Saturday, 30 November 2013


By Zofeen T. Ebrahim

"I have nothing against paint or the brush, but I will only use it if and when I have a reason to," says Rashid Rana, one of Pakistan’s most celebrated artists, who utilizes thousands of images to create his works.

"Right now I am quite happy with the technique I am using," he adds.

Rashid Rana's "Desperately Seeking Paradise", a
stainless steel structure with images of Lahore.
Acclaimed both in Pakistan and abroad, Rana gave an exclusive walking tour of his exhibition “Labyrinth of Reflections: the art of Rashid Rana 1992 – 2012” at the Mohatta Palace Museum, in Karachi, earlier this month - following the launch of a book of his works, by the same name.

Oddly, the Palace's majestic exterior in pink and yellow stone and the opulent interior with tiled floors made perfect sense as a place to hold Rana's exhibits, which reflect, by his own admission, the "paradoxes we all live with". He says that his works also "document my own contradictions" and "those that are outside".

Rana's seminal mid-career retrospective, which includes more than 60 works done over a period of two decades and which forms the museum's 17th exhibition, has been a runaway success. For Rana himself, seeing all of his work "under one roof" for the very first time has made him take stock of the momentous journey he has undertaken.

He is happy with what he terms the "micro-macro device" whereby a huge, single software-generated image is created by using thousands of “pixelated” images. These are not all photographs taken by him and he says unabashedly that some "are borrowed from other sources, including the Net" to make the exhibits he terms "original".

For example, on closer inspection, the image of a huge colonial building in the eastern city of Lahore, in Punjab province (to which Rana belongs), is composed of thousands of pointillist photographs.

Rana's "Red Carpet", with images of blood and flesh.
In similar manner, the images of the huge red Persian carpets, which he confesses became an instant "commercial success", comprise miniature images of blood and flesh.

"The carpet is the exotic orient and the small thumbnail images inside represent the violence we see around us," he explains. "There is a streak in us that loves sex and violence."

As one goes from one image to the next, it seems clear that Rana is consumed by the theme of "duality" that reflects the "polarities of our times".  Using this theme has helped the "ideas" brewing in his mind to take shape.

"I keep re-inventing so never tire of it, at least not yet," he says. Thus conventional paint and brush seem to have been swept out of his life for now.

While one finds Rana enjoying the overwhelming attention he is getting across the globe (he has said on various occasions: "I don't want my work to be seen just by an audience of twenty"), he emphasizes at the same time that "contemporary art should engage with people not only within the art circle” but "outside the creative world". He would be happiest to see his work being shown in public places - "like shopping malls" - for all to enjoy. 
Put up nine months ago, in February, the exhibition received new impetus this week when the museum launched a heavy tome, which has been described as “flawless” by Naazish Ataullah, former principal of Lahore's National College of Arts, of which Rana is a graduate. The book gives a veritable "insight into the artist's creative journey" and includes six essays by heavyweights in the academic world such as Ataullah herself.   
Rana - a "rock star" artist
Fondly terming him a "rock star in the US", Sherry Rehman, Pakistan's former ambassador to the United States, and a trustee of the Mohatta who presided over the book launch, said Rana definitely did not fit the label of "a cookie-cutter artist".

By not catering to "drawing room art", Rehman said Rana's art had the "power to challenge dogma". His art was challenging, she said, because "he refuses to be overly worrying of what people will think". That is a test of great art -- "it moves and transforms you," she added.

Zofeen T. Ebrahim is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.