Visiting Newcastle’s Baltic for the first time, I was lucky to see the Rasheed Araeen exhibition. Araeen was the founder of the international art journal Third Text, a publication which has been challenging the boundaries of Eurocentricity for decades. It was involved in raising the profile of marginalised narratives, long before the Decolonising the Curriculum debate.
The Baltic exhibition starts with Araeen’s early paintings, drawings and sculptures produced while he still lived in Pakistan. He originally trained as an engineer and his interest in geometry and symmetry can be seen in his work. Symmetry fascinates Araeen because of its lack of hierarchy, and in a video interview being screened at the exhibition, he explains the connection between symmetry and egalitarianism.
After moving to London in 1964, Araeen became more and more disillusioned by racism in the UK. He was politically active from the early seventies and joined the Black Panthers in 1972. His art also became more radical around this time, which can be seen in his collages, photographs and installations. A particularly memorable and disturbing piece was inspired by the horrendous drowning of David Oluwale, who was harassed to death by policemen in Leeds in the early 1970s.
The exhibition also documents Araeen’s struggle to get the Hayward Gallery to exhibit work by Black, Asian and Caribbean artists. He first wrote to the Arts Council in 1978, but was not taken seriously, and there was no exhibition until 1989, when ‘The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Postwar Britain’ was eventually shown.
One of the most powerful pieces at the Baltic exhibition has an advert showing privileged-looking white people pouring wine with the caption ‘It could have been a disaster’. Alongside them there’s an image of a real disaster: malnourished people in a developing country beg for food, with open mouths and emaciated bodies. Underneath these two images, several pages from Frantz Fanon’s ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ are pasted, contrasting the opulence of some of Europe with the developing world.
The Wretched of the earth was published in 1961, over half a century ago, and yet the effects of colonisation remain: inequality prevails, within countries as well as between them. Like the proverbial empty vessels, the rattle of the powerful seems to have become even louder as they appear increasingly ignorant. Meanwhile marginalised voices are again being silenced. What can we do to make sure these quieter, more thoughtful voices continue to be heard?