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Artforum | A Minimalist pioneer's reflections on Islam and modernity

As told to Tausif Noor

Throughout his nearly six-decade career as an artist, curator, writer, and publisher, the Karachi-born, London-based Rasheed Araeen has shaped the trajectory of modern art from the margins. Curating pathbreaking exhibitions such as “The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Postwar Britain” (1989) and establishing the critical journals Black Phoenix (1978–79) and Third Text (1987–), Araeen helped build the groundwork for a more robust, global vision of art history. More recently, he has examined the contributions of Islamic philosophy on the development of modernism. On occasion of his new publication Islam & Modernism (Grosvenor 2022) and a solo exhibition at New York’s Aicon Gallery (on through November 19), Araeen discusses the persistence of Eurocentrism in discourses of modernism.

SOME YEARS AGO, my friend Mahmood Jamal gave me the book of Mohammad Iqbal’s lectures, by which I became aware of the philosophical ideas in the Quran. I was always aware that Islam was not just a religion, but I didn’t do much about it until I read Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics in Karachi and scribbled my responses to his ideas in my small notebook. It was not just Hegel’s Islamophobia but his inability to understand Islam that concerned me. On my return to London, I put my responses into the computer and began expanding on them. It was the reading of these two different books which led me into articulating Islam as a philosophical system. When I was involved with Black Phoenix and Third Text, I was not concerned with my identity as a Muslim. My priorities at the time were different. But after the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988, as well as what happened in the Muslim world as a result of the West’s interventions in the Middle East, I could no longer ignore my Muslim identity. 

There does now exist an awareness in the Muslim world about its place in the modernity, but it lacks a codified language to contemplate and express it. There is also now tremendous creativity, particularly in the Gulf area, but there are no institutions which can direct it toward what I call the spirit of Islam, its vision and worldview. Whatever intellectual resources the Muslim world has are in fact scattered and have become part of Western academe. The aim of my book Islam & Modernism is to remind the Muslim world of its own great achievements of the past, that it has its own philosophy and worldview; and that without this awareness as part of its modern life, it cannot have an authentic identity today and go forward.

The Eurocentrism and inherent racism of mainstream modernism considers the artists of Asian and African descent outside history. With globalization, artists from Asia and Africa are now being shown in mainstream galleries and museums, but without the West’s power of legitimization, these so-called “other modernisms” are only seen within the discourse of cultural diversity and inclusion, rather than meaningfully rewriting the narratives of art history. In order to change this, the Muslim world and the non-West at large need institutions—not only for scholarship, but critical thinking—to liberate themselves from the effects of what has been imposed by the West.