EINDHOVEN, Netherlands — The twisted wire lining of a bicycle wheel was the first object to catch Rasheed Araeen’s eye on the streets of Karachi. There was little context for artmaking in midcentury Pakistan, but this small piece of refuse — curled into the shape of infinity — propelled Araeen’s fledgling Sunday painting hobby into a full-fledged career in conceptual art spanning six decades. Despite his productivity though, Araeen’s other passion project usually hogs the spotlight. As the founder of Third Text, initiated under a different name in 1978 and relaunched in 1987, he championed a seminal strand of postcolonial theory that questioned the Eurocentric boundaries of art history.
On view at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Netherlands, Rasheed Araeen: A Retrospective provides a rare opportunity to compare notes on Araeen’s artistic and editorial successes side by side. As the first comprehensive survey of the artist’s work, this exhibition illustrates how Araeen used art as an arena for testing ideology, exploring the limits of conceptual and political approaches within visual media.
The show begins with some of the artist’s earliest paintings from the 1950s and ‘60s — blasé sketch portraits and semi-abstract landscapes that glimmer with a faded Post-Impressionist glint. But here, I should note that Araeen adamantly refuses comparison to the Western canon. Although he moved to London in 1964, the artist argues that the premise of his work is entirely unique, born from his life in Karachi and his university degree in civil engineering. Whether Araeen’s assertion is true is subject to debate, but his rhetorical point is well taken. By refusing comparison to his American and European counterparts, Araeen acknowledges how his Pakistan émigré identity has shaped his aesthetic world. This distinction is important for understanding the political underpinnings of Araeen’s art: it allows him to operate outside hierarchical pedagogy that teaches non-Western, postwar art as “derivative.”
Near his paintings is the aforementioned bicycle wire, wryly entitled “My First Sculpture,” which was conceived in 1959 and executed in 1975. Archival photos on the wall depict one of Araeen’s first performances, the burning of bicycle tires to recreate the twisted infinity shape of his beloved objet trouvé. And from these carcinogenic, rubbery ashes, one could say that a new artist was born: Araeen the conceptualist.
The show quickly spins into a retinue of minimalist forms that prove Araeen’s exacting, delicate eye. We see immaculately spaced I-beams painted rust red, a hoard of symmetrical blue boxes gathered on the floor, and a bold diptych of blue and yellow trusses hanging from their opposite-colored canvases. Why these colors? It’s hard to exactly pinpoint, but there’s a special poetry to it. Araeen’s work certainly benefits from close inspection. The trusses, for example, are not as mass produced as they initially appear. These are small painted sculptures that are made out of delicate balsa wood.
Araeen became a truly exceptional artist in the ‘80s when he begins to mix his minimalist vocabulary with a political polemic. “Sonay Ke Chirya (Golden Bird)” (1986) is probably the best example of this genre of work. Araeen created a multimedia installation with an image of a sultry white woman with blonde hair at the center. Constructed like a triptych altarpiece, the woman is flanked by the images of a goat falling in midair — complete with bright red skyward erections. Below this collage is an evolution of Araeen’s earlier truss-work. Here — and in later works — Araeen uses the truss pattern as a mesmerizing kaleidoscope, shifting its colors and patterns as the viewer walks by. It’s a disarming visual spectacle that reinforces the sense of play implicit in all of Araeen’s art.
Like “Fair and Lovely” (1985), which comments on the promotion of skin whitening in Pakistan, “Sonay Ke Chirya” uses mixed media to comment on how Western advertising has changed Asia. Like many of his contemporaries, Araeen criticizes the West’s glorification of whiteness through entertainment and advertising. Here, he entangles white cultural hegemony with the economics of black and brown denigration. Those goats falling through an emerald sky (green is one of the colors on Pakistan’s flag) have erections because they symbolize the stereotypical hot-blooded yet dimwitted foreigner, a stereotype Araeen fought against while living in waspy, insulated London. For evidence of his struggle in this regard, look no further than a recording of his “Paki bastard (Portrait of the artist as a black person)” performance from 1977, in which the artist plays an immigrant worker who’s beaten, blindfolded, gagged, and murdered.
Although disabled by a recent stroke, Araeen continues to make work with the help of an assistant. Gone are explicit, vehemently political actions. Instead, he has returned to a brightly chromatic conceptual approach. Today, Araeen seems more focused on creating zones for communal meditation than political critique. (Maybe they are one in the same?) The final room in his exhibition includes those same symmetrical blocks from the ‘60s — only now you are encouraged to play with them. I saw adults and children at the show building pyramids and doorways. On the walls of this room, curator Nick Aikens has paired more of Araeen’s trusses with simple painted canvases. Abstrusely labeled with titles like “Opus F4,” these hyper-flat, blocky patterns freeze the artist’s kinetic truss patterns in stasis. In context of Araeen’s much louder political works, I think these quiet yet mesmerizing pieces present an unexpected coda to the artist’s career survey. In a clamorous, politically loathsome world, creating moments of quiet for communal reflection is itself a radical act.