Born and educated in Pakistan, Araeen trained as an engineer before moving to Europe in the 1960s to become one of the pioneers of minimalist sculpture in Britain.
However he received no institutional recognition for his contribution to the modernist discourse in this country, being side-lined as a non-European whose work was consistently evaluated within the context of post-colonial structures.
As a result of this, in the 1970s and 1980s his work - in performance, photography, painting and sculpture - began to develop an overtly political content which drew attention to the way in which black artists were invisible within the dominant Eurocentric culture.
Geometric structures in which vertical and horizontal lines are held together by a network of diagonals (like the bracing struts used to strengthen latticed engineering constructions) play on the links between Eastern and Western thought and the frameworks of social institutions and aesthetics. Photographs overlaid by or held within these geometric structures, bring in the personal and psychological and relate the human individual to the social structure in which s/he exists.
Through his activities as a publisher, writer, and artist he is one of the pivotal figures in establishing a black voice in the British arts. Araeen has published numerous journals and articles, some of the most notable being; 'Black Phoenix', published in 1978, which was followed by the hugely influential 'Third Text' in 1987 and 'Third Text Asia' in 2008. He also founded Kala Press in association with Third Text to disseminate information on neglected African and Asian artists in Britain who contributed to the development of post-war British art.
In 1989 Araeen curated the exhibition 'The Other Story, Afro-Asian artists in post-war Britain' at the South Bank Centre. This was a watershed moment in 20th century artistic history, as it was the first major retrospective of work by Asian and African artists in Britain, all of whom had contributed greatly to the artistic scene since the 1950s, without ever being formerly accepted as part of the establishment.
The exhibition featured the work of artists including Francis Newton Souza, Anwer Jelal Shemza, Uzo Egonu and Mona Hatoum, and is considered to be hugely important to the development of post-war British art.