Rashid Rana’s name has become synonymous with contemporary Pakistani art, having made headlines for his work fetching the highest price (Red Carpet for 623,000 USD at Sotheby’s New York) amongst all Pakistani artists, living or deceased, at international art auctions (the late Sadequain’s work comes second in price). Rashid takes Mahlia Lone through his journey of becoming such a renowned and best-selling artist

Rana is the first living artist in the world to have had a “survey solo exhibition” at the prestigious Muse Guimet Paris. Rana’s work is in top international collections, including the venerable British Museum in London, Metropolitan Museum in New York City and Fukuoka Museum in Japan, among many other private and public institutions.

Just some of the awards the master artist has received include the Asia Art Award by Asia Society and Game Changer Asia Art Award by the Asia Society in 2017 (the only Pakistan based artist to have received this honour). In addition, he continues to inspire and educate students by playing a pivotal role in the field of art education in Pakistan not only by having taught at the NCA and PIFD but also as founding faculty of the School of Visual Arts and Design, BNU, and heading it as its dean.

You have the distinction of being the Pakistani artist, living or deceased, whose art fetches the highest price? Tell us about that. How does it make you feel?

It does feel good; it also gives me more opportunities to make more exciting, ambitious work. Let me clarify here that I’m not the beneficiary of all these sales of millions of Rupees that you often hear on the news from international auction houses. When collectors who had acquired my work many years ago for very nominal prices send some works to auction, they sometimes do fetch these ridiculously high prices. Even if I’m not the direct beneficiary, it does feel gratifying momentarily but money is not the ultimate criteria. It’s the other achievements and milestones that have a longer lasting effect.

“Money is not the ultimate criteria”

I never thought initially for people buying my art that it would make such a good investment.  I’ve learnt how the art market functions over the years but I’m always a few steps behind. It feels good to know that other people are benefitting from my work. I personally have done well enough that I can afford to make more ambitious and challenging works.

“All ideas that have an intellectual worth acquire material and financial worth as well”

Your work is quite a lucrative investment then isn’t it?

We live in a capitalist world so all ideas that have an intellectual worth acquire material and financial worth as well. It’s something you and I can’t control in the larger economic system that we operate in. There are a few steps that one can take, which I’ve followed. When my work first started selling for huge prices, I decided to step back and check myself to see what I was producing, neither to play to the gallery nor to the market and give it a break and not to overproduce

“It’s good to surround yourself with creative out of the box ideas in your environment”

Rashid Rana in his home surrounded by his collection of thought-provoking works of young, contemporary artists

Don’t a lot of Indians collect your work?

Yes, initially my work was well received in India when I exhibited there in 2004 but since then many notable international collectors, public and private, have acquired my work as well.

“Whoever you are is your identity and whatever you do is your culture”

GQ India included you in their list of 12 Pakistanis of all time who have influenced Indian pop culture, including Imran Khan, Nazia Hassan, Nusrat Fateh Ali and Fawad Khan. How did you become such an icon there?

Art and artists are not as famous among the masses as people from show biz or cricket but in terms of the journey my career is perhaps similar to my counterparts from other disciplines whose names you have mentioned. Perhaps this is owing to the fact that, since the late 1990s after my initial abstract works, I started using visual strategies that were more appealing to the wider audience; I started collecting and incorporating imagery from popular and broad visual culture, including Lollywood and Bollywood (you would find Sultan Rahi and Shahrukh appearing in some of my works from that period).

Your work hangs at the British Museum. That’s quite an achievement.

Yes, they have a work of mine titled I Love Miniatures in their collection. They included this work in the Treasures of the World from the British Museum travelling exhibition that went to the Singapore Museum of Art. The aim was to bring together selected objects from entire human history in one exhibition – hence a newspaper labeled the exhibition as “Human history in 239 objects from the British Museum.” I felt proud and humbled at the same time to have my work featured in this unique context.

“Tradition is an illusion of permanence”

And as many as 27 of your works were displayed at the Musee Guimet (France’s national museum of Asian art) in Paris as well.

Yes, the president of the Musée Guimet then, Jacques Giès wanted the museum’s displays to reflect the link between heritage and contemporary art. For the first time in the museum’s history they displayed a large number of works by contemporary artists that included my digital photomontages and sculptures mixed into the museum’s permanent collections alongside ancient artifacts including Buddha statuettes.

How is your art relevant to someone who can’t afford to buy your work?

Don’t worry about not affording my art, even I can’t afford it. You don’t see my work in my home. (Chuckles)

We can see in your home that you collect young artists’ work. Guide us how we too can build our collections.

It’s good to have an object in your possession but it’s not about being acquisitive. You can still appreciate the work even if you don’t own it. As far as collecting art is concerned, my message to young collectors is to support young artists even if their work seems unsellable or uncollectable to you, for instance video installations and performance art. I support buying someone’s idea even if it doesn’t have a physical form. I fully encourage collectors to come forward and support young artists. Even if its financial value doesn’t appreciate, it’s good to surround yourself with creative, out of the box ideas in your environment.

At the end of the day, these are ideas. Art doesn’t just have to be painting, sculpture or something tangible but can very well be ephemeral in nature. There are young artists now whose work can only be experienced on social media so you can’t acquire it physically. There’s a whole range of possibilities in which one can engage in art and ideas. As long as you have interest in it, that’s all that matters.

Tell us about the concepts behind your work. What are the ideas you want to share with GT readers?

That’s a very broad topic. My interests are extremely diverse. At the end of the day, I’m interested in the visual language itself. The initial phase of my career was all about documenting paradoxes and contradictions within me and outside of me. Then gradually I became more interested in challenging the viewer’s perception of time and place or time and space. As a whole what connects my entire practice is the fact that I do not believe any prescribed notions of identity.

I really believe that anyone born in the Third World countries that were colonized has to avoid falling into the trap of identity that’s often reduced to the country or the religion. There are so many multiple aspects to your personality and don’t undermine those in order to fit into a one-dimensional frame that you want to put on your identity. In a sense, an individual has a whole world inside him/her. Therefore, whoever you are is your identity and whatever you do is your culture.

If you are an artist born say in Amsterdam, no one will ask you why your work doesn’t resemble Rembrandt’s. But if you were born in Pakistan, then suddenly you will be asked whether your work looks Pakistani enough or not. I think this is a trap. If you are a Pakistani, then whatever you produce is Pakistani. In Woody Allen’s words, “Tradition is an illusion of permanence.” You make your traditions for yourself.

As an individual and as a nation, the way forward for all the people who live in the regions that were colonized in the past is not to make the mistake of living in the refuge of the splendid past and look towards our past and traditions and try to imitate them. Or to believe that we can meet the developed countries in the future by simply following in their footsteps. Because when you follow in someone’s footsteps, you will always be behind just as if you live in the romance of the past, you will always be in the past. Be aware of the past and the future, but take your present and loop it with the future and meet other people from the Developed World somewhere on your own trajectory. That will only happen if you have self-belief.

Photography by Ali Agha

Good Times


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