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Rasheed Araeen

Born, 1935 in Karachi, Pakistan

image of Rasheed Araeen

Rasheed Araeen is one of the most important and influential figures in the development of diasporic visual arts practice in mid-late 20th century Britain. He was one of the first significant London-based figures to acknowledge and critically engage with the new generation of Black artists such as Keith Piper. An accomplished and widely exhibited artist and sculptor, Araeen is also well known for his work as a writer, curator and editor. It was in his capacity of editor that he brought into existence the journal, Third Text, which he edited for a considerable number of years. His earlier work as a writer and editor centred on the publication Black Phoenix, three issues of which were published towards the end of the 1970s. These issues remain hugely important documents not only of arguments and thinking about art, culture, and politics at this critical period in British and international politics. Within these issues, we hear not only Araeen’s voice, but also the voices of a range of people, coming from, as well as addressing, different highly charged international locations. Further to this, these issues of Black Phoenix gave substantial clues and pointers as to the nature of Black artists’ practice of the time. Particularly important in this regard is Araeen’s review of a 1978 exhibition of Afro-Caribbean Art.

This was though, more than just an exhibition review. Araeen took to task some of the assertions and assumptions that he felt underpinned the exhibition. In so doing, Araeen was to rehearse (or presciently anticipate) many of the issues that were to dominate discussions of Black British artists’ practice over the course of the following decade and beyond. Black Phoenix – perhaps aptly, given its name) was resurrected, reborn, and relaunched by Araeen as a predominantly theoretical art journal Third Text.  For significant periods of its history (which now stands at some 120 issues) Third Text has paid attention to contemporary visual arts practice in the UK by reviewing exhibitions and by other features – interviews, biographical outlines, and so on. In this regard, Third Text has contributed much to the process of chronicling visual arts activity, not just in the UK, but very much internationally as well.

Araeen was instrumental in curating an exhibition that sought to clarify and resolve what might be called the ‘what is Black Art’ argument. This was The Essential Black Art. The exhibition was conscious of perhaps problematic aspects of the recent history of Black visual arts practice in Britain and how that practice was perceived and defined by sections of the wider community and the art establishment.  As such, The Essential Black Art was consciously positioned as an attempt to negotiate a number of impasses or look again at a debate that had, to an extent, reached what Keith Piper termed ‘a consensus of pluralism’, particularly after South Asian visual arts practice had to some extent managed to incorporate itself into broadly accepted definitions of ‘Black’ visual arts activity by the close of the 1980s decade.

Araeen’s arguments concerning the definition of ‘Black Art’ were articulated in the introductory notes for The Essential Black Art catalogue. His view was that “The term ‘black art’ is now being commonly used by the black community as well as by people in Britain in general. But this common usage is often a misuse, as far as the work that might be called ‘black art’ is concerned. It may be a convenient term to refer to the work of black artists, but it also implies that their work is or should necessarily be different from the mainstream of modern culture” Araeen’s thesis was that “’Black Art’, if the term must be used, was in specific historical development within contemporary art practice and had emerged directly from the joint struggle of Asian, African and Caribbean people against racism, and the art work itself explicitly refers to that struggle”. In his view, any other definition or understanding of Black Art  (that merely regarded it as the visual creativity of any and all non-white people) was erroneous and had its basis in ignorance. Such thinking and assertions by Araeen marked him out as being an important critical voice.

Many of Araeen’s bruising encounters with the art establishment, and his various arguments and opinions relating to (Black) visual art practice were brought together and reproduced in his important book Making Myself Visible, published by Kala Press in 1984. A prolific writer and curator, the book at times hinted at what was to become one of Araeen’s biggest triumphs, curating The Other Story exhibition, which took place at the Hayward Gallery late in 1989, before touring to venues in Wolverhampton and Manchester, and writing the bulk of the texts for the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue.

The Other Story was a landmark exhibition, which sought to outline a history of ‘Afro-Asian artists in post-war Britain’. The exhibition featured work by Araeen himself, plus the following artists: Saleem Arif, Frank Bowling, Sonia Boyce, Eddie Chambers, Avinash Chandra, Avtarjeet Dhanjal, Uzo Egonu, Iqbal Geoffrey, Mona Hatoum, Lubaina Himid, Gavin Jantjes, Balraj Khanna, Donald Locke, David Medalla, Ronald Moody, Ahmed Parvez, Ivan Peries, Keith Piper, A J Shemza, Kumiko Shimizu, F N Souza, Aubrey Williams and Li Yuan Chia. The exhibition secured a great deal of press coverage.

As mentioned earlier, Araeen is himself an accomplished and widely exhibited artist. He regarded his practice as being reflective of, and having made quantum contributions to, both modernism and postmodernism. (See the artist’s exhibition and catalogue, From Modernism to Postmodernism - Rasheed Araeen: A Retrospective: 1959-1987, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, 1988.) A testament to its significance, Araeen’s work was included in the important 1986 exhibition, From Two Worlds (Whitechapel Art Gallery, 30 July - 7 September 1986).

Araeen’s hugely important interview with fellow artist Aubrey Williams first appeared in Third Text, but extracts of it have been widely reproduced. For example, in Part Two of the publication Guyana Dreaming: The Art of Aubrey Williams,  Part Three: Critical Comments on the Work of Aubrey Williams.

He is the recipient of several honorary doctorates. The first, in 1995, an Honorary Doctorate of Letters (PhD) from University of Southampton in 1997; the second, an Honorary Doctorate of Arts (PhD) from University of East London; the third, an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Wolverhampton awarded in 2003. The first, from the University of Southampton was particularly poignant, as Araeen’s Ikon Gallery retrospective had been shown there, at the John Hansard Gallery, during its tour. The award from the University of Wolverhampton was similarly significant, as more than two decades previously, Araeen had addressed the First National Black Art Convention, held at the-then Polytechnic, Wolverhampton, in 1982.

Rasheed Araeen spoke at the Shades of Black conference held at Duke University, 19 - 22 April 2001, on The Thematics and Aesthetic Shifts in Practice since the 1980s panel. His paper The Success and the Failure of the Black Arts Movementt (part of The Role Policy Has Played in the Development of Cultural Practice panel, 22 April 2001) is reproduced in Part One of the book Shades of Black, subtitled Assembling Black Arts in 1980s Britain.

A quote by Araeen opened the text Salted Cod… : Black Canada and Diasporic Sensibilities, written by Rinaldo Walcott for Reading the Image: Poetics of the Black Diaspora exhibition catalogue. The exhibition was a collaboration between the following galleries in Canada: Thames Art Gallery, Chatham, Ontario; Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia; The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, Ontario; Foreman Art Gallery of Bishop’s University, Sherbrooke, Quebec; and Yukon Arts Centre, Whitehorse, Yukon. The exhibition featured work by Deanna Bowen, Christopher Cozier, Michael Fernandes, and Maud Sulter.

Araeen’s quote, (from The Success and the Failure of Black Art, Third Text, 18, no. 2, 2004 pp. 135 - 152) was: “The main success of Black Art lies in its ideological commitment, in its agenda to confront, change, and humanize the prevailing (art) system so that it recognizes the equality of all people.”

Rasheed Araeen’s Green Painting, 1985-6, mixed media, nine panels, 173 x 226 cm, is reproduced in Gen Doy’s book, Black Visual Culture, I.B. Tauris, 2000.

The above portrait of Araeen shows him at the Hayward Gallery, during The Other Story, 1989, photograph © Eddie Chambers, 1989.

Related items + view all 35

click to show details of The Other Story - exhibition guide

»  The Other Story - exhibition guide

Exhibition guide relating to an exhibition, 1989

click to show details of The Other Story - Manchester invitation

»  The Other Story - Manchester invitation

Invite relating to an exhibition, 1990

click to show details of The Other Story - Wolverhampton invitation

»  The Other Story - Wolverhampton invitation

Invite relating to an exhibition, 1990

click to show details of Third Text: Art and Immigration

»  Third Text: Art and Immigration

Journal relating to a publication, 1991

click to show details of Third Text: The Other Story

»  Third Text: The Other Story

Journal relating to an exhibition, 1989

Related exhibitions + view all 9

Related venues + view all 23

»  Cornerhouse

Manchester, United Kingdom

»  Grey Art Gallery and Study Centre

New York, United States of America

»  Hayward Gallery

London, United Kingdom

»  Manchester City Art Gallery

Manchester, United Kingdom

»  Wolverhampton Art Gallery

Wolverhampton, United Kingdom