Caught in Rashid Rana’s grid

Suljuk Mustansar Tarar explains the method to the maze

Caught in Rashid Rana’s grid
Rashid Rana is one of the most famous contemporary Pakistani visual artists, both at home and abroad. His work currently holds the record for fetching the highest price for a contemporary Pakistani artist in the international art market. Rana is currently Dean of the School of Visual Arts and Design (SVAD) at Beaconhouse National University (BNU), Lahore.

Rana is originally a painter. But utilising his skills as a painter, he has created a name for himself by building his practice on photo-montage or photo-mosaic. He has also produced stainless steel sculptures and video installation. Rana is among those artists in the country who did not, for instance, ride on the wave of miniature painting revival in Pakistan – but continued the homegrown tradition of modernist painting.

Rana’s work mainly comprises of smaller images or photographs, which he himself captures or collects over time. He composes them into a totally different theme. These micro images are in contravention with the macro theme of his work. Thus, the whole is neither monolithic nor equal to the sum of its parts. This is Rana’s way of commenting on parallel truths or building a counter narrative, which consists of different layers of realities and contradictions. His famous ‘Red Carpet’ series shows a beautiful digital Persian carpet, but actually has smaller images of slaughterhouses with blood. Or, for instance, underneath the serenity of a rural landscape painting he creates images of urban areas. His earlier works, like the acrylic or graphite grids in black and white, point towards his evolution as an artist –he later moved to computers and powerful software to juxtapose images for his oeuvre.

Rana further experimented with 3D work, like creating a cubical Vase, Stove, Newspaper and a pair of brick steps from photo montage. However, in some of these works, like the Vase and Stove, there is certain flatness and the artist seems to struggle with successfully capturing the overall impact of these products.

Detail from 'All Eyes Skywards'

Rana graduated from National College of Arts, Lahore, and later did his Masters from the Massachusetts College of Art, USA. He ascribes his modernist bearings to the Pakistani modernist painters and later to his education overseas. His underlying creativity was ignited by his teacher, an eminent artist of the country, Zahoor-ul-Akhlaq. As a result his grid pattern is like that of Akhlaq and his compositions, as evolved now, touch upon abstraction.

With regard to Rana’s connection with Akhlaq, Salima Hashmi observes: “Rashid Rana was among those who gained a great deal from the mentoring he received. Zahoor’s study of the underlying structures in Moghul manuscripts as well as his insight into geometry and architecture, led to the adoption of the grid as a device to discipline spatial relationships. Rashid’s investigations into the grid as a paradoxical entity were triggered partly by his proximity to Zahoor, and also his own keen understanding of his mentor’s preoccupations. To read too much into the grid as a spatial configuration common to both artists may be an over simplification of the very complex intellectual and artistic directions of both.”

Interestingly Rana got his initial breakthrough outside Pakistan and then steadily grew in stature as a visual artist at home. He was a few years senior to me at the National College of Arts, Lahore, and I mostly found him at the college’s painting or print studio. Rana has now exhibited across countries and continents. In his talks, Rana approaches his themes and work from a global visual artist’s perspective. He does not want to be bracketed in a certain ideology or regional context or be confined by fixed narratives. His works, ‘The viewing, the viewer and the viewed’, ‘Transliteration’ and three-dimensional work ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’ takes him in that direction using a different vocabulary. Rana explains his premise: “Now every image, idea, and truth (be it ancient or modern) encompasses its opposite within itself. Thus, we can say we live in a state of duality. This internal conflict translates into my work at a formal level, as well as having geographical, historical, and political connotations.”
Utilising his skills as a painter, he has created a name for himself by building his practice on photo-montage or photo-mosaic

Rana’s desire to experiment, while at the same time maintaining a rational understanding of his socio-cultural context, makes him a most politically astute artist. Some of his works like the ‘Red Carpet’ or ‘Veil’ series do take up stereotypes about violence and gender. Rana argues that the ‘Veil’ series shows two sides of stereotypes – from a Western view all women in Muslim world are under a veil or live in restrictions, while in the Muslim world the common tendency is to see the West (and its women, of course) as libertines.

Rana also commented on contemporary miniature painting by subverting an older painting and calling it“I love Miniatures” – with images of commercial hoardings from Lahore city challenging the sacred high pedestal on which some put miniature work. Ironically this work and its success brought Rana into the foray of the photo-mosaic.

Rana’s work is undergirded by a conceptual framework where the artist‘s explanation and his work rhyme. Rana is from Lahore and his work has traces of Lahore’s rich architectural and urban language. This may also be a result of integrated teaching at NCA. At that institution, students from the Architecture, Fine Arts and Design departments have their first-year training together. The interdisciplinary training and camaraderie amongst students and faculty continues throughout their stay – this has proven to be a great strength for all NCA graduates and their output.

Appropriation of images and cliches is not a new idea. The photo mosaic has been used by artists in the West: Chuck Close, an American painter is just one of those pioneers. Similarly David Hockney has used the photo-mosaic in his own manner. Rana consciously strives to makes his work capable of connecting with a wider audience. His images of the mundane, like a street corner, a garbage dump, or hoardings printed in the vernacular are turned into significant images for the art world to appreciate.

As for myself, I particularly like his series ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. The elongated cube looks like a skyscraper. It is made of a stainless steel grid with photographs of Lahore’s cityscape. Each steel grid creates a feeling of depth and the images are reflected on shiny steel. The overall impact is a glamorous high-rise building but closer observations reveal something else – an exercise in highlighting the parallels. There can be different meanings but the one more resonant in today’s world is the dilemma of migration.

Another highly interesting work by Rana was for the Venice Biennale – ‘The Viewing, the viewer and the viewed’. A stage in Lahore connected in real-time with another one in Venice using a video link. Thus you could see surprised onlookers gazing at one another in a European backdrop. For Rana it is part of his “attempt to subvert linear ideas of time and space progressions to offer fractured views of chronology and geography.”

Rana‘s latest series ‘Transliteration’ attempts to deconstruct classical European paintings and situate them in the present day. So we have, for instance, John Berger tearing apart a classical painting in ‘Ways of Seeing’. This is Rana‘s way of addressing duality across time. But this is also different from his early claims of connecting with the wider public and is something of a departure from his use of “low“ art – such as the rose-patterned wallpapers in ‘Flowers and Flowers’ – to using high art from Europe to address the same dualities. A big hurdle for contemporary visual artists like Rana who want to be identified as artists beyond their regional context is the Orientalist way of looking at the work coming from our part of the world. Rana’s ‘Veil’, ‘Transliteration’ and ‘Dead Bird Flying’ series, may well stem from mundane images that reinforce the stereotypes about the Global South. However, with his own distinctive stamp, Rana’s final product is a more subversive visual feat, grounded in a robust intellect – and a delight to look at.

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