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.  

Monday 18 November 2013


The global trade of creative goods and services totaled a record US$624 billion in 2011 and more than doubled from 2002 to 2011, according to a special edition of the United Nations Creative Economy Report which was launched in Paris, France, this month.

Life is art: an artist at work in a shop window. © SWAN.
Yet, many governments are still not doing enough to support culture and to encourage creativity and innovation. While culture ministers have to keep begging for a greater slice of the budget pie around the world, those who control the purse strings still need convincing.

“In most cases, culture has been relegated to inferior status in trade discourse and economic prescriptions within the world’s banking and financial sectors and ministries of finance,” says Jamaica’s Minister of Youth and Culture, Lisa Hanna.

“This is in spite of the data that show that culture and creative industries are among the fastest growing sectors in the world, even in the face of a global recession,” Hanna said in a speech at the UN General Assembly earlier this year. She reiterated the points last week before the launch of the report at the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO.

Apart from the financial aspect, the report stresses that “creativity and culture also have a significant non-monetary value that contributes to inclusive social development, to dialogue and understanding between peoples”.

The creative economy gives rise to job creation and export earnings for countries, the report shows, with the sector including new media, performing arts, audiovisual products, design, publishing and the visual arts.

A young man learns film-making in Guatemala.
© UNESCO/International Fund for Cultural Diversity.
Between 2002 and 2011, developing countries experienced an average of 12.1 percent annual growth in exports of creative goods, but there is still an “urgent need" to find new development pathways that can encourage creativity and innovation, the report says. The aim is to achieve sustainable growth that is both inclusive and equitable, it adds.

Many experts would like to see culture become a part of the next UN programme when the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) reach their term in 2015, and they’re making their voices increasingly heard.

We want culture to be a definite part of the post-2015 agenda which will be decided next year, and we're ready to negotiate our role," said Francesco Bandarin, UNESCO’s Assistant-Director General for Culture. 

He told SWAN that culture isn't just about "going to a concert or the cinema after work" but it includes "valuing local musical traditions" such as the "immensely rich traditions in Africa", and setting up enterprises that generate employment in the music industry, for instance.

Hanna, the Jamaican minister, said there is evidence that “culture provides a platform which transcends all boundaries … and unites all peoples in our collective engagement to secure equals rights and justice, peace and security, recognition and acceptance for ordinary men and women of the world.”

Music spices up the Caribbean economy. © SWAN
But she said that in spite of her nation’s “creative imagination and global impact”, Jamaica had not been able to “reap the full rewards of its cultural prowess”.

“This is largely a consequence of global economic and industrial policies that have not taken into account the role of culture in development,” Hanna said.

The report aims to change attitudes by the breadth of its coverage. It highlights examples of how the creative economy is diverse and innovative, “enhancing lives and livelihoods” at the local level in developing countries.

In Argentina, for instance, the cultural and creative industries employ some 300,000 people and represent 3.5 percent of the country’s GDP, while in Morocco, publishing and printing employ 1.8 per cent of the workforce, with a turnover of more than US$370 million, the report says.

In Bangkok, Thailand, there are more than 20,000 businesses in the fashion industry alone, while across the region, young people are earning a living as small-scale designers and dressmakers.

In Zimbabwe, the Pamberi Book Trust Café is an “innovative example of the arts being made into a sustainable business”, the report says. The partnership between an independent cultural non-governmental organization and a commercial entity has given rise to projects such as FLAME (female literary, arts and music enterprise) that bring women artists into Zimbabwean mainstream arts.

These pioneering programmes help to boost the participation of creative industry professionals in both local and global markets, the report states.

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