The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain is among the small number of historically significant exhibitions held in 1989 that have collectively shaped an emergent geography of art after the Second World War.1
The singular-minded effort of artist and activist Rasheed Araeen, The Other Story was a polemical intervention in what Araeen saw as the exclusive canon of Euro-American modernism.2 Taking up the entire exhibition space of London's Hayward Gallery from November 1989 to February 1990, The Other Story was a rare and visible showcase for the work of 24 artists of Asian, African, or Caribbean cultural heritage who had lived and worked for a significant part of their professional lives in post-war Britain.
A brief glance at Araeen's correspondence with the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Hayward Gallery—which stretches from 1978 to 1989—uncovers the singular determination that cajoled, persuaded, bullied, and willed this exhibition into being, even in the face of persistent and wide-ranging opposition.
I found your letter depressing not really because I found my proposal being turned down—it was in a way expected, but for the complacency which your Exhibition committee has shown towards such an important issue. It did not even think it necessary to initiate a preliminary investigation to collect more information and visual material before coming to such a definite decision.
—Rasheed Araeen to Andrew Dempsey (Assistant Director, Arts Council of Great Britain), 9 August 1979
Araeen's potent mixture of assuredness, perseverance, and thickness of skin was also needed to face the largely hostile reaction that the exhibition received at the hands of the British press. The file of press clippings collected by Araeen reveals large swathes of parochialism, tinged with casual flashes of racism.
For the moment, the work of Afro-Asian artists in the west is no more than a curiosity, not yet worth even a footnote in any history of 20th-century western art.
—Brian Sewell, "Pride or Prejudice?," Sunday Times (London Magazine), Nov 26 1989
It was this provincialism that had prompted a multi-strand and collaborative attempt by "Afro-Asian artists" to fight for visibility, and the significance of The Other Story needs to be viewed in this light. Jean Fisher's paper on the subject, "The Other Story and the Past Imperfect" offers one such consideration—sympathetic, but critical—of this context, and the modes in which the exhibition operated.3
The purpose of these notes is not to revisit The Other Story per se, but examine its afterlife; to explore its historical significance through the lens of more recent exhibition projects. This inquiry accompanies the process of Asia Art Archive's digitising the personal papers of Araeen connected with The Other Story, and is part of AAA's ongoing interest in the role of exhibitions in furthering art historical development in Asia.4 But before connecting The Other Story with more recent exhibition projects, I would like to address two features that are significant in understanding its impact.
First is the significance of timeliness. Araeen initially proposed the exhibition that became The Other Story in 1978 as a corrective to what Fisher so memorably describes as the "malodorous trace of this privileged Western canon." But by the time the exhibition was realised more than a decade later, the ground had shifted. These changes were signalled in part by the commercial success and institutional recognition of a handful of artists who refused Araeen's invitation to participate in The Other Story in 1989.5 This rejection was gleefully picked on by critics to undermine Araeen's premise—a historical re-evaluation of multi-cultural contributions to modernism—one that remained sound, but that by 1989, was obscured by the elision between the modern and the contemporary. Araeen's project was aimed at challenging the largely mono-cultural European historical formulations of modernism that were in ready circulation. But it stumbled on a shifting temporal ground where the shiny new edifice of a "global" contemporary was rapidly being built over this foundational past, partly effacing it, but, most importantly, without being in critical conversation with it.6
Second is the issue of intent. Araeen was doggedly insistent on compelling the Arts Council and the South Bank Centre (which houses the Hayward Gallery) to acknowledge the significance of research in building an archive of material to support the exhibition, and for the catalogue to be an extension of this endeavour.7 When considered alongside his role in founding the influential journal Third Text, his still unrealised efforts at commissioning a team of art historians to write "The Whole Story," or his attempts at creating an infrastructure to support his MRB (Multi-Racial Britain) Project, it anchors the exhibition in a wider personal mission to identify art's capacity to be both a site and a method for engaging history.8 This mission continues, for Araeen, to be urgent and necessary:
It is art by which modernity as an advancing force is defined with its exclusive European subjectivity; only art can confront neo-imperialism and offer a model of de-colonisation.
—Rasheed Araeen to Chen Kuan-Hsing, 11 August 2013. Published in AAA's online journal Field Notes.9
It is for such an engagement with history, or histories, for which The Other Story acts as a hinge between two recent exhibitions (or sets of exhibitions), in Britain and Asia, actively engaged in the business of constructing histories, and what passed before.
Tate Britain's exhibition Migrations: Journeys into British Art (2012) was an attempt to map the impact of immigrant artists on the landscape of "British" art over the past 500 years, an effort to productively complicate the "Britain" in Tate Britain.
As a public intervention in the emotionally charged and politically toxic debate on immigration raging in the UK, it was timely. As an exhibition that sought a collective conversation on how Britain's visual culture was absorbed and changed by its deep historical connections with its colonial territories, it was ambitious but flawed. A visitor to Migrations would struggle to see the connections between, say, Anthony van Dyck, the seventeenth-century Flemish court painter of Charles I, and the Black Audio Film Collective's formally and politically radical film essays in the 1980s, save the "foreign" cultural origin of the artists.
If we sharpen our focus to one of the nine galleries covering the different eras that comprised the exhibition, Migrations can be read as a partial restaging of The Other Story, and in terms of timescale, an expansion of it. I am not suggesting that Migrations was an example of the currently de rigueur reconstruction of key exhibitions that we see being enthusiastically adopted all around the world.10 I see it, instead, as an inadvertent restaging: compelled, as if by a ghost, to address questions that were left unanswered. These questions interrogate the mechanisms through which the formation of British culture was shaped in the twentieth century, and the actors that played (or were allowed to play) significant roles in its shaping.
There is a longer-term inquiry here into how (and indeed whether) these artworks, and the discourses they were embedded in, changed during the 23 years it took them to move from the South Bank to Millbank. At the heart of this inquiry is the question of what is needed for exhibitions to make meaningful interventions into the histories associated with the site where they are temporarily housed. And what happens when these interventions are resisted? Does the spirit of the exhibition that cannot make peace with the place it inhabits embark on a generational haunting of exhibitions to come? Is Migrations one such haunting? How does one bust this ghost?
In one of the artist interviews in the catalogue accompanying Migrations, Kodwo Eshun—through a reading of Perry Anderson's influential essay, "Components of National Culture" (New Left Review, July–August 1968)—argues that modernism in Britain was "marginal, provisional and above all encumbered."11 He underlines Anderson's thesis that Britain was receptive only to the "self-consciously conservative or 'white' migrants" (as opposed to "red" Frankfurt School Marxists, such as Theodor Adorno) and attracted figures such as Ernst Gombrich and Edgar Wind because of the "placid settlement of its anti-fascist imperialist culture." Eshun contrasts the "extraordinary dominance" that figures such as Gombrich enjoyed in Britain, with the experience of artists of the calibre of Mondrian, Gropius, and Moholy-Nagy who "spent a brief and obscure sojourn here, before crossing the Atlantic to a more hospitable environment."
Eshun's conclusions concerning the "insularity and provincialism of British culture" are not far from Araeen's own articulations in The Other Story’s catalogue. And this echoing of accompanying texts was mirrored by the exhibition itself, with numerous artworks that were shown in The Other Story also being shown in Migrations—from Anwar J. Shemza's Chessman One to F. N. Souza's Crucifixion to David Medalla's Cloud Canyons.
Araeen's own assessment of Migrations was unflattering. He professed not to understand why his work was placed in conversation with that of "[Avinash] Chandra, [Anwar Jalal] Shemza or [Aubrey] Williams."12 On pointing out that this was surely the same group of artists that he had put himself in conversation within The Other Story, he elaborated that "The Other Story was a first step into integration" of these artists' work into a "mainstream art history," and needed to be framed as such. To repeat that framing—asserting the "separateness" that Araeen had felt compelled to adopt as the polemical core of The Other Story—more than three decades on, felt for him, a sort of failure.13 So here was an echo of the reasons that artists like Kim Lim ("to participate would be to self-consciously place myself in a situation of 'otherness'") had offered in declining the invitation to be part of The Other Story.14
It could be argued that Migrations is an example of what Chen Kuan-Hsing has described in Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization as the need for the work of cultural decolonisation in former colonies to be mirrored by a process of "deimperialization" in former colonial centres, to critically examine imperial conduct, motives, desires, and consequences.15 From this perspective, one can see The Other Story as being the first step in this process.
The subtitle for Migrations poses a tantalising question: is migration "into British Art" matched by an emigration out of other places? Where does British history intersect with that of India, or Pakistan, or Taiwan? How are we to make sense of such entanglements?
The past year (2014) has been a landmark one in the artistic career of Araeen, with two significant exhibitions—Before and After Minimalism at the Sharjah Art Foundation, and Rasheed Araeen: Homecoming at Karachi’s VM Art Gallery; two multi-authored publications—The Triumph of Icarus: Life and Art of Rasheed Araeen, and Rasheed Araeen: Homecoming; and a first-time solo presentation in an art fair (Art Dubai)—which led to irony-free claims of his art being the "discovery" of the fair in Artforum.16
Araeen (b. 1935) the London-based artist, activist, writer, editor and erstwhile curator of The Other Story, trained initially as a civil engineer in Karachi, Pakistan. Recognising that his artistic vision would not find sustenance in the deeply conservative Pakistan art scene, he moved to London in 1964, where he became known for formal, geometric sculptures often created from simple materials. Working at the same time and tackling superficially similar formal concerns as American artists Sol Lewitt and Donald Judd, Araeen's work was equally pioneering, but did not readily fit into the narratives being built around American Minimalism. And there was not enough critical and institutional interest to build alternative ones.
Frustrated by his own experience, and that of other artists of Asian, African, and Caribbean origin working and living in Britain, Araeen's work became increasingly informed by his social and political convictions. He took on activist roles with organisations such as the Black Panthers and Artists for Democracy, and founded the critical journals Black Phoenix and, most importantly, Third Text.17 Through his artwork, his writing and editorial work at Third Text, as well as his energetic participation in critical forums worldwide, Araeen has been at the forefront of the politically charged discourse between artists, institutions, and audiences for over four decades.
Given the import of politics in Araeen's life and work, it is interesting to note that neither of the two retrospective-like exhibitions in Sharjah or Karachi featured his politically engaged work. There was no space for How Could One Paint a Self-Portrait or The Golden Verses or Paki Bastard or I Love It: It Loves I—or dozens of other works that took on issues of racism, social justice, identity, and otherness to poke holes in the "universality" of modernist tropes, and challenged institutions to step outside their mono-cultural realms.
Instead, both exhibitions showcased: early works from Karachi, tracing his development as a painter; minimalist sculptures and documentation of kinetic works from London; and major new works—in Sharjah, a large-scale sculptural commission, and in Karachi, a large suite of geometrical paintings. The Karachi paintings, collectively titled Homecoming, were realised by deploying blocks of flat colour to spell, in Arabic, the names of important Arab/Muslim thinkers (e.g., Ibn Sina, or Avicenna), or terms developed from the Sufi concept of ishq, which exceeds its rough translation of "love, passion or desire."18 This is a potent mixture of geography, history, philosophy, and aesthetics, and skirts dangerously with Islamicate readings of his work, which had previously left him "irritated and annoyed."19 The catalogue accompanying the Karachi exhibition also opens up a dialogue between Araeen's work and that of two modernist painters from Pakistan—Sadequain and Hanif Ramay—who were also experimenting with the relationship between calligraphy and painting.
Is the Homecoming suite a "late style," connecting to intellectual, philosophical, and aesthetic traditions that Araeen had so far resisted? The insertion of Araeen into one of the "mainstream," and frequently nationalistic, genealogies of art history in Pakistan may indeed be an art historical homecoming, but what work does it do in shaping readings of Araeen, the British artist?
Also in 2014, the Taipei Fine Art Museum (TFAM) staged a major retrospective (larger in scale and scope than the above exhibition projects on Araeen) on the life and work of another artist who featured in both The Other Story and Migrations, Li Yuan-chia (1929–1994). Li was born in Mainland China, but migrated to Taiwan in 1949, where he helped found the Ton Fan Group. In the early 1960s, he moved first to Italy—where he helped found another artist group Il Punto (the Point) in Bologna—and then to the UK. He lived briefly in London, showing at Signals and the Lisson Gallery, before finally settling in Cumbria, Northern England. There, with the support of artist Winifred Nicholson, he set up the LYC Museum and Art Gallery, which showed the work of more than 300 artists between 1972–1983.
Li's early work references both Chinese calligraphy and Western tendencies in abstraction. But he is best known for his long-term engagement with the concept of "the point," which for him was "the Origin and the End of Creation."20 This spiritual framing recalls philosophical traditions stretching from Buddhism to Sufism. It also opens up a cornucopia of readings, navigating the space between symbolism and abstraction through increasingly ambitious formal experiments realised most memorably as painting-like monochrome white reliefs, and round metal sheets painted in single colours, to which are attached magnets bearing letters that can be moved to construct concrete poems.
These sets of works were common to The Other Story, Migrations, and the TFAM's "Viewpoint: A Retrospective of Li Yuan-chia." But within the more expansive remit of the TFAM exhibition, they were placed in conversation with Li's often less well-covered "Taipei period" (1949–1962). The exhibition was anchored in archival research, presented documents as well as art works, and suggested an effort at reappraisal—an effort so intense, that the catalogue that was to accompany the show is still in the making. This project can be seen as an attempt to reclaim and firmly position an artist, who left Taiwan in 1962 and never returned, as one of "Taiwan’s earliest pioneers of abstract art and conceptual art."21
What do these new curatorial emphases suggest in terms of national claims or reclamations of work of both Li and Araeen? Will their Pakistani and Taiwanese readings inject new or at least different life into their work produced in the UK? Are these examples of a singular Modern being stretched to include multiple trajectories, different geographies and variable temporalities? Or do these efforts contribute towards constructing narratives of different modernities instead of a "universal" Modern—a project whose most trenchant critic so far has been Araeen himself?
In the summer of 2013, while walking through Tate Britain's rehang of their permanent collection, I stumbled on a corner where the work of Anwar Jalal Shemza faced off that of Eduardo Paolozzi.
A few years prior to that, Tate Modern had introduced Rasheed Araeen's rigorous but colourful symmetrical sculpture Rang Baranga into a room full of the pristine hard-edged minimalism of Judd, Andre, LeWitt, and company.
If you were to walk into Tate Modern today, you would see a room of Li Yuan-chia's work as part of the "Structure and Clarity" section of their permanent collection.22
Almost all of this work—in many cases dating back to the 1960s—was acquired in the last ten years. While this may come across as critique dressed up as compliment, it is appropriate to recognise this institutional effort by Tate—in stark contrast to most other prominent international museums who have focused exclusively on a globalised contemporary—to address and update its own historical collection.
For it is by enacting such enduring transformations in the permanent collection—by changing existing narratives or crafting new ones—that exhibitions can bust art historical ghosts.
1. Other influential exhibitions in 1989 include Magiciens de la Terres at Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Third Havana Biennale and China/ Avant-Garde Exhibition in Beijing.
2. Rasheed Araeen is a member of Asia Art Archive's Advisory Board.
3. Jean Fisher, "The Other Story and the Past Imperfect," Tate Papers. Accessed online at http://www.tate.org.uk/research/tateresearch/tatepapers/09autumn/fisher
4. Selected personal papers of Rasheed Araeen associated with The Other Story are currently being digitised, and will be made available online for research purposes. For more on AAA's efforts to address exhibition histories, see details of AAA's major 2013 conference on the subject, Sites of Construction: Exhibitions and the Making of Recent Art History in Asia: http://www.aaa.org.hk/en/programmes/programmes/sites-of-construction/search/keywords:sites-of-construction/period/past
5. Shirazeh Houshiary, Anish Kapoor, Kim Lim, and Dhruva Mistry.
6. For one account of this formation, see the research and exhibition project The Global Contemporary and the Rise of the New Art Worlds, eds., Hans Belting, Andrea Buddensieg, Peter Weibel (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013).
7. Correspondence between Araeen and Dempsey (between July to November 1987) evidences the South Bank Centre's agreement to provide a supplementary research budget of £4,000, in addition to the fee of £6,000 offered for the "selection" of the exhibition.
8. "The Whole Story: Art in Postwar Britain" is aimed at producing the most comprehensive and inclusive history of art in postwar Britain.
10. Prominent recent examples include the Fondazione Prada's 2013 restaging of Harald Szeemann's 1969 When Attitudes Become Form, or the Jewish Museum's 2014 revisiting of Kyanston McShine's 1966 Primary Structures.
11. Artist interview: Kodwo Eshun, in Migrations: Journeys into British Art, ed., Lizzie Carey-Thomas (London: Tate Publishing, 2012), 109–112.
12. Conversation with the author, London, 8 August 2014.
13. Rasheed Araeen, letter to Andrew Dempsey, 28 October 1978. Rasheed Araeen Archives. In this initial letter, Araeen explains his thinking in setting out the premise for an exhibition that became The Other Story: "There doesn't seem to be any choice for us except in asserting now our historical presence here separately."
14. Kim Lim, letter to Andrew Dempsey, 9 June 1988. Rasheed Araeen Archives.
15. Chen Kuan-Hsing, Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010).
16. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, "Global Affair" in Artforum, last accessed on 14 Dec 2014, http://artforum.com/diary/id=45990
17. Rasheed Araeen founded Third Text in 1987, and remained as Editor until 2011.
18. For more on the ideas behind these works see Iftikhar Dadi’s, "Rasheed Araeen's Homecoming" in Rasheed Araeen: Homecoming, ed., Amra Ali (Karachi: VM Art Gallery), 87–98.
19. See Rasheed Araeen, "How I discovered My Oriental Soul in the Wilderness of the West," Third Text, no 18, Spring 1992, 85–102.
20. Li Yuan-chia, letter to Andrew Dempsey, 3 July 1989, quoted in Rasheed Araeen, The Other Story: Afro Asia artists in post-war Britain (London: Hayward Gallery, 1989), 57.
21. Didactic text on the website of the Taipei Fine Art Museum, last accessed on 4 Dec 2014, http://www.tfam.museum/Exhibition/Exhibition_page.aspx?id=498&ddlLang=en-us
22. The Li Yuan-chia work is on display at Tate Modern (Level 4 West: Room 8, The Edward C Cohen Gallery) until October 11, 2015.
Hammad Nasar is Head of Research and Programmes at Asia Art Archive.