Welcome to the first ever show of Rasheed Araeen’s work in Russia. Born in Karachi, Pakistan, in 1935, Araeen infused minimalism with a sense of political urgency, truth, and a global outlook. His is ‘a journey of the idea’, as the artist calls it. The idea is, in short, that geometry and human equality are closely connected. This connection is used most often in architecture and urban planning. From Étienne-Louis Boullée and Claude Ledoux, active during the Enlightenment, to city plans by Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer, symmetry is thought to elevate aspirations toward reason and justice for all. Therefore, an artwork based on geometry and symmetry has the potential to transcend cultural and political barriers and speak directly to any observer, inspiring them to lead a better, more productive life. Geometry achieves this because it leaves the smallest possible gap between perception and meaning. Of course, a square can be seen as an allegory, but first and foremost it is a simple form that addresses the foundations of the physical world.
This idea has its beginnings in ancient Mediterranean philosophy. Socrates says in Plato’s ‘Gorgias’ that ‘geometrical equality rules, all-powerful, among the gods as among men’. More than twelve centuries later the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity or Ikhwān al-safā, a series of treatises on science and theology by a group of philosphers in medieval Basra, included a theory of proportions which, in the words of a contemporary historian, posits that “arithmetic and geometry, along with their related measured proportions, (theoretically) may all contribute to the constructive cultivation of the soul and the reformation of its ethics.”
More recent iterations of the idea can be found in the work of the Russian avant-garde. For most of the avant-garde artists who aligned themselves with the October Revolution’s goals, geometry in art was more than just a style, it was the most effective representation of egalitarian hope in the new society. In “Declaration of the Suprematists” from 1918, Kazimir Malevich wrote: ‘Let there be a new symmetry of social paths. Let there be a new symmetry in art’. Over the past century, the formal and political consequences of the avant-garde have led to numerous artistic and philosophical reflections, kinetic art and minimalism among them. Usually, the term “avant-garde” exists in the same sentence as ‘utopia’ and ‘idealism’, with the inherent premise that its forceful anti-elitist pathos is brilliantly misguided.
In recent years, with feminist and post-colonial concerns prominent in both mainstream and academic spheres, there has been a resurgence of interest in artists with an expanded political horizon. Araeen is a good example. He is one of the rare postwar artists who has followed through on the notion of art as a struggle for visibility and justice. And for Araeen symmetry is a key concept both in art and life. He has focused his efforts on producing art that is as moral as it is forward-thinking. This guide will place Araeen’s artworks in dialogue with artists and thinkers of the Russian avant-garde, a context that will bring his ideas closer to the emancipatory struggle Russia is familiar with. This is not to say that the avant-garde is something Araeen has based his work on. Rather, in demonstrating parallels with Russian artists and thinkers we will provide the local context for the common goals of a universal artistic language and anti-imperialist expressions.
Araeen’s journey included a number of significant detours. They happened not because the idea was wrong, but because the mere existence of such universal objects could not be sufficient to overcome inequality and oppression in the world. Like many artists from former colonies, Araeen had to fight for the idea’s right to spring from his mind, and to prove himself to be a subject independent of his biographical background, something that to this day is a given for white European artists.
We often think of art as a universal language that speaks to everyone, with a connection to the social issues of the day. However, this is rarely the case, as Araeen discovered for himself, when he had difficulties entering the art world on account of being from a former British colony.
This exhibition shows how Araeen struggled with institutional racism and worked on making art that is open to everyone, both as a practice and as a set of meanings. Araeen’s retrospective can also be seen as a valuable alternative to the usual understanding of the avant-garde’s reception across the world. His scope and earnestness in projecting the ‘idea’ goes well beyond the confines of the gallery space and even the art world itself. And it is connected to the avant-garde not only in form and method but also politically, if one recalls the Soviet experimenters’ disdain for Western colonial policies.