History is not something that is simply in the past, safely tucked away like a box of old things in a storage room. It does not remain hidden until we decide to look through those objects and pictures containing so many memories.
Instead it is all around us, cluttering our daily existence. This understanding of history is evident in the work of Risham Syed, a well-established artist based in Lahore. She recently exhibited a new body of work at Canvas Gallery, Karachi. Her art provokes viewers to reconsider the past and the present in order to come to terms with both.
The artist has exhibited her mixed media installations around the world, including a major project commissioned for the Abraaj Capital Art Prize during Art Dubai in 2012. This art fair is a major venue for artists from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia (MENASA) and it draws the attention of the global art world. Syed presented a set of seven quilts exploring historical and contemporary narratives.
Now she has put together a comprehensive exhibition of new works that showcase the intricacy and intelligence of her entire oeuvre. It includes a quilt, as well as several other signature elements that the artist utilises in her artworks.
Unlike some other well-known Pakistani artists who seem to get stuck using the same type of imagery over and over again in a stamp-like, cut-and-paste method, Syed’s incorporation of similar parts and pictures from one work to the next is done in such a way that it makes sense. She never does it in exactly the same manner, blindly putting down the same image no matter the context.
Risham Syed’s art provokes us to reconsider the past and the present
Instead, the artist’s use of sewing and embroidery makes perfect sense in each work, for example in this body of work; a quilt seems to serve as the guide for the exhibition. Entitled ‘Kaal Pakhan’, “black birding” is a term that emerges from a particular moment in history. Black birds served as “guards” that exposed escaping slaves by screeching their terrible calls. This multifaceted quilt takes this reference to the British from other parts of its colonial empire and applies it to contemporary Pakistan. Other elements sewn on to the bedding suggest both imperial rule and life in the post-colonial nation today. The viewer has to put together the story in a way that makes sense to him or her.
Elaborate gold frames are also found in many of Syed’s work. The purpose is not decorative. Instead, these fanciful frames create a sense of worth even if the work is a cheap copy. The image found here is a 19th century street scene of Paris; however, the same painting appears a number of times. This is because it is reproduced over and over again by Chinese painters in a factory-like manner for buyers who want the look of sophistication. People in Pakistan and other parts of the post-colonial world might believe that Paris in the 19th century was at the height of culture. Thus they acquire these mass-produced paintings to give others the impression that they too are sophisticated.
One other important signature element in the current series of work is a reproduction of an Orientalist painting. The artist uses this style of painting that European (primarily French) artists made in the 19th century when colonialism of the MENASA area was in full force. Painters made exotic images of areas recently conquered.
Today we can view them as Europeans misconstruing life in these countries. In Syed’s work, her reproduction serves as a narrative for previous domination that continues to exist today, albeit in a different form. By looking at history, the artist presents us with ways to understand our contemporary world.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 11th, 2015