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stir world | Rasheed Araeen's 'Islam & Modernism' at Aicon Gallery is a seminal exhibition of works

by Sukanya Deb

Islam & Modernism - a seminal exhibition by Pakistan-born, London-based conceptual artist and long-time activist and organiser Rasheed Araeen - is currently being presented at Aicon Gallery in New York. The exhibition at the art gallery takes as its core question the perpetuation of modernism in western art history as being purely ‘western’, where Araeen reflects on the reception of his own work through the latter part of the 20th century. Further, there is reflection on the various essentialisms that delimited the reception of Araeen’s work at the time, where he is described as an “Islamic” from the 1970s, till Tate Modern declared his work as “pioneering Minimalist sculpture in Britain” in 2007. In a highly self-reflexive exhibition, Araeen talks about this contradiction where the definition of modernism does not include the modernising influence of Islam.

Text has always been an artistic form for Araeen, where he was the founding member of the postcolonial journal Third Text, preceded by the now defunct Black Phoenix. Islam & Modernism also takes the form of a series of collected essays by Araeen, where he ruminates on contemporary Islam as well as the aesthetic proponents of the religion that extends from an all-encompassing philosophical apparatus. In this collection of essays, Araeen tackles many such questions head-on, while tracing the influence of Islam in the development of western abstraction.

In the exhibition, Araeen presents a new series of acrylic paintings, colourful wooden structures that act between a flattened surface and sculpture, and a neon light triptych. These works expand on and place themselves within the artist’s oeuvre, that extends from questions around formalism as developed through the course of the 20th century. However, it is noteworthy that these works now take a new avatar given the contradictory forces that Araeen attempts to resolve within the framework of the art exhibition. Form and formalism have indeed been concerns as well as points of departure in the development of so-called 'western' modernism. Historically, the artist’s own intervention in the throes of western art history as it continues to be taught, was that of rejecting the static nature of sculpture and instead proposing a more interactive, egalitarian space. Inspired by British modernist sculptors such as Anthony Caro and Phillip King, symmetry becomes a point of departure for Araeen, which he speaks extensively about in his new book.

In a particularly self-reflexive passage from Islam & Modernism, Araeen reveals, “When I saw the work of Anthony Caro in 1965, which inspired my work, it was a sort of geometric abstraction, in which geometry was fragmented and organised asymmetrically. My response to this was to re-organise its geometry symmetrically, which then conformed to the symmetry of geometric art of Islam. So, the professor who saw Islam in my work in 1970 was not after all wrong. My problem then was not only my ignorance of the history of Islam and what it had accomplished in the production of knowledge, but also its role in creating what we have today as modernism.”

There appears to be a marked distillation of the language in the approach that Araeen has taken in his most recent works. Given the significant changes in the naming of the artworks, they appear to reflect a more syncretic approach towards showcasing the development and importance of symmetry in modernist thought, with Islam as the harbinger of modernity. Araeen’s approach is varied, as he challenges a highly Islamophobic contemporary political landscape that has its own vilifying narrative of Islam as a ‘backward’ and ‘violent’ religion, given the complex terrain traversed by practising Muslims all over the world.

Through the series of texts, Araeen develops his own polemic on the development of abstraction and symmetry as being the true markers of modernity, that inescapably lead back to Islamic thought, from the disavowal of the figurative (in worship and aesthetics), towards the abstract knowledge of and empathy with a singular Abrahamic God. Notably, in his essay From the Cube of Ka’ba to Cubism, Araeen traces the importance of one of the holiest sites in Islamic theology, The Ka’ba, that existed in pre-Islamic times but was appropriated into the religion by 630 CE upon Prophet Muhammad’s return to the region. The Ka’ba has since been rebuilt and renovated several times over the centuries, and now falls under the supervision of the Saudi Arabian government, through the holy site of Mecca that is the singular direction of prayer for Muslims all over the world. The Ka’ba, literally translating to ‘The Cube’, is a cuboid structure made of stones that is covered with a black cloth called the kiswa that is ornate in its calligraphic decoration, renewed annually during Hajj. To Araeen the influence of the black square in changing the course of western art history by the Russian Suprematists can be traced back to the significance of the Ka’ba as an aesthetic and philosophical provocation.

Sources are muddied, reinstated, questioned, and rehashed through the course of Araeen’s explorations as the significance of abstraction and symmetry can be seen to be in line with the development and propagation of Islamic thought. In this late career exhibition, Araeen is insistent on the foresight of Islam in denying figuration as ultimately a “narcissistic” endeavour for humanity. In this series of writings and works presented, the pioneering artist bridges the distance between dominant narratives of western art history and the fundamental reality of already muddied sources through its very definition. As he states within the aforementioned essay that stands as a treatise, “I must assert my Muslim identity, not merely because I am a Muslim but as a Muslim who has pioneered something significant within modernism.”