabriel Garcia Marquez ascribes to writers and says that the job of a writer is perhaps the only one that becomes more difficult the more you do it.