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Pictures and Objects

Author: Aasim Akhtar      Publications: Encore–(p.32)      Dated: 25 Mar 2012

Exhibition Navigation

The response of artists today to the experience or the idea of the holy pilgrimage is manifested in a great many ways through photography and other media.

Since its introduction to the public in 1915 at “The Last Futurist Exhibition 0.10″in Petrograd, Kazimir Malevichs Black Square has intrigued and bewildered artists and critics searching for its meaning. Malevichs fellow avant-gardism Step nova conveyed the paintings conceptual instability when in 1919 she concluded in her diary: “If we look at the square without mystical faith, as if it were a real earthy fact, then what is it?” This reluctance to accept Black Square on a strictly formal basis may well have endured in Nahid Razas recent body of mixed-media paintings on canvas and paper, on show at Chawkandi Art in Karachi. By positioning the square as a new icon rather than as the “icon of the new art”, the show diluted the original ambitions of the controversial canvases, which directly concern the goals of early modernism.

Black Square marked Malevichs complete break from representation – a move the artist had begun plotting a year before, when he was still experimenting with Cuba-Futurism. Razas cube-shaped addition would seem to provide the perfect context for the exhibition entitled The Square but the exterior effect is disrupted by the ornate ornamentation of the large square. This configuration, intended to evoke the sacred Kaaba in Mecca, sounded a religious note but the problem with applying Russian-style messianic rhetoric to Razas painting, however, is evident in a small section of the exhibition devoted to the artists course after the Umrah, where her work becomes increasingly ideological as she expands her focus from painting, to design and architecture, which Malevich saw as the ultimate arena for Suprematism.

Nahid Razas spatial constructions (also reconstructions) bring to the fore without actually addressing the theoretical and formal differences between the two major movements in the history of the Russian avant-garde, Suprematism and Constructivism. Distinctions among artistic strategies are ignored where polychromatic shapes from the tiny to the monumental compete with each other in vain – all predictably square.

Such historical schisms are certainly in need of re-evaluation; the exhibition, however, simply chose to ignore them.

Another missed opportunity among Razas efforts to display the square as an easy target for perpetual appropriation involved the failure to properly introduce her own emotional association with the form. Juxtaposing 30 squares underscores the artists view that “intellect is more important than eye”. These paintings, of course, feature black and multi-coloured squares, but their defiance of painting as a bearer of the sublime and the singular makes the link more than just a formal one.

One is reminded of Gerhard Merzs Marte mi danno (Give me Death), 1998, in which the title phrase appears above a black square; entitled Corpse of Art, 2003, it is a macabre appropriation of a well-known photograph of Malevich lying in state in an architectonic coffin designed by Nikolai Suetin, a framed black square leaning down from the wall above the body. With these final eschatological references, Raza insists on keeping The Square in the prison house of mystical faith.

One can imagine that, like heavily worked palimpsests, Razas paintings hold long-lost texts deep within their densities; bursting with corrections, emendations and punctuation, they beg, mutely to be deciphered. Hajr-e-Aswad or the Black Stone, kissed, touched and made some gesture of salutation appears mostly as a free-floating motif in these paintings. If the hands as a recurrent leitmotif in the series of paintings called Touch signify the ritual of touching the walls of the Kaaba, and if the square transcends its religious connotations, how does the artist envision womanhood in these works? Does the artist equate the Black Stone that may resemble a black hole or Shagaaf with the origin of life?

Convinced of paintings transcendent power, Naheed Raza has once again tested her own painterly mettle with a hazardous subject: The Holy Kaaba. If to the art world painting itself was marginal, Kaaba pictures are the epitome of irrelevance. The exhibition reveals Raza focusing skilfully on strategies: colour combinations, shape and buoyant responses to art history yet the paintings surfaces, light and colour are too flat to convey the physical or metaphysical expansiveness of her subject, How even Razas pictorial organisation and lyrical colour stains allow her to pull off several unabashed depictions of the glowing square. But in most, she risks a compendium of clichés.

Raza has long proven herself to be particularly adept at putting an intriguing spin on womens traditional arts. In the past, she has abstracted from weaving and braiding techniques, while the new works rely upon stitching and binding. One cant escape the veiled threat in their suggestion of restraint. She also deliberately cultivates certain art historical precedents, only to upend them. Square # 14, an impressively scaled work feels – for all its suavity of handling – only a hairs breadth from disturbing. Crossed by thin straps in silver and red ribbons tied and glued to the surface and buried in a seductive Pompeian red, it recalls both Rauschenbergs rumpled, paradigmatic Bed of 1955, and gritty Art Brut paintings.

Paintings may be pictures, but they are always objects. The blatant materiality of Naheed Razas canvases and papers make them seem part of an awkwardly dense installation of paintings in the main gallery, subverting by sheer overload the self-importance of an elegant painting installation. A body of work that set out to project an image of self-effacement has ended up in the position of a market leader, forced to defy the context, which defines it, as such in order to attempt to maintain its original integrity. Of course, as Razas paintings have become more valuable, her devices have also become aesthetic conventions. A cultivated air of dissolution can only appear self-contradictory when success has made it a desirable attribute.