Rashad Araeen

South London Gallery

Rasheed Araeen is probably best known outside Great Britain for his role as a founding editor of Third Text, a quarterly publication that has contributed significantly to the current discourse on non-Western art. But this publishing initiative is only half the story; Araeen’s career as an artist stretches back to the ’50s. In the ’60s, his work addressed a wide range of issues and incorporated a broad range of conceptual frames, including systems theory, time-based performance, and the geometry and structure of constructed objects. Trained as a civil engineer, Araeen produced metal works that were modular, monochrome, and utilized an open latticework system. The reception of this work was often explained by referencing Araeen’s Pakistani background. The modular and repetitive nature of these pieces was explained (to the artist’s chagrin) by reference to Islamic architectural and decorative motifs. In retrospect, this misreading seems to have triggered the central concern of Araeen’s career: how to contest and contend with a culturally brutalizing and patronizing mode of consumption and interpretation of non-Western art by Western audiences.

For Araeen and others, the problem with London’s art establishment of the ’60s was its failure to come to grips with a “black” artist’s contribution without exoticizing it in some ludicrous manner. (In Britain, by the way, there is a long-standing tendency to refer to all nonwhites as “black”; a telling linguistic convention in light of this discussion.) Moreover, it’s clear that Araeen’s work at the time was hardly bereft of a signifying context: artists such as Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, and Carl Andre were familiar figures on the international scene and the corresponding discourse of “Minimalism” well rehearsed in the art press. Despite this, Araeen’s work was taken to be somehow more significant for the culture it seemed to evoke, rather than the culture it actually constituted.

During the last few decades, during which such issues were being widely debated, Araeen returned frequently to the theme of “fear of blackness.” With the onset of the Gulf War in 1991, he found an opportunity to further his analysis of racism and to continue his meditation on the cultural consequences of an art practice—Minimal art—deemed pure and contentless. The majority of the recent works use just such a stereotypical view of Minimalism to penetrate both the conditions of Modernist art and its neocolonialist stance. The artist announces this dual set of “ruptures” through a format that echoes his earlier grid structures. This effectively stages a self-conscious reenactment that ironizes the very principle of the neocolonialist misreading to which his own work of the ’60s had been subjected.

Araeen’s work here is funny and irritating in turn. It forcefully makes the point that there is no such thing as a homogeneous, universal culture by presenting us with images—in some cases paired with foreign language texts—that, given their sheer illegibility to most Western viewers, undermine community of artist and audience. Yet the mechanism Araeen uses to achieve this effect depends too heavily on a demonization of Minimalism that reads as little more than a cliché. By now, we have all heard that Minimal art, being geometric, “pure,” and “masculine” is the quintessential expression of domination, cultural leveling, oppression, etc. But when it comes down to historical cases, such sweeping generalizations remain as mute as those they were mobilized to defeat.

In general, the representational system Araeen applies in his three-by-three grid works is overdetermined, lacking in subtlety, though the theme is serious and deserves consideration. Can an artistic intervention of this sort at this stage in the history of the analysis of neocolonialism be adequate to the task? In his juxtaposition of incongruous elements, the sense of discomfort and unintelligibility could be ratcheted to a higher level of intensity. This is glimpsed, rather than fully developed, in a 1994 work titled Aflatoon (so you think you are a Plato). There we find a white, LeWitt-esque open cube mounted on a two-tiered greenish-blue, open latticework structure. It’s supposed to represent an East-West dialogue on philosophy; the acknowledgment of a long history of cultural cross-fertilization. That it does so by referring to two moments in the history of recent sculpture—LeWitt’s open structures and Araeen’s independent work of the same period—remains its greatest strength.

Michael Corris