It’s been two-and-a-half years from the day artist, educator and activist Lala Rukh passed away. She had been diagnosed with cancer at the peak of her artistic career, and on the foot end of her teaching days. She was only 69 years old. It is a poignant moment, and one of great pride, that her final work Rupak is now a part of the Tate collection, and currently on display at Tate Modern till November of 2020.
In her lifetime, Lala Rukh had developed an unrivaled art practice in minimalist expression which continues to reveal its significance and relevance for current times. Her radical methodologies, which galvanized feminist movements in Pakistan, as well as improved teaching practices at the National College of Arts, endure. Though she picked a hermetic presence in the art world by choice, interest in her work has remained consistent, taking on a critical role in the reading and recontextualization of her work within the larger sphere of art practice in Pakistan.
After retiring from a rigorous teaching legacy, Lala Rukh returned to her studio full time in 2008 and became a more active exhibitor through her gallery Grey Noise. It was conversations between her and the gallery director Umer Butt, and others like researcher Mariah Lookman – both once students, later friends – that led to developing a wider discussion around her work, and reaching newer audiences outside of Pakistan.
Her last project is one of her most seminal works to date, and perhaps the most labour intensive. A complex sound, animation and drawing installation that was commissioned for documenta 14 (2017) and exhibited at the Athens Conservatoire (Odeion), Rupak resonated deeply with the thousands that attended and catapulted her into the global eye. Unfortunately, Lala Rukh passed away before the work was even de-installed just months later.
In 2018, the video component of Rupak went on to be exhibited in the Artist’s Room series at Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai and at the Kunsthaus Centre D’Art Pasquart, Switzerland. Editions of it now belong in the Art Jameel Collection, Samdani Art Foundation, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Tate Modern install, curated by Devika Singh, is the first time that the complete work – the audio-visual animation and full set of 88 drawings – has been shown in its entirety. This acquisition was championed by Nada Raza, previously Research Curator at Tate Research Centre: Asia. In a significant moment in time, when Western institutions are recalibrating to include important narratives of the Global South, the inclusion of Lala Rukh’s reading of Hindustani Classical Music in her characteristic minimal mark-making has its own poetic resonance.
The artist’s portfolio is managed by her Estate – created in her lifetime and handed to her niece and close confidante Maryam Rahman, with whom she maintained a devoted relationship. Through the untiring efforts of the gallery, several works have been placed in important institutional collections and been part of a number of major presentations in the last several years. The Estate and the gallery continue to develop these relationships and work out the future of the artist’s archive and legacy. These have provided opportunities to explore different facets of Lala Rukh’s practice, either in independent presentations or placed in dialogue with contemporaries from across the world.
The lyrical quality of Lala Rukh’s work was accentuated in the group exhibition Everything we do is music, which opened in November 2017. Curated by Shanay Jhaveri at the Drawing Room gallery, London, her Hieroglyphics and figure drawing studies from the early 1980s were brought into interplay with artists such as Nasreen Mohamedi, Vidya Sagar, Mohan Samant, Francesco Clemente and several others. From late 2018 to early 2019, her work was then included in the monumental show Painting the Night, curated by Jean-Marie Gallais at the Centre Pompidou-Metz.
In March of 2019, as part of a much larger group show, and set against the grand backdrop of the Venice Biennale, Lala Rukh’s Mirror Image series were brought into the fold of an impressive roster of artists in Luogo e Segni. Curated by Mouna Mekouar and Martin Bethenod at the Punta della Dogana, the premise of the exhibition was rooted in memory making, tying artistic practices to poetry, and included works by Agnes Martin, Etel Adnan, Simone Fattal, Tacita Dean and others.
Most recently, the platform to take Lala Rukh’s work to a larger audience opened this September at the Arnolfini in Bristol. Named after Maya Angelou’s poem, Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender, Resistance highlights an important discussion around gendered resistance and histories of feminist movements, and included Lala Rukh’s political posters created for Women’s Action Forum (WAF) in the 1980s and early ‘90s. This was the final leg of the exhibition; Act 1 and 2 of the same traveled between Nottingham Contemporary and De La Warr Pavilion, earlier this year. A selection of the same was also shown in the Kassel edition of documenta 14.
In Pakistan, Lala Rukh’s work has been included in the first editions of the Lahore and Karachi biennales, with the Lahore presentation Call to Action curated by Mariah Lookman. In the region, her works were included in the exhibition Planetary Planning curated by Devika Singh for the Dhaka Art Summit 2018. Currently, Maryam is working on a young-adult book, Lala Rukh, Art, Love & Feminism, which maps the life of the artist through art and activism and hopes to educate, inspire and empower future generations.
It speaks volumes when you can look back at the practice of an artist and are able to talk about minimalism, music, politics, history, pedagogy and so much more. Lala Rukh may have had a quiet practice but the extent of her oeuvre carries the weight of a lifelong search for individual expression.