KARACHI: Who would have thought a chance meeting at Art Dubai 2023 in March would lead to an artist’s first solo exhibit just a few months later in the same burgeoning city.
Rashid Rana, the eminent Pakistani artist, curator and educator, opened his new exhibit titled “It Lies Beyond” on November 20, which ran in conjunction with the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai. The exhibit remains open until February 3 at Volte Art Projects in Alserkal Avenue.
The exhibit – featuring two of his most recognisable works, the seminal “Desperately Seeking Paradise” and “It Lies Beyond” – was conceptualised between two old friends in a city that is a veritable bridge between their two cultures.
“I did not have an impending project in Dubai in March, but mainly wanted to connect with my Indian friends from the art world,” Rana told Business Recorder in an exclusive interview.
“I have known Tushar (Jiwarajka) – founder of Volte Art Projects – from my days of exhibiting in India, but was unaware that he had opened a gallery in Dubai. As soon as I entered the fair, we reconnected and a series of discussions (and zoom calls) eventually culminated into this exhibition.”
Rana, who holds space among the most visionary artists in South Asia, is known for his dramatic visual strategies and pioneering works in new media art. He is also a recipient of the Sitara-i-Imtiaz, the Asia Arts Game Changer Award, and was also responsible for the award-winning Pakistan Pavilion exterior at Expo 2020 Dubai.
Hard political borders within South Asia, and the fluidity of the region turned his focus towards the region.
“Dubai has become a hub for the entire MENASA region and the developments within it,” he said.
“It provides a welcome alternative, where you will find South Asian, Middle Eastern and African communities. It’s an excellent way to reach various diaspora by virtue of exhibiting in the city.”
Founded by Jiwarajka in Mumbai in 2009, Volte Art Projects represents and collaborates with celebrated international contemporary artists and collectives including James Turrell, Francesco Clemente, William Kentridge, and Nalini Malani. The gallery was established in Dubai in 2021.
“Rashid’s works are monumental in scale and the parameters of the gallery space really lent itself to his work,” Jiwarajka, who is in Dubai, told Business Recorder. “We are both quite ambitious about art, and the shock and awe the scale of the works drew was inspiring.”
The opening in November drew an eclectic mix of artists, collectors and journalists, including COP28 attendees like Wanjira Mathai – a Kenyan environmentalist and activist.
Covering every inch of the gallery walls, the immersive “It Lies Beyond” was first produced as an installation with Augmented Reality (AR) for the Karachi Biennale 2022. It is an extension of the “Offshore Accounts Series” that began in 2006.
The vast serene seascape is an interactive piece of unprecedented scale that, on closer inspection, reveals a matrix of trash, sailing ships and the recent Pakistan floods. It further immerses one into moving images as you bring your smartphone closer to the static image.
“You are able to engage with and have a dialogue with the artwork through the additional layer of technology,” said Rana, who remains open to incorporating developments including Artificial Intelligence (AI) in his practice.
“Technology allows more resources and means to be able to express the time in which it exists – their symbiosis is natural.”
The exhibit was also deliberately scheduled to occur in parallel with COP28 as the works highlight the world’s carbon footprint.
“The reference of sea and water invokes a journey that begins with materialistic enquiry at the time of renaissance, when sailing ships encouraged exploration of further worlds,” explained Rana, delving deeper into the exhibit.
“Instead, it ended up as a means for sea trade that eventually gave rise to the industrial revolution. This was followed by the post-consumerist culture of which trash is the aftermath.”
“Together, they are chapters of the same story,” added Rana.
Rania Kana’an, co-founder of KAVE – an upcycle community space in Alserkal Avenue, Dubai – who viewed Rana’s works for the first time called the exhibit “breathtaking”.
“It was beautiful to see art that speaks to our consumption habits and the crisis it is causing,” she told Business Recorder.
“Not only does it highlight where it is leading the planet but how it all began. How he incorporated Augmented Reality with intent was stunning to experience.”
The second of the works on display at Volte – “Desperately Seeking Paradise” – is one of Rana’s seminal works. Produced in 2008, it has traveled the world to various exhibits since. It was also part of a mid-career retrospective of his works at Mohatta Palace in 2013 – which remains the largest show by a solo artist in Pakistan, to date.
“I used to think ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’ is an older work while ‘Offshore Accounts’ has since been converted into an installation,” said Rana.
“However, the works proved to be timeless – even with the added layer of technology. Art can have relevance at all time,” he explained.
“Desperately Seeking Paradise”, a sculpture comprising a 3D façade, showcases a panoramic skyline from one angle while another reflects the space around it. On closer inspection, however, the skyline reveals hundreds of tiny photographs of low-level houses in Lahore.
The micro thus, forms the macro to become the conversation, inviting the viewer to contemplate the visual juxtaposition.
“Jiwarajka and I mutually agreed to place ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’ in the middle of the gallery, in order to encourage a dialogue between the two works,” said Rana.
Citing how his art practice is “idea-driven”, Rana defers being called a social commentator, instead, remaining interested in “form and aesthetic value.”
“The ideas give way to various kinds of forms and execution.”
At the moment, Rana, who is also dean of the Mariam Dawood School of Visual Arts & Design at BNU, Lahore, remains engrossed in mainly three types of production — curation, curriculum design and art. He will also be curating a show for the upcoming Design Summit in Lahore early next year.
“Art is one of those things that transcends borders and boundaries – a gateway to bringing people together, rather than creating divisions,” Jiwarajka said.
“Rashid is someone who is constantly reinventing himself as an artist. Moving forward I’d like to continue collaborating with him and help him realise vastly more visionary projects.”