Visual Artist Amin Rehman, War on Terror and the “White Wash”

DND Thought CenterVisual Artist Amin Rehman, War on Terror and the “White Wash”

By Agha Iqrar Haroon

History is ugly, history is crude and history is ruthless if it is documented with honesty while history is just a “White Wash” when it is written with motives to hide the ugliness of realities.


Visual artists are also historians and they leave behind “eras” not “art pieces” if they work with honesty.

The Fall of Kabul and the withdrawal of US-led forces from Afghanistan while leaving a vacuum behind ignite a thought in me to review the works of those who had been contesting US-imposed senseless wars and US-allied were cheering over wars.

While browsing papers of history preserved in my memories, two names are significant to share with—Noam Chomsky and Canadian-based visual artist Amin Rehman.  I remember my meeting with Noam Chomsky in February 2002 in Islamabad when War on Terror was in full swing and gaining over humanity. Anybody who had the courage to contest this war could end up at Guantanamo Camp.

Noam Chomsky during an interaction with media after his lecture in Convention Centre Islamabad said that war on terror is (was) senseless and it would end senselessly but by that time it would divide humanity into several pieces (not groups even).

The second name is Amin Rehman who during his conversations with me always said that 20th-century wars were not for land gains rather for social divisions. Amin had been an activist but his activism is presented through his visual art.

Amin Rehman Khan who lives in Toronto, Canada has been using text-based works having rich in meaning and hold an honest mirror up to the cultural narratives that construct Western civilized hate and the dehumanizing of otherness such a hatred demands to support its disdain and justify its superiority over that which it is not.

Amin Rehman is a multidisciplinary visual artist who has been working since the1980’s. Originally from Pakistan, studied at the National College of Arts (Lahore, Pakistan), the University of Punjab (Lahore), the University of Manchester (UK) and the University of Windsor (Ontario, Canada).

His work has been shown in over 100 art exhibitions both locally and internationally in solo, juried, and group art exhibitions notably “Other Histories”, Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Zahoor ul Akhlaq Gallery, Lahore, Pakistan (2015), “Hope”, the Art Gallery of Regina, Saskatchewan (2014), “A is for…”, McIntosh Gallery, University of Western Ontario, Canada (2012) “White Wash”, Art Gallery of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. (2011) “Erasing Borders”, Queens Museum of Art, New York, U.S.A. (2009),“Forth Biennial of Islamic Contemporary Painting” Tehran, Iran (2006) “Hart House Juried show” (2006), J M Barnicke Gallery, University of Toronto, “Contemporary Miniatures and New Art Forms”(2006), Commonwealth Games Cultural Festival Exhibition, Melbourne, Australia; “Creative Insecurity” (2004) at the Harbourfront “Working Bodies” (1991), Toronto and “From Images to Images” (1988) based on the miniature collection, Victoria and Albert Museum England.

He received a British Council Fellowship to study in History of Art Department, University of Manchester, England in 1988, Smithsonian Internship in Washington D.C in 1988, Chalmers Fellowship Award, Ontario Arts Council, Ontario, Canada in 2008, Ontario Arts Council Mid-Career Artists Grants in 2007/12/14, Toronto Arts Council Visual Artist grant in 2010/13, Canada Council Visual Artists Grant in 2014/1017 and “Artist of the year award for 2005” by South Asian Visual Arts Collective, Toronto, Canada.

For a better understanding of the work of Amin Rehman, I would cite some references from a piece of Karen Darricades who penned the work of Amin Rehman in her academic article title “Producing Difference and Separating God”. Karen Darricades is an artist, educator, community activist, and writer with having a degree in visual arts and linguistics at the University of Toronto.

She writes:  

 For many years, Rehman’s work has concerned itself with the media jargon surrounding the US military interventions in several countries including Afghanistan.  

White Wash exhibits the language and terror tactics beset upon us by mass media and its Western puppeteers and presents us with the linguistic blueprint for the construction of difference built between West and East, South Asian nations, and representations of the artist’s identity as a South Asian Canadian immigrant. 

By isolating and magnifying the familiar phrasing, commonly woven and sometimes subtly buried in the messages literature and pop culture provide, there is a “that says it all” quality to each of Rehman’s works, as the many meanings each word, word-grouping and layer contains resonate with the viewer. 

Amin’s work “Dual State” presents us with the duality of Rehman’s identity as an immigrant, the dichotomies of East and West produced by Orientalism and conjures current and historical interference of the West in the political affairs of the East.

In addition, dual is pronounced exactly like duel revealing the semantic roots and phonetic kinship of both words, [ˈdjuːəl]. Associated by folk etymology with the Latin meaning duo, two, originating from the Medieval Latin word duellum, a poetic extrapolation of the word bellum, meaning war. With this phonetic reading of the work, the meaning of Dual State becomes intertwined with “duel state” or war state, evoking state violence, military presence, civil war and concepts of stabilized versus destabilized nations.

Canadian linguist and media theorist, Marshal McLuhan, argued that the creation of the phonetic alphabet was the onslaught for all cultural constructs of Western civilization; from logic and linear concepts of space to nationalism and assembly lines, as inherent in the phonetic alphabet is the hardwiring for sequential, one-thing-follows-another, thinking. 

With Dual State, as with a number of works in the White Wash exhibit, English text is presented in Kufic script, the oldest form of Islamic calligraphy and Arabic writing. Reminiscent of mosaic mosque tiles, the piece references Kufic calligraphy’s historical connection to Islamic art and architecture. The first version of the Qur’an was written in Kufic script, though Kufic’s ancient roots have long been disputed and dismissed by Christian missionaries. 

As postcolonial theorist Franz Fanon writes in Wretched of the Earth: 

‘Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people and distorts, disfigures and destroys it…” 

Rehman’s work reflects, reacts and responds to this discourse, by layering messages and interchanging text and font, demonstrating the confused messaging that arises from a need to distinguish one form of conditioning from another.  

The tragically ironic Michael Ignatieff quote in Rehman’s “The Crises of Occupation” displays the sociopathic and schizophrenic nature of the narratives inherent in the imperial mindset of dominating cultures. The excerpt floats above another excerpt that seems only capable of whispering the true accounts of violent actions that silence the experiences of the oppressed. The irony lies in the fact that it is not at all politically incorrect to support imperialism and that since the 9/11 attacks in the US, the deep-seated aggression towards the Islamic world has only boiled to the surface.

Rehman is sensitive and strongly linked with his roots thereby he documents what he feels, is an injustice to and possibly Hate driven around him.

Rehman also documented through his visual work the fear and threat of hate crimes faced by South Asian taxi drivers in Toronto, with his work “Home Divided”.

“Home Divided” presents us with the fractured sense of safety that extends to the artist’s sense of self when the inescapable reach of imperial globalization finds him in his new home/land.

With his work “God-Allah”, Rehman expresses an attempt of imperialism to divide, classify and stratify God from Allah in order to conquer all aspects of human experience, and in so doing reaches the height of absurdity; the separation of God. It is not only through media messages and war propaganda that such a separation is concretized in the minds of those deemed to be the superiors (“us/ours”), military forces must put these words into action and offer their proof.

The brave work of Rehman continued during the last two decades when the western mindset was not ready to think that reality can be different than what North American and European leaders were saying about Islam, the War on Terror, and the invasion of Afghanistan. Now US President Biden has accepted that the reality was not what was projected and promoted and he accepted that the Afghan War was a senseless act.

Honest and brave visual artists, writers, philosophers, and academicians are far ahead of their eras and that is the reason they are considered eccentric within society. They are criticized, sometimes subjugated, and even persecuted but they are those who keep the thought alive for mankind.

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