Siah Armajani and Rasheed Araeen – two diaspora artists who both migrated to the West – invented their own unique responses to the ingrained socio-political phenomenon of their respective societies through art. Opening on 2 April at Rossi & Rossi Wong Chuk Hang, Two Manifestos features works by these artists from the 1970s that mirror their individual experiences in cultures foreign to them. The exhibition also covers more recent works that show the synthesis of the art language each one developed.
Armajani (1939–2020), an avid protestor against the reinstalled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, left Iran in 1960 at the behest of his father who was concerned for his personal safety. Escorted by armed guards, the young Armajani arrived in the United States, in Minnesota, where he studied philosophy at Macalester College. Seven years later, he became an American citizen. This was a new official identity for the artist, albeit one that he had found in ‘exile’ from his mother country. As an immigrant, Armajani visually fulfilled his sense of belonging through Land Deeds (1970), a folder containing the signed deeds to the one square inch of land he had purchased in each of the fifty states on 16 March 1970. As Clare Davies, assistant curator of modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, points out in the 2018 exhibition catalogue Siah Armajani: Follow This Line, Armajani saw the ‘United States through the wrong end of a telescope, playing the role of the eager immigrant and acquiring land in not one but all fifty states’.
Similar sentiments of disillusionment can be found in the early photographic works of Karachi-born Araeen (b. 1935), including The One That Could Not Float Away (1970) and Christmas Day (1979). After arriving in London in 1964, the artist worked as a draughtsman and civil engineer in order to support his art-making practice in the studio that he rented on St Katharine Docks. There, he enacted the work Chakras (1969–70), a performance in which he threw painted wooden disks into the water and documented their movements around the dock for two weeks. Some disks eventually made it into the Thames, whilst others – as in The One That Could Not Float Away – ended up entangled with surrounding debris. Unlike his earlier sculptural works of stable structures such as cubes and diagonals, The One That Could Not Float Away represents a state of constant gathering and dispersal caused by natural forces, seemingly hinting at the artist’s own diasporic nature. The implication of displacement is even more pronounced in the photographic series Christmas Day, for which the artist took photos of himself alone at the London underground on 25 December 1979. The alienation the artist experienced as a new arrival in town is condensed within the frames of these selfies.
Both Armajani and Araeen eventually moved on from looking back on their own experiences to realising their own art languages. Armajani’s Four Bridges (1974–75) is a prime example of such a work. The artist once noted, ‘During the mid-sixties, I, as well as other artists, was searching for a new form of content. I turned to the social sciences as a model for a compatible methodology that would incorporate political, social and economic considerations’. It was therefore at this time that Armajani began to investigate architecture and the social aspects inherent to its practice. Amongst the field’s various forms, the bridge became a central motif for the artist. The structure not only links two separate points in space, but is also a sort of neighbourhood, a locality with a particular character and ambience. As a work of art, moreover, the bridge invites the viewer’s active participation: it is, in fact, incomplete until the onlooker traverses it. Four Bridges is Armajani’s attempt at grappling with his phenomenological understanding of bridges, insofar the importance of building them.
Armajani also draws on aesthetics from American vernacular architecture in Thomas Jefferson’s House: East Wing, Night House (1976). In it, the artist emphasises the role of partitioning and segregation at Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia estate, called Monticello, which was both a home and a plantation staffed by slaves. Through its tonal contrasts and architectural divides, the work reminds us that the primary author of the Declaration of Independence (1776), who famously wrote that ‘all men are created equal’, was also complicit in the continuation of human bondage. Armajani created Monticello-themed sculptures throughout his career, and this work, like the others, mirrors the broader oppression of the antebellum era. The viewer is thus forced to confront a history of American racism that continues to the present day.
Whilst the bridge is central to Armajani’s art language, the cross – or, more specifically, the cruciform – is the means Araeen incorporates to lay bare his many internal conflicts and concerns. Developed throughout the 1980s, the works in his Cruciform series employ the basic form of a nine-panel grid system, which creates a cross at its centre, a shape that Araeen developed through an investigation of industrial ‘structures’ during the 1960s. The five panels used to make the central cross are supported within the framework of four corner panels. In most of these works, the four corner panels are green, evoking a web of associations that play with culturally inscribed binaries of alterity and universality.
Similarly, in Jouissance (1987–94), Araeen also incorporates the grid – this time, to depict a Muslim woman in the central panel being offered ‘West’ brand cigarettes by a white woman. Surrounding this image are four scenes of bombing from the Gulf War. The juxtaposition of advert and warfare highlights a Western identity that has been constructed through both violence and coercion in a colonised society. As with the works in the Cruciform series, the central images in Jouissance, whether painted, drawn or photographic, often feature iconic art historical, religious or political references. These set up a dynamic interaction between symbols of modernism, on the one hand, and images of war, masculinity, racism, sexism, sacrifice and commercialism, on the other.
The diaspora experience inspired these artists to reflect on the established norms and traditions ingrained in their newly adopted countries, in addition to their contemporaneous concerns regarding the ever-changing social, political and cultural realities of these places. Two Manifestos, to a certain extent, reviews this trajectory; it also presents the honed, idiosyncratic expressions of both artists that continue to resonate today.