Grains, Grits and Gravel

Wake up today with an unhappy dyspeptic rumbling in the lower gastric regions and an unpleasant rhythmic thumping in the upper cranial compartments and, gazing upward, I find that the damp patch, that usually hangs like a soggy Damocletian sword on the ceiling directly above my recumbent self, is nowhere to be seen.  Either I’ve been engaging in some somnambulistic DIY repair work or else I’ve slept away from home and, indeed, as the veil of cerebral fuzziness lifts and I haltingly extricate myself from the Morphean embrace, memories of the recent past seep slowly back into my consciousness, forming the sequential narrative that has concluded with my current temporary residence in a hotel room right in the middle of an unexpectedly sunny Newcastle.

And what has prompted me to make the long three-hour train journey to get to this Northern outpost so far from the comfortable familiarities of my normal artistic stalking grounds?  Well, much to my pleasant surprise (and after only just a tiny amount of prompting) I received an invitation from the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art to attend not only the opening private view, but also the formal commemorative dinner, arranged to mark the launch of the retrospective exhibition devoted to the paintings and sculptures, curatorial and literary achievements of the great polymathical artist Rasheed Araeen.  Of course, for those more deeply ensconced and enmeshed within the cliques and cabals of the cultural establishment, these kind of jolly beanfeasts are a relatively commonplace occurrence, but for those of us more used to rambling solitarily along the outer fringes of the artworld, they offer a rare and exciting glimpse into the private purlieus of those privileged persons who so tirelessly devote themselves to the networking, schmoozing and general mutual befriendment processes that are such essential tools in the effort to co-ordinate the organisational arrangements for the provision and promotion of artistic excellence and enlightenment within this country today – albeit that temporarily stepping into this arena can come at a price.  For it’s not just the danger of succumbing to the temptations to take advantage of all the free-flowing libations that are on offer but also the risk of over-indulging in the rare and exquisite preparations of unusually rich and peculiar foodstuffs of a kind so very far beyond the normal range of comestible choices available from the usual Waitrose readymeal selection of wholesome microwave favourites.

And so it is that after quaffing the countless Peroni beers and innumerable glasses of fine wine that accompanied yesterday evening’s three-course veganistic combinations of diced beetroots, boiled artichokes, roasted squashes and assorted bits of twigs and seeds, grains, grits and gravel, it’s no wonder that my morning metabolism is just a little bit discombobulated and that I’m gasping for the familiarity of a soothing Starbucks frothacino, to ease my hangover, and a savoury sausage sandwich, to settle my stomach.  Fortunately, after having consumed these comfortingly plebeian breakfast treats, I slowly manage to refocus my critical faculties and finally feel able to return to the real world as I now cross over the Millennium bridge into Gateshead and make my morning-after return to the Baltic Centre to take another proper, in-depth look at the exhibition I glanced at yesterday prior to the entertaining events outlined above.

Thankfully, the display has been assembled and displayed with the kind of clear sensible sensibility and crystalline chronological logic that makes for a neatly straightforward biographical journey through Araeen’s artistic development.  It’s a story that starts in Pakistan with the young artist discovering a natural ability to produce reasonably competent examples of traditional landscape sketches and pencil portraits.  Then comes the dive into abstraction, starting off with a fairly small, fairly colourful but also fairly restrained sequences of loops and laminae, swoops and swirls.  But it’s when Araeen moves to London in the early 1960s, however, that he’s hit by the kind of tsunami-sized, epiphanal culture-shock that super-charges his artistic aspirations.  It’s not just that his abstractions literally gain an extra new dimension and go all sculptural but he then radically develops these formats in such a way as to merge the ancient decorative pattern-making traditions of his Islamic background with the contemporary modernistic Minimalism that was becoming so faddishly fashionable during that most swinging of cultural decades.  And the displays here of Araeen’s intricate webs of interlinking wooden struts as well as the more hefty constructions composed of girders and other chunks of heavy metallic off-cuts still retain their powerful aesthetic punch.

The Sixties weren’t just the occasion for radicalism in the expression of formalistic art production however and for anybody with an interest in political change this was also the most exciting, energising and revolutionary time for all manner of protests, demonstrations and rebellious acts of counter-cultural subversion.  And it’s at this point that Araeen veers away from concentrating on the creation of his strict geometrical assemblages and starts to broaden their scope and incorporate a narrative element that enables him to include references to aspects of what were then the contemporary social and political pressure points of the period.  Initially the target for these propagandist broadsides was America’s imperialistic involvement in Vietnam but Araeen’s Marxist Minimalism gradually expands to offer critical attacks centred around the iniquities of racism, sexism and other more generalised societal problems.  And just as the choice of subject matter shifts from the specific to the more general, so Araeen’s style moves from straightforward sequential grids of reportage photographs – of police confronting demonstrators in Grosvenor Square and his own personal constructing and then burning of a copy of the Stars and Stripes – to cooler more nuanced commentaries as exemplified here by the Golden Calf  (see image below) which plays around with ideas about consumerism, commodification, celebrity culture, identity and Warholian means of production.

Around this time – in the early 1980s – Araeen then refines his political focus and starts to concentrate intellectual and artistic efforts more directly towards confronting what he identifies as the institutional racism inherent within the heart of the British art establishment.  And, I’m pleased to say, it’s where I also now make my own footnote-sized entry into the story as one of the co-founders and co-directors of the Brixton Art Gallery which gave Araeen his first curatorial opportunity to show the hugely dynamic and exciting work being produced by other Black and Minority Ethnic artists that had generally been rejected, ignored and otherwise side-lined by the artworld establishment of the time.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the resulting exhibition – Third World Within – was ignored by all the professional critics although when it was re-staged in an expanded version three years later at the Hayward Gallery (retitled as The Other Story) it’s fair to say that attitudes were starting to change.  And no longer utterly ignored, amongst the mix of outright scorn and hostility there was at least some acknowledgement of the validity of its argument that there was a significant Bame aesthetic and that it deserved to be included as a valid part of the cultural history of the country.  As to how much the liberal progression of inclusion has continued, I’m not sure I’m all that qualified to say but certainly Araeen and some of the other important artists of that period (Lubaina Himid, Chila Kumari Berman, Rotimi Fani-Kayode) are perhaps finally receiving the recognition they deserve, and those of the generations that followed (Yinka Shonibare, Chris Ofili, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye) have maybe found their paths made slightly easier by the groundbreaking roles of those who came before and especially by the unstinting efforts of the indefatigable Araeen.

By way of a conclusion, the exhibition acknowledges Araeen’s long-term editorship of the Third Text magazine he founded, a high-powered journal devoted to analysing cultural colonialism, post-modern polemics and other ethical, political and artistical dilemmas with the kind of ferocious intellectualism and dense, daunting levels of pontifical prose that I confess I’ve always found to be completely, confoundingly unreadable.  Rather more accessible and appealing are Araeen’s most recent artistic works in which he reprises his earlier experimentations with colourful geometric abstraction in both two and three dimensional forms.

As a whole, I think it’s fair to say that the exhibition is a fitting tribute to an interesting man and a talented artist and it was especially good to meet up with him and exchange a few words at his celebratory dinner – even though it soon became clear that he didn’t recognise me and had little if any memory of our brief collaborative efforts thirty years previously.

Finally, before migrating back south I feel compelled to make the pilgrimage to Newcastle University’s Hatton Gallery in which is located one of the country’s great historic monuments of 20th century Modernism.  In the first half of the last century the German artist Kurt Schwitters’ work as a collagist, sculptor and poet had made him one of the most radical and important of all that group of avant garde experimentalists known as the Dadaists.  While many, if not most, of his fellow artsists were generally apolitical, Schwitters made a point of actively denouncing Hitler and speaking out against the rise of Nazism, a position that eventually forced him into a very hurried exile.  After a temporary stopover in Norway, circumstances prompted a further move to Britain where, after initially suffering the indignities of internment as an enemy alien, he finally made his home in Ambleside.  Here he joined in village life, painting traditional landscapes which he occasionally sold for small sums of money, but he also started work on his final unfinished Dadaist sculpture, a muralistic collage plastered directly into the wall of an old barn.  And it’s this Merzbau that, under the direction of the influential British Pop Artist Richard Hamilton, was saved and relocated to its present permanent position on the Newcastle campus – another icon to which I’m pleased to say that I was able to pay my dutiful respects.

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