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From Innovation to Deconstruction: My Own Story

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It has become common today to talk about cultural identity, particularly of artists from non-European cultures, and how cultural identity has become essential for their art practice. But this recent debate does not take into account the historical contribution made by an earlier generation of non-European artists in the West.

In my presentation today I would show, through my own work, that cultural identity has been neither a problem nor essential for the generation of artists from Asia or Africa who came to Europe in the '50s or '60s. Their main concern has been with modernism and its historical developments, and their migration to the cities of Europe has not been different from the migration of Picasso, Brancusi or Mondrian, for example, to Paris. It was essential for the artists from the colonial periphery to enter the metropolis in order to enter modern history, and in so doing they challenged the Eurocentric concept and framework of modernism.

My own story is a story of such an endeavour. This story began in Karachi, Pakistan, where I was born. In the mid-50s I became interested in modern art and architecture, which led me to a series of experimental works in architecture, painting and sculpture.

Although my work of this period was of seminal nature, I could not develop this work further. In a cultural milieu of neo-colonialism in which everything was judged and evaluated according to what was already established in London, Paris or New York, it was not easy to develop radically new ideas. So, I left my country to try my luck in Europe. After my arrival in London in 1964 I saw the work of Anthony Caro and became very fascinated by it, particularly by the way he used industrial material such as steel girders.

The choice for me, then, was either to allow myself to be influenced by him, the way Caro was influenced by David Smith, or to look for a different way of making sculpture. In spite of my great admiration for Caro I couldn't accept already established trends. My ambition has always been to produce something radically new, to break new grounds. So I started looking at the whole thing critically. But a critical position does not guarantee an emergence of the new. However I was lucky. In 1965, when I was working as a civil engineering draftsman, I hit upon the idea of arranging steel girders in symmetrical order, and that was my first minimal sculpture.

Subsequently I developed a modular system based on a lattice structure, which was coincidentally what was also happening then in New York.

My first encounter with American minimalism was at the end of '68. A friend of mine, who is now my wife, wrote to me from Paris saying that she saw a sculpture which resembled mine. She was of course referring to Sol LeWitt's work in the "Art of the Real" exhibition in Paris, which subsequently came to Britain in early 1969. Soon after, American minimalists began to show in London; but my own work received no recognition, in spite of the fact that it was an historically important British achievement. Even after 30 years the institutional position in Britain (and of course abroad) is that there was no minimalism in Britain. I cannot overstate the importance of my 60s works, behind its formalism lies an important cultural struggle of the post-colonial subject. It attempts to debunk the myth of white intellectual supremacy on which the historiography of modern art history is based, and it challenges the very idea and construction of otherness in Western discourse, by de-centering the modern subject produced by Eurocentricity. I'm therefore not really surprised that this work found no place in the historical genealogy of post-Anthony Caro sculpture.

However, being excluded from the institutional structure of recognition and legitimisation, I began to suffer from a crisis of self-confidence. I also began to feel constrained by the formal aspects of minimalism. I couldn't incorporate and express my lived social experience within its limits, and the whole notion of separation between a pure aesthetic experience and social reality began to break. As a result I was slowly drawn towards the anti-colonial struggles of the time, and began to read anti-imperialistic literature. Fanon actually provided me with the solution. In the 1972 I joined the Black Panthers in London, and subsequently also worked with David Medalla in forming an artists' alliance in support of anti-imperialist struggles all over the world, particularly in Vietnam.

My political work of this period was useful, but it didn't help me in my pursuit as an artist. You can't make art subservient to politics. I soon realised that one had to struggle within one's own profession; there were dominant and repressive structures within the artistic discourse which were discriminatory and which needed to be questioned. I had to develop a new artistic practice, which involved not only what I wanted to deal with as part of social experience but also a new critical language.

My 70s work was very much related to my political work, in which the question of identity and cultural roots played an important part, but underlying all of these so-called political works, my concern remained the pursuit of a critical language that would articulate my aesthetic experience as well as the social experience of living in a society which continued to aspire to its imperial past, and whose institutional structures or intellectual discourses remained trapped in the legacies of colonialism.

In the early 80s I develop a grid system of nine panels. Since then most of my work has been constructed within this system. For me this system represents our divided world, the centre _ white, male, Christian, and globally dominant _ and the periphery which aspires to the centre but cannot get there due to this division. And yet both the centre and the periphery are tied together in a violent nexus. Both are dependent on each other. The centre defines the periphery and in turn is defined by it.

It's not the presence of images or iconic representation which is important in this system, but their spatial location within the whole configuration. As I have said elsewhere, this configuration subverts the separation between the centre and the periphery and allows the periphery to penetrate the centre and pollute it. By penetrating, rupturing and polluting the space of pure modernism by something which belongs in fact to it _ i.e. its violence _ I hope to debunk the myth that modernism represents only the sublime face of Humanism.

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