Birmingham

Rasheed Araeen

Ikon Gallery

Few people have challenged British institutional racism with the intelligent persistence of Rasheed Araeen. His retrospective in a public gallery, albeit a provincial one, is a fairly provocative event. During the 20 years since he arrived in Britain from Pakistan, Araeen has struggled to gain respect as a contemporary artist against an establishment that has consistently insisted on his marginal “ethnic” status. Araeen’s testimony to this struggle, Making Myself Visible (published in 1984), confirms the assertion by other writers that political imperialism thoroughly contaminates such liberalist notions as “intellectual freedom,” “esthetic quality,” and “political neutrality.”

Araeen remains a controversial figure, particularly in his objections to the British Government’s establishment of an arts-funding category, “ethnic minority arts,” set up ostensibly to meet the demands of black artists for public support. Its effect has been comparable to the old colonial strategy of “divide and conquer,” for while some artists have been willing to accept any demonstration of public support, others like Araeen regard this policy as another form of apartheid, perpetuating tokenism and ghettoization.

Araeen’s early attempts to create a spatial model that would function as an alternative to Western cultural hierarchies resulted in structures that paralleled Minimalism. While one may interpret seriality and the modular unit as nonhierarchical, one can equally argue that repetition and identity reflect the West’s determination to homogenize cultural difference to its own privileged standard. Araeen’s work avoided this reading through the introduction of a diagonal lattice that makes another figure—a rhomboid—seem to appear within the spatial rigidity of the rectangular, or “authoritarian,” frame. Later, in works such as Look Mamma . . . Macho!, 1983–86, he used the lattice to express the frustration of social/sexual impotence.

This making visible a spatial configuration other than what is seemingly given became more apparent when the work moved into performance and image/text, and confronted the reality of the sociopolitical space donated to the ethnic other. Araeen’s performance work Burning Ties, 1976–79, with its visual/verbal punning, symbolizes the artist’s radicalization. But as the exhibition catalogue states, Araeen’s strategy is not protest: it is a critique of the colonial discourse as it is expressed through the formations of language, including Modernism’s rhetoric of political neutrality. To this end, Araeen’s more recent use of elements from his Asian Islamic origins is neither nostalgic nor exotic, but expresses the importance of bearing witness to the contradictions in one’s historical experience. By using Urdu script, with its right-to-left reading (as in I Love It, It Loves I, 1978–83, a photo-text sequence identifying the sacrificial goat of the Eid-ul-Azha ritual with a prodigal artist son), it is we who are forced into the uncomfortable position of otherness.

One of the more contentious questions that Araeen’s work raises is the relationship between race, class, and sexuality. Black artists claim, with justification, that bourgeois feminism has failed to address its own inherent racism. At the same time, Araeen’s use of culture’s fetishized image of the fair-skinned, blonde woman is doubly loaded, since this icon epitomizes not only white racism’s primary signifier, skin color, but also its sexism. In Fair and Lovely, 1985–87, we are told that she is used to sell cosmetics in Pakistan; in Sonay Ke Chirya (Golden Bird, 1986), which is organized like a Renaissance altarpiece, she is flanked by inverted goats with erections: the relationship, black male/white female, represents a labyrinth of desire and dread.

Jean Fisher