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Rasheed Araeen, 'Burning Ties', 1976-1979. Burger Collection Hong Kong

Baltic’s recent retrospective of the work of Rasheed Araeen seems remarkably pertinent in today’s fraught climate. Araeen is an artist whose work profoundly resonates with our current moment of dissonance, in which we witness the resurgence of institutionally overlooked or even sanctioned xenophobia and right extremism on the one hand, and cultural institutions clamouring to be seen to democratise, diversify and decolonise on the other. Rasheed Araeen is an artist whose work has consistently challenged racisms, whether overtly espoused by the far right, or institutionally encoded and mystified by layers of what Araeen would see as a performative and insufficient multiculturalism. To host an Araeen retrospective at this juncture is by no means a neutral curatorial act, and this is a point which must not be overlooked. However, it would be equally remiss to fail to give this show the more nuanced discussion it warrants in favour of sole focus on its more macro repercussions.

The retrospective begins with his earliest work in Pakistan, where he navigated various shades of modernist painting before stumbling upon the more conceptual gesture of burning a bicycle wheel to reveal the contorted wire within. The exhibition then reboots on another floor of the gallery with the fruits of his labours upon arrival in the UK in the 1960s. Here the minimalist structures which dot the rest of his career first emerge: adapted I-beams and diagonally latticed wooden rectangles, usually in vibrant primary colours. As the show progresses, these sculptures increasingly cohabit with his more outwardly ‘political’ practice, perhaps less known, and certainly less represented in the collections of Tate et al. ‘Burning Ties’ (1976-79), a series of photographs documenting the artist setting light to neckties, stands symbolically at the entrance to a gallery space which includes collages made up of union jacks, annotated pages from Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, self-portraits daubed in racist slogans, and reportage concerning Britain’s support for the fascist regime in Portugal. Later galleries incorporate Araeen’s forays into publishing, firstly through the radical Black Phoenix, and later Third Text, founded by Araeen in 1987 as an academic journal concerned with instituting a ‘historical shift away from the centre of the dominant culture to its periphery in order to consider the centre critically.’ [1]

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Rasheed Araeen: A Retrospective installation view. Photo: Jonty Wilde

What has always been difficult to reconcile about Araeen’s work is its sheer diversity. How can minimalist sculpture, academic publishing, and aggressively politicised collage and performance be made sense of coherently with respect to one another? This show answers this question with aplomb. Indeed, Araeen seems to be an artist made for the retrospective form. In isolation, his minimalist sculptures are accomplished minimalist sculptures, Third Text is an influential academic journal, and his more avowedly politicised work can be neatly siloed off as but one discrete portion of a more varied practice. Once placed alongside one another, the resonances and quotations which riddle Araeen’s work become apparent, unifying his practice, and allowing the deep criticality underpinning even the most apparently autonomous and clinically minimalist object to come to the fore.

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Rasheed Araeen, 'Paki Bastard (Portrait of an Artist as a Black Person)' 1977. Courtesy the artist

Lattices appear in the background of ‘Burning Ties’ and his 1977 performance ‘Paki Bastard’. This self-citation reframes his minimalist work as the practice of an artist from Pakistan who took the universalist liberal rhetoric of modernism at its word, and who felt betrayed when denied entry into the inner enclaves of the British minimalist scene on the grounds of producing ‘the wrong kind of minimalism’. Journalistic responses to The Other Story, a 1989 exhibition curated by Araeen, perhaps shed some light on the undertones of this rejection: ‘tame and derivative’ (Andrew Graham-Dixon), ‘parroted Western visual idioms they don’t understand’ (Brian Sewell) etc. etc. [2] Documentation of ‘Paki Bastard’, with the lattice still visible in the background, is in turn adapted for the cover of Issue 2 of Black Phoenix, where it is overlaid with the text of Margaret Thatcher’s 1978 “swamped” interview on Granada TV: ‘I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people of a different culture.’ Here, sculpture, performance, collage and the written word come together in one highly politicised moment, something of a microcosm for the exhibition as a whole.

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Rasheed Araeen: A Retrospective installation view. Photo: Jonty Wilde

It is telling that a retrospective of Araeen’s career has had to wait until now, when the artist is well into his 80s. It is telling too that the show was not initiated by a British Gallery, but by Eindhoven’s Van Abbemuseum. Furthermore, the show was not reviewed by a single organ of the mainstream UK press. Perhaps we have not progressed as far as we might like to believe in the thirty years since The Other Story and its seemingly antiquated responses from Messrs Graham-Dixon and Sewell. And this is precisely why Araeen’s work seems so vital, so timely now. Despite the swastikas with which Araeen adorns a 1978 self-portrait, despite naming one of his most famous performances ‘Paki Bastard’, the anger and fire fuelling his work has always been directed more at the hypocrisy of a supposedly liberal cultural field, than at the overt racism of the far right. Araeen wrote in 2000 that the fundamental motivation behind his editorship of Third Text was not simply to challenge colonialism and its contemporary manifestations, but to confront a system that ‘began to deploy its liberal tactics to deflect and displace this challenge.’ [3] Nineteen years on, and a new wave of liberal diversification of cultural institutions has finally afforded Araeen a seat at the table. The exhibition that he and curator Nick Aikens have produced makes it abundantly clear that this gesture will be taken at its word and held to account.

[1] ‘Editorial’, Third Text 1, no. 1 (1987): 5
[2] Jean Fisher, ‘The Other Story and the Past Imperfect’, Tate Papers, no. 12 (2009)
[3] Rasheed Araeen, ‘A New Beginning’, Third Text 14, no. 50 (2000): 8

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Harry Weeks is a Teaching Fellow in History of Art at the University of Edinburgh. He is co-editor of a forthcoming special issue of Third Text titled ‘Anti-Fascist Art Theory’.