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The News on Sunday | Ode to an artist


As went down behind the Quaid-i-Azam Library, a graceful, elongated, cubical-style public sculpture, titled Shan-i-Lahore, glowed in bright colours of red, yellow, blue and green.

The sculpture had just been unveiled at the historic Bagh-i-Jinnah (Lawrence Gardens), as homage to one of the most iconic artists of Pakistan, Rasheed Araeen. The event was a collaboration among the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF), COMO Museum of Art, Lahore, and Grosvenor Gallery, London.

Surrounded by onlookers who were amused and curious at the same time, alongside the customary shouts of Pakistan Zindabad, the book launch and the unveiling of Araeen’s public sculpture were well attended. A panel comprising Conor Macklin, the owner and director of Grosvenor Gallery; Kylie Gilchrist, a UK-based art historian; and art critic Quddus Mirza, conversed with the artist himself about the challenges he had faced in a predominantly white European world, a world where his work had been consistently evaluated, until recently, within the context of post-colonial structures. Ironically, Araeen is now considered one of the foremost pioneers of minimalist sculpture in Britain.

Araeen migrated to UK in the 1960s. His radical interpretation of minimalism was born out of his formal, academic undertaking in civil engineering in Pakistan. This was no easy task. It took the maestro two to three decades of constant struggle with the establishment in many forms — “within art, outside art, in writing, in performances, in writing letters to the prime minister” — to make himself heard. As a writer and curator having experienced first-hand discrimination within the dominant Eurocentric culture, Araeen lent his voice to highlight the marginalisation of the invisible black and Asian artists. His writings focus mainly on the complexities of globalisation, postcolonial theory and the resulting impact on cultural practice and the global art market.

Araeen is known for his works made in open modular form (reflecting his research and exploration of Islamic sacred geometry) that can be reconfigured in endless possibilities. His formal, brightly coloured geometric structures are made from simple or industrial materials and are intended to be viewed and shared in open spaces. For example, the public sculpture on display at Bagh-i-Jinnah, made of strips of bright colours of red, blue, yellow and green, is light and airy, and mesmerising in its simplicity.

In Pakistan, we have often seen an overload of imagery — the concept of less is more does not exist. This sculpture, with its skeletal or minimal appearance, has the ability to draw in the viewers for close inspection, even if just as a backdrop for selfies for Tiktok or Instagram.

Overall, the event was an appropriate ode to a man who has overcome endless hurdles in an art world that is still riddled with privilege and racism. Despite his old age and health issues, Araeen is experiencing life to its fullest and producing works which are grand in scale, meaning and their impact. A few years ago, the master opened a restaurant, called Shamiyana, reimagined as art: in a hip, eccentric part of London. There Araeen successfully managed to bring art to the public and the public to the art.

Lahore is grateful to have had the chance to honour the artist who has never stopped thinking about how art might become more interactive with the masses by creating a social consciousness — in other words, by experiencing a collectively shared identity within a society.