– Spring/Summer 2018

Words Toting Their Contexts: Rasheed Araeen’s Criticism of Racial Relations Bureaucracy

Nizan Shaked

Rasheed Araeen, Chakras I (St Katherine’s Dock), 1969–70, documentation. Courtesy the artist and Grosvenor Gallery, London

It was, and still is, a simple proposition: artists of African and Asian origin or heritage have made significant contributions to the course of modern and contemporary art. The artist and theorist Rasheed Araeen has been advancing this argument since he moved to the United Kingdom in 1964. His assertion has a specific trajectory. It is neither about the desires of Western artists to ‘go native’ (as with Paul Gauguin) in order to get in touch with an imagined primary being through which to develop an avant-garde style, nor is it about ‘primitivism’, where Western artists (such as Pablo Picasso or the Surrealists) appropriated formal elements from anonymous ‘tribal’ artists in order to enhance their Western creative genius. It is about the impact that artists of non-Western descent had on the course of modernism within a universal framework. As Araeen wrote: ‘When Afro-Asian artists from different parts of the world arrived in Europe, they were not entering another culture but a different level of the same culture which they had left behind.’1

Rasheed Araeen, Burning Ties, 1976–79, colour photograph, 75 x 50cm. Courtesy the artist,

  1. Rasheed Araeen, ‘A New Beginning: Beyond Postcolonial Cultural Theory and Identity Politics’, Third Text, vol.14, no.50, Spring 2000, p.11.

  2. Ibid., p.6.

  3. Significantly, ‘multiculturalism’ is understood differently in Europe and the United States. See Joan W. Scott, ‘The Culture Veil: The Real Crisis of European Multiculturalism’, The Nation, 20 September 2017, available at https://www.thenation.com/article/the-culture-veil/ (last accessed on 21 September 2017).

  4. See R. Araeen, ‘From Primitivism to Ethnic Arts’, Third Text, vol.1, no.1, Autumn 1987, pp.6–25.

  5. Judith Wilkinson, ‘Rang Baranga’, Tate Artworks, May 2015, available at http://www.tate.org.uk/ art/ artworks/araeen-rang-baranga-t12409 (last accessed on 25 November 2017).

  6. See Courtney J. Martin, ‘Non-Compositional and Non-Hierarchical’, in Anglo-American Exchange in Post-War Sculpture, Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011, pp.122–32.

  7. See Adrian Piper’s statements to editors and writers on how to approach her work from 2003 and 2016:
    A. Piper, ‘Dear Editor’, Adrian Piper Research Archive [artist’s website], 1 January 2003, available at http://www.adrianpiper.com/dear_editor.shtml (last accessed on 6 December 2017) and her ‘Art Criticism Essay Suggested Guidelines’, op. cit. 28 February 2016, available at http://www.adrianpiper.com/docs/Piper2016ArtCriticismSuggestedGuidelines.pdf (last accessed on 16 March 2017).

  8. It is important to emphasise that Araeen was not against traditional or folkloric art. He emphatically argued for the freedom of artists to interact in their chosen methodologies or forms.

  9. Here we must keep in mind that Araeen is a pioneer, but that he worked along with other artists and thinkers for many years and that the discussion of him pertains to many participants in the broader black arts project in the UK, and internationally.

  10. R. Araeen, ‘From Primitivism to Ethnic Arts’, op. cit., p.17.

  11. With the above written in the mid-1980s, we now see evidence that this criticism has finally sunk in. For example the forum of conferences and journal Historical Materialism have increasingly been integrating feminist social reproduction theory, queer and identity politics into their programmes. Also see Holly Lewis, The Politics of Everybody: Feminism, Queer Theory, and Marxism at the Intersection, London: Zed Books, 2016.

  12. Araeen’s critique and his demand for equal footing participation hit a brick wall with the British Arts Council, and later with Arts Council England. See R. Araeen, ‘Re-thinking History and Some Other Things’, Third Text, vol.15, no.54, Spring 2001, pp.93–100.

  13. For Araeen’s letter regarding his resignation from Third Text: Rasheed Araeen, ‘Rasheed Araeen’s Letter to Third Text Editorial Board, Advisory Council & Supporters’, Africa South Art Initiative, 6 December 2012, available at http://asai.co.za/rasheed-araeens-letter-to-the-editorial-board-advisory-council-and-the-supporters-of-third-text/ (last accessed 30 August 2017). For the solidarity letter and Advisory Council resignation, see Third Text Advisory Council Members, Third Text Associates & Third Text Contributors and Supporters, ‘Open Letter to Black Umbrella Board of Trustees, Taylor & Francis Group, and Arts Council England’, South Africa Art Initiative, 13 August 2012, http://asai. co.za/open-letter-to-black-umbrella-board-of-trustees-taylor-francis-group-and-arts-council-england/ (last accessed on 8 September 2017).

  14. Black Phoenix, no.2, Summer 1978, back cover, available at http://www.ccindex.info/iw/black-phoenix/04-ccindex-black-phoenix-2-back-cover-2/ (last accessed on 30 November 2017).

  15. R. Araeen, ‘A New Beginning’, op. cit., p.8.

  16. For his criticism of ‘difference’ see R. Araeen, ‘Art and Postcolonial Society’, Globalization and Contemporary Art (ed. Jonathan Harris), Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

  17. R. Araeen, ‘Re-Thinking History’, op. cit., p.94.

  18. Adolph Reed, Jr, ‘How Racial Disparity Does Not Help Make Sense of Patterns of Police Violence,’ Nonsite [online journal], 16 September 2016, available at http://nonsite.org/editorial/how-racial-disparity-does-not-help-make-sense-of-patterns-of-police-violence (last accessed on 1 December 2017). Although I agree with Reed’s argument, to my mind it lost its cutting edge in excessive style and malevolent fervour. Another especially aggressive polemic is served by Walter Benn Michaels, ‘Against Diversity’, New Left Review, no.52, July/August 2008, pp.33–36.

  19. Endnotes, ‘Brown v. Ferguson’, Endnotes 4 [online journal], October 2015, available at https://endnotes.org.uk/issues/4/en/endnotes-brown-v-ferguson (last accessed on 2 February 2016).

  20. John Roberts, ‘Third Text: Modernism, Negritude, and the Critique of Ethnicity’, paper presented at the conference ‘Seminario-Encuentro Publicaciones (no solo) de arte: usos culturales, sociales y políticos’, Universidad Internacional de Andalucía, Seville, 15 June 2011. Roberts is citing R. Araeen, ‘Why “Beyond” Negritude?’, preface, Third Text, vol.24, no.103, issue 2, March 2010, p.172.

  21. He even stepped down from a life project at Third Text when things went astray; see note 13.