Duality Check

South China Morning Post, 15 December 2011


Pakistani artist Rashid Rana continues to court controversy while hurdling cultural boundaries


Rashid Rana does not exactly mind being labeled a Pakistani artist, but he does wonder whether the tag does justice to the larger themes in his works. “A critic friend of mine has written that my art speaks a global language, but with an accent,” he grins. “I like that better.” Considered one of his country’s top contemporary artists, Rana’s work has appeared in an impressive string of international shows, spanning the Musee Guimet in Paris to New York’s Asia Society. His Hong Kong debut, Translation/Transliterations, showcases his use of a distinct digital aesthetic to play with cultural motifs and social scenarios on one level, and study abstract visual ideas on another.

Yet it is Rana’s satirical bite, along with his love of both optical and ideological paradoxes, that has defined him among his contemporaries. Much of his work deftly attracts and then repels his audiences in an entertaining cycle. His acclaimed 2007 ‘Red Carpet’, is a digital rendition of a pretty Persian rug that, on closer inspection, becomes a montage of photographs taken in Lahore’s slaughterhouses. It set a world auction record at Sotheby’s for a Pakistani work of art. “The micro and macro images together create a kind of critical tension, and force the viewer to interact with the work and reconsider their assumptions about reality,” he explains. In creating a more recent work Rana photographed traditional Pakistani wrestlers, indulgently splashed with a little fake blood, then spliced and rearranged the imagery to create a disturbing sense of movement and mutilation.

These tendencies were perhaps most controversial in Rana’s 2004 Veil Series, in which the artist built impressionist-style images of women in Islamic burqas using a mosaics of fuzzy pornographic stills, sourced online; two opposing, inflexible stereotypes of gender in one. It was shown in London’s Saatchi Gallery among others, and was received with a good deal of media relish. Rana has enjoyed the range of reactions that it provoked. He remains amused that the question most-asked of him today is whether he has shown the series in Pakistan, a country known for the vigour of its conservative classes. “As an artist you don’t want to take too many risks, so in Lahore I show it to selected audiences and don’t generally involve media,” he admits. Yet he is bothered by the narrow representation of Pakistan by the international media. “It’s a pity, because the majority there vote for the most liberal political party – currently the Pakistan People’s Party – and Lahore has very open liberal art circles,” he says. “Pakistan is a micro-version of the globe. There are strong obscenity laws in Hong Kong too – I looked into them – and,” he adds with a smile, “I won’t tell you the name of the country in Europe where my work got censored.”

Rana’s playfully provocative approach has helped him beat a path to notoriety. After a Fine Arts MA from the Massachusetts College of Art in the early 90s, he decided to reach for the widest audience possible. “I wanted to make art that could compete with billboards: large, easy to understand; something that could grab you when you’re driving but then pull you into the paradoxes and the deeper content,” he recalls.  He initially worked with acrylic on canvas, photographic and video performances, and collages of found material among other media, and supported himself, as he still does, as a professor at Lahore’s School of Visual Art & Design, which he co-founded at its Beaconhouse National University. Yet it was his experiments in digital photomontage that brought commercial success, around six years ago. And although he had started out using fairly rudimentary techniques, Rana can now afford to stretch the technological boundaries of the medium with the latest programmes and processes. One of his still photo series, Desperately Seeking Paradise, cost him $100,000 to produce. ”I’m not saying that money necessarily produces good art,” he says. “But it has definitely given me more freedom to explore.” [Continued below].


Buoyed by his success, Rana now confidently chases concepts that are more visually abstract and of less immediate danger to hapless drivers. He delves most often into ideas of duality and polarization, teasing out new tensions between micro and macro images. His influences run extremely broad, from Pakistan’s late Zahoor ul-Akhlaq, who also merged abstract and traditional vernaculars, to the challenging visual language of American Op artist Ross Bleckner; and he admits a particular soft spot for provocative German visual artist Gerhard Richter. He has also started to take his digital work into the third dimension, printing images on aluminium cubes in a bid, he says, to challenge conventional ideas about the way photographic work can represent social and physical realities.

Many of Rana’s ideas continue to be triggered by events or images around his home city, Lahore, but are then developed into more transcendental themes. His Language Series for example [pictured above and below], plays with photographs of Urdu text collected in and around the city that, up close, are reavealed as transliterations of western words and names. While this can be read as casting comment on Pakistan’s colonial past, the artist is much more interested in the way the work explores text as an abstract, non-verbal image, open to multiple uses.

In this way Rana, though clearly a satisfied product of Pakistan and a willing commentator on its cultural intricacies, intends to bypass cultural borders. “I don’t want to be dismissive of my surroundings, or deny my past, but they don’t affect me to the extent that my work is only about ‘issues’. If I have to talk about an issue I can have a discussion or write a sentence, but to translate something into a visual form requires much more breadth,” he says. “Pakistan is an important part of my identity, but at the end of the day my art is also about transcending it.”