Rashid Rana’s search for the critical truth

Rashid Rana’s search for the critical truth

Rashid Rana’s search for the critical truth

In the world of art, what is real or not real is a disputed truth, as opposed to an unbending fact

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Rashid Rana’s recent artistic endeavor, touted as a celebration of Pakistan’s very own melting pot, holds an elevated limelight in the world and has garnered unparalleled recognition. Debuted at the Dubai Expo 2020, the structural work titled ‘Unity of All that Appears,’ is made with thousands of custom built pieces spread across an architectural ensemble, conceptually manifesting as the diversity within Pakistan. The project is one of the largest works the artist has ever produced, comprising 24,000 unique panels.

RR:  “We used Aluminum composite panels that were finished with a reflective surface and a printed surface, assembled in Dubai, as I supervised their process remotely, on the most part. The technique used stems from a few works that I’ve done in the past involving reflected and printed surfaces used simultaneously in a certain geometric order. However, this work came out a bit different because it’s in an architectural format”

The artist has a long-standing repertoire of working with micro elements that manifest as a single visual macro ensemble, and the Pakistan Pavilion undoubtedly displays the same technique. Although the micro units seem identical, they are in fact all fractionally different in size, color and geometry, aiming to symbolize diversity and the vivid beauty one finds in unity undeterred by differences.

While the presence of diversity may be an undeniable fact, the precursor of the term ‘celebration’ comes at odds with the subject matter and how it relates to our everyday life. It takes one peek at our nation’s track record pertaining to minorities or different ethnic groups to prove how unsettling diversity is for us as a country. Given the mounting grievances that minorities face in our alleged land of the pure, the façade exhibited at Dubai Expo serves more as an ideal instead of the reality.

RR:  “Each panel is fractionally different and unique. It resembles the materiality of our nation considering its diversity; geographically, climatically, culturally, ethnically and racially. But this also leads to different obstacles, especially when power structures tend to rely on sameness, something we don’t always acknowledge in our society. This work aims to appreciate all our differences because when diversity is acknowledged and celebrated, it leads to a harmonious order amongst things.”

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Providing no critical or satirical twist in this installation, the artist tempts the utopian dream for our nation, where differences amidst individuals can not only be celebrated, but proudly exclaimed to the larger world as our treasure. That is exactly what excites a viewer regarding the Pakistan Pavilion, for it shows us a glimpse of what could be, instead of what is.

RR: “This being an international Expo with 192 pavilions, one of the main goals for my work was to pull the crowd through something aesthetically pleasing. Within said amiable work of art, if one can send a positive message, then it’s a bonus. At the end of the day, this artistic intervention is not a slogan, but simply a work of art which is aesthetic and enriches one’s experience. It reaches wherever it reaches.”

While the pandemic may have distorted all communicative avenues, the fact that something so large-scale was pulled off is commendable as its own feat. The project elongated to a span of three years whereas the actual fabrication and on-ground schematics of Rashid Rana’s work took about four months. Visually vivid and inspiringly large in scale, the success of the Pakistan Pavilion has interestingly come through at the end of what seemed like a never ending hell-scape of communicative barriers we now know as Covid-19.

RR: “It’s not something I’m doing for the first time considering my avid incorporation of automated or digital elements in works of the last twenty years. My practice over the years has evolved in such a way that most of my working productions tend to take place remotely. My team also monitored the day to day processes and Uzair Faruqui from my team provided notable help in the project as well along with Tariq Ali, Kamran Nabeel and Lariab Ahmed. Not only that, but several other people provided support. Razak Dawood, advisor to the Prime Minister, displayed a lot of faith in the work whereas the project lead of the entire Pavilion, Shahid Abdullah, believed in the process and gave me free hand to exercise my creativity.”

A wanderer or a seeker is the very distinction of an artist’s identity, always on the go, in search of new inspiration or experiences. Even though Rashid Rana has a physical studio based in Lahore, he doesn’t contrive all his creations there. “Wherever I am, that is my studio.”

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RR:  “The biggest challenge was whether what I was envisioning could be truly realized. If there were to be a gap in the final output compared to my vision, I would have felt helpless and I had anxiety regarding this. So, I’m thankful to the fabricators who managed to do almost what I wanted. I will say that I had another step envisioned where I wanted these aluminum panels to be kinetically powered with the help of the wind, and I wanted them to flutter as opposed to staying in one place, but time constraints and technical difficulties made it unachievable.”

The visual imagery of the Pavilion alone is awe inspiring and stays true to the artist’s prevalent brand of assimilating several pieces to execute a larger concept. Rashid Rana’s work often delves into elements of reconfiguration and reconstruction, pertaining to two or more realities, in conceptuality and in tangible reality. This vast differential quality in his contextual work is what sets the artist apart as a pioneer, for the very act of subverting stereotypes creates a satirical commentary that takes a viewer from perceived realities to critical truths, the latter often harsher to divulge one’s self in.

To fully view Rana’s art, especially works from his mosaic era, the viewer often has to first watch it from afar then go closer to grasp the true meaning of the work. This very act of viewing from two different angles, bringing dyadic ideas to light, becomes symbolic of seemingly individual truths and their juxtaposition with each other. It not only subverts the perspectives of the viewer, but asks each person to re-evaluate their realities as they move between the macro and micro elements of what they are seeing. The viewer ends up inadvertently taking part in the deconstruction of the conflicting realities proposed in the work, acting as the active disruptor and the critical truth seeker along with the artist.

Take his exhibited work at the Karachi Biennale 2019 for example, titled ‘Offshore Accounts,’ which depicts ideas of consumerism and environmentalism in the same canvas. From a distance, the image portrays gentle sea waves. The specks of debris and white foam of the waves, however, are formed with micro images of landfills and areas of accumulated plastic waste. In another example, seeming portrayals of traditional native red carpets are actually numerous small photographs of flesh and blood taken at a Lahore slaughterhouse when seen up-close.

RR: “It is somewhat of a strategy. I’m fascinated with the idea of parts, including macro and micro, and their entanglement and relationship with each other. The ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ in my work are often poles apart or at a distance, contextually. Whatever the narrative is, I let the audience steer it between the two extremes. I want the viewer to be an active participant in my work rather than a passive onlooker. I aspire for my work to be playful and conversationally engaging rather than some rigid slogan.”

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This fascination with the grid, possibly inspired by one of Rana’s early mentors, Zahoor ul Akhlaq, has manifested itself in many ways, as Rana navigates a post-colonial reality. His opposition to rigidity extends to his identity, where Rana is constantly at odds with the dichotomy between east and west, and the preconceived tethers that come with those two worlds. In the words of artist Michael Hilsman, he seeks to “transcend Western media stigmas and patriotic narratives.”

RR:  My belief in the unfixed notions of identity connects all my practice be it art making, engagement with academia, curatorial work or other forms of collaborations. I consider them all forms of forms of creative production. I aspire for the art world to move towards non-prescriptive ideas of geography and identity. I want for my students and the next generation to have all the freedom and to be able to have a bigger canvas. Just because we belong to a specific location doesn’t mean we are supposed to follow certain stylistic conventions from the past. If and artist belongs to a developing country, and was colonized in the past, there are often expectations for one’s work to resemble their native land or relate to their (pre) colonial past. This should not be an overarching expectation. My entire struggle throughout my practice aims to seek more freedom for artists and creative minds, especially in South Asia.”

Even when the artist does delve into seemingly traditional imagery, for example his work titled ‘I love miniatures,’ where an apparent portrait of the Mughal emperor Shah Jehan is a conglomeration of massive billboards from Lahore in actuality, he applies a subversive strategy to critically engage with the notion of identity. His amusing response to the ‘neo-miniaturist’ expectations of him are completely overturned by mimicking a classic miniature artwork with his city’s present day visual culture. Not only that, but the work was accompanied with a faux-gilt frame of European traditions, again, making a jab at the cultural assumptions tied to his or anyone’s work.

The artist constantly pushes boundaries not only in the peripheries of identity politics, but also amidst the boundaries of what we call art. His latest endeavour, called EART, is a concept that describes moments of self-expression beyond the arts: ways of thinking, being and acting creatively in real life. The acclaimed Pakistani artist considered how the concept could be applied everywhere from social media to real estate development. And alongside it, the concept also realises itself as a physical shop where Rana opened a store in Manchester, suggesting the possibility of a world without paid advertising.

Rashid Rana, widely considered to be the foremost Pakistani artist of his generation, has an internationally lauded oeuvre. For the artist, the most emotionally striking work of his is the Flesh and Blood series from his transliteration era whereas the projects most significant for him include his recent work, EART.

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Rana is a Lahore-born artist and his works are housed in prestigious collections including the British Museum in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and many other establishments worldwide. Trained originally as a painter at the NCA in Lahore, he was a student of Zahoor-ul-Akhlaq, followed by a Masters at Massachusetts College of Art, Boston. He is also a founding faculty member and currently the Dean of the School of Visual Arts and Design at BNU, Lahore.

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