Rasheed Araeen, Chakras, 1969–70, sixteen C-prints, sixteen wood disks. Installation view.

Rasheed Araeen, Chakras, 1969–70, sixteen C-prints, sixteen wood disks. Installation view.

Rasheed Araeen

Rasheed Araeen, Chakras, 1969–70, sixteen C-prints, sixteen wood disks. Installation view.

Rasheed Araeen’s “Before and After Minimalism” pulls viewers through the initial twenty years of his career, with drawings, paintings, and sculptures from 1953 through 1973; it also includes a new work, Sharjah Blues, 2014, which was commissioned especially for the show. Araeen’s first major exhibition in the Middle East is thus neither a dutiful retrospective nor a comprehensive survey. Rather, the show reads like a highly compelling story hinging, by necessity, on spare language and a dramatically pared-down plot.

Born in Karachi, Pakistan, and based in London, Araeen is now seventy-nine years old and known for a great many things besides his art—which he has never produced in great quantity. In 1970, he joined the Black Panther Party. Soon after, he grew disillusioned and quit. He repurposed some of his early sculptures to make props for politically radical performances such as Paki Bastard (Portrait of the Artist as a Black Person) in 1977. As a curator, he organized influential exhibitions of black art in the UK. As a writer and thinker, he bashed Jean-Hubert Martin’s 1989 exhibition “Magiciens de la Terre,” arguing that in trying to question the dominant narratives of Western modernism, the show ended up perpetuating them rather than picking them apart. Araeen advocated for an understanding of modernism that included the shift “from seeing the world through images in nature . . . to an abstract level of thinking and imaging,” which he locates somewhere in the seventh century with the rise of geometry in the nexus of art and Islam. He established two groundbreaking journals: Black Phoenix (1978–79) and Third Text, which was first published in 1989 and is still going strong today.

What this exhibition makes clear, however, is that all of Araeen’s art (and political activism) first percolated in the mind of a maker who began, quite traditionally, with figurative drawings and fey landscape paintings. “Before and After Minimalism” includes a series of twenty-four early portraits, titled “People of Karachi,” 1955–58; watercolors of trees; and a suite of six paintings called Boats at Keamari, 1958–59, depicting ships, docks, and waves. The series “Before the Departure (black paintings),” 1963–64, takes on elements of abstraction in capturing the urban scene of Hyderabad, India. A pair of gorgeous works on paper—allover compositions in sensuous swirls and squiggles, titled “Dancing Bodies (Hula Hoop Series),” 1959–62—appears to bridge the distance between the early, representational seascapes and the minimal geometric structures to come.

Placed in such strict linear fashion, the works that Araeen was making in his twenties and thirties are a generous and generative preamble to the exhibition’s main-stage encounter with his crude, industrial assemblages such as Sculpture No. 1, 1965/1987, made of four blue I beams resting on the floor, and Sculpture No. 2, 1965/2014, a block of sixteen red I beams stacked four high and four across; or to the lighter touch and diagonal lines of his cubes and towers, such as Second Structure, 1966–67; and to the delicate latticework of Shurbati: Forty Years On, three wood pieces in mint-green, brick-red, and canary-yellow house paint, conceived in 1973, but abandoned and then finished in 2013, and affixed directly to the wall. (Araeen does not believe in plinths, so all of his works either rest on the floor or must be mounted.) But the great surprise of this show lies in the documentation of Araeen’s performances from the 1960s and ’70s, such as Chakras, 1969–70; Triangles, 1970; and Discosailing, 1970–73/1991/2001–2003. The last of these includes a prototype—and an international patent—of a floating fiberglass disk, replete with two rudders and resplendent in retro curves and color: It dares viewers to imagine dancing at sea and reveals Araeen to be not only radical but deeply playful, too.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie