View of “Rasheed Araeen: A Retrospective,” 2017–2018. Wall, from left: Sonay Ke Chirya (Golden Bird), 1986; Mon St V, 1985. Floor: Once Upon a Time, 1994. Photo: Peter Cox.

View of “Rasheed Araeen: A Retrospective,” 2017–2018. Wall, from left: Sonay Ke Chirya (Golden Bird), 1986; Mon St V, 1985. Floor: Once Upon a Time, 1994. Photo: Peter Cox.

Rasheed Araeen

View of “Rasheed Araeen: A Retrospective,” 2017–2018. Wall, from left: Sonay Ke Chirya (Golden Bird), 1986; Mon St V, 1985. Floor: Once Upon a Time, 1994. Photo: Peter Cox.

“THIS IS A UNIQUE STORY. It is a story that has never been told,” wrote artist and pedagogue Rasheed Araeen in his catalogue essay for the 1989 exhibition “The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain” at London’s Hayward Gallery. The exhibition, encompassing works by the Indian painter Francis Newton Souza, Filipino artist David Medalla, and Chinese photographer Li Yuan-chia, marked a watershed moment for Asian and African artists. Along with the Centre Pompidou’s “Magiciens de la terre” (Magicians of the World) of the same year, it facilitated the entry of non-Western artists into “mainstream” venues, instigating a broader turn toward “global art.” This led to some recognition for African and Asian practitioners—just enough that British art historian Julian Stallabrass controversially claimed, in his Art Incorporated (2004), that “non-white artists” should “start worrying” about “the type of attention they were receiving.”

Araeen’s own trajectory testifies to this predicament. In 1987, he became the founding editor of Third Text, a seminal academic journal for postcolonial art and theory that has featured groundbreaking scholarship by Paul Gilroy, Edward Said, and Geeta Kapur, as well as by Araeen himself. Still, Araeen’s own artwork has been overlooked—until recently. At the Van Abbemuseum, curator Nick Aikens has mounted a comprehensive retrospective that acknowledges both aspects of Araeen’s career: Here, Araeen’s role as artist is given as much importance as his activism—and, in fact, the two are shown to be interconnected.

Encompassing 126 objects and spanning sixty years of the artist’s career, the show begins with his early works on paper from 1953 (when Araeen was still based in Karachi, Pakistan), and continues with his arrival in Britain in 1964 and subsequent production of austere, geometric “Minimalist” sculptures influenced by Anthony Caro, Islamic architecture, and modernist design. This body of work comprises open wooden cubes and rectangles whose latticelike armatures are variously painted red, green, cobalt, and yellow—some, like Mon St V, 1985, are attached to walls; others, such as Rang Baranga I, 1969, stand tall on their own. The exhibition follows these vivid structures with a display of the artist’s politically oriented performance-installations from the 1970s and ’80s, as well as a group of photomontage works and Araeen’s more recent geometric abstractions.

Rasheed Araeen, Burning Bicycle Tyres (detail), 1959/1975, nine C-prints, four metal sculptures, each print 18 1/8 × 24".

Also on view are early reviews by critics in Pakistan (some hilariously histrionic in their condemnation) and issues of Third Text perched on Araeen’s wooden sculptures, here acting as tables. Is he upending colonial divisions between art and industry by converting his now-iconic sculptures into functional objects? Given Araeen’s background—he earned a degree in civil engineering from Karachi’s NED University of Engineering and Technology—this appears likely.

Visitors traversing his retrospective may be reminded of Araeen’s Pakistani origins even as they encounter repeated references to his “Britishness.” Perhaps the most commendable aspect of Aikens’s show is the link he creates between the artist’s earliest aesthetic experiments and the brilliant-hued wooden structures that are his latest. The inclusive display makes it easy to see the visual synergy between the delicately suspended abstraction of works on paper such as Untitled (Hyderabad 4), 1963, and the later geometric wooden objects Araeen made in London. All apparently owe a debt to the steel girders that grace construction sites the world over. My First Sculpture, 1959, drives home the connection between drawing and sculpture, and between art and the politics of belonging. A pedestal supports a thin vertical wire. Placed against a white wall, it looks like a line drawn with pencil on a white page. The misshapen object—which Araeen found on a street in Karachi one day—was, he discovered, the charred remains of a bicycle tire. Nearby, the work Burning Bicycle Tyres, 1959/1975, encompasses photographs documenting Araeen’s attempts to recreate this blackened objet trouvé, in addition to the scorched loops of metal that constitute the results of these experiments. With these pictures, depicting flame and steel, Araeen forges a link between industry and aesthetic production: Both are depicted as inherently violent, perhaps even dangerous, acts of creativity. In light of these images, My First Sculpture appears taut with pent-up agony, as if it anticipates the torment to come in Araeen’s new home.

Araeen forges a link between industry and aesthetic production.

One of Araeen’s bugbears is that modern British art has been overshadowed by its American counterpart. If, as the artist has claimed, the Abstract Expressionists Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko were fascinated with the potency of vertical and horizontal lines, Araeen lets the diagonal dominate, as in BoO, 1969, where diagonal strips of blue wood form crosses on an orange background. Araeen’s structures also differ in important ways from the American Minimalism they resemble: His dazzling forms riff on Islamic friezes, recalling the repetitive patterns of Sufi geometry, and he uses a hue of green taken from Pakistan’s national flag—an associative symbolism that would have been anathema to many of Araeen’s Minimalist peers.And so, if the 1990s saw numerous survey exhibitions of contemporary South Asian art—ones focusing on spectacular installations, and touting easy-to-read identity politics—Aikens’s show is more considered. After all, Araeen’s career has never been about the celebration of spectacle: It is a rigorous, long-term, and systematic challenge to Euro-American definitions of aesthetic value.

“Rasheed Araeen: A Retrospective” is on view through March 25.

Zehra Jumabhoy is an art historian specializing in modern and contemporary South Asian art. She is currently an associate lecturer at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London.