“History is like a bed: It’s made, unmade, made again and so on”, writes Ingrid Sischy. In the brief life of this country, history textbooks have been shuffled according to the policy and ideology of each government, be it a military dictatorship or a democratic dispensation. Indus Valley Civilization to arrival of Arabs in Sindh to Mughal and Sultanate periods to partition have all drawn special attention of historians. Certain eras like Hindu dynasties and Sikh rule in Punjab were airbrushed from our collective memory.
History can be an individual’s story too; compiled with bits and pieces of personal memories, experiences and recollections. What contribute to this private museum of memory are houses lived in, clothes worn, things bought and discarded, conversations heard, places travelled and dreams recalled.
In most cases, personal and public histories, often difficult to distinguish, comingle, as seen in the solo exhibition of Risham Syed, Cheetah and Other Stories being held at Canvas Gallery, Karachi from January15-25, 2019.
Syed has been drawing on history but her approach towards the past and its relationship with power makes her expression more meaningful than the artists who use it for sentimental purposes or pictorial delight. She investigates the past with all its layers, and creates a synthesis of the intimate as well as the general view of things. In this quest, she stumbled upon a canvas by George Stubbs, ‘Cheetah and Stag with Two Indians’ from 1974, while visiting the Manchester Art Gallery in 2017. She immediately recognised the painting as she had seen its print decades ago at her grandfather’s house in Lahore.
The painting by Stubbs depicts “the first cheetah brought to Britain” from India as a gift, which “took part in a stag hunt at Windsor Great Park……The stag hunt is said to have descended into farce when the skittish cheetah ran away and had to be rescued by its Indian handlers”.
Syed deconstructs the painting in her work bearing the same title. But the selection of this picture connected to her childhood memory has another justification. The “stag repulsed two attempts and then took to the offensive, chasing the cheetah”. So, the image besides depicting an event can also be read as the symbol of Indian defeat against the colonial power.
In her installation, she recreates a strip of the original canvas showing Indians startled on the behaviour of the beast. It’s a square painted with animal’s coat, and a piece of red cloth stuck from a hook can be identified both as a garment of Indians and the band to tie the waist of cheetah in the historic painting. The installation is further added with a text in reverse. This is the poetry of Sachal Sarmast (1739-1825) from Sindh who had witnessed upheaval in the society due to the invasion of the East India Company. Verses such as “Several crowned heads have dived into the dead hole” allude to colonial oppression and exploitation on the pretext of enlightening and ‘civilising’ the Indian population.
That period is evoked again in a series that originates from her reminisces of her grandfather’s house. In these diptychs, all titled ‘Lower Mall’, one part consists of dilapidated structure rendered in tones of grey, next to drawings of characters from bygone years, playing musical instruments or interacting with old imaginary machines.
In her choice of humans and house, Syed refers to colonial times, solely because that phase in our history totally transformed not only our landscape (canals, railway lines, colonial structures, cantonment areas) but our psyche too. Consequently, the past prior to British Imperialism and the present after Independence, are viewed negatively, reminding one of Frantz Fanon: “The oppressed will always believe the worst about themselves.”
Another landmark in the history of Indian colony was the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919, in which around 1000 Indians were killed by the British troops. Syed’s work ‘Over to Jaliyanwala’, encompasses three aspects of history. As the title refers to the carnage, the artist draws outlines of the Cellular Jail in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, used by the British to exile political opponents; and replicates a small poster for soldiers’ recruitment in India during the World War 1, in a gilded frame adding a streak of red paint (blood) at the bottom.
Syed collects and combines her references from various sources to produce a work that is personal and poetic, despite its political context. She seamlessly joins materials as diverse and difficult as cotton, vintage blanket with silk embroidery and American synthetic wool to create a composite image.
A similar practice is observed in ‘A Chronicle Punctuated Series’ — installations with her small paintings and trinkets that she had picked from markets. The painted canvas and objects associated with separate pasts and places formulate a different kind of display — something in-between a gallery exhibition and a museum installation. Syed prefers this format, not merely on aesthetic grounds, but for a conceptual or political reason. She constructs these ‘museum works’, in which images and artefacts from diverse backgrounds and usage are juxtaposed to convey a completely new content. These works, initially part of ‘Art Dubai 2016’, suggest that “Museums should no longer concern themselves with state histories, that saga of kings and heroes, or the forging of national identities; they should focus instead on the lives and belongings of ordinary people, just as modern novels do” (Pamuk).
While Syed provides that glimpse of the future, where everyone would be working on their computers without encountering others, she punctuates the edifice of grand narratives through her art, particularly in ‘The Marble Heath’, with a “very Victorian, ornate marble fire place” which instead of burning coals, contains a painting of Space Shuttle Discovery, with its fire and smoke erupting before the launch.
One can decode the work in multiple ways which, according to the artist, “simultaneously represents the so-called advancement and destruction in modern times”. But it also contains an unresolved tension — since the shuttle is bound to break the marble fireplace and take off, but being an image it is secured. Yet, there is always a possibility of this becoming a reality as seen in Alberto Giacometti’s ‘Flower in Danger’ (1932) and the ‘Meeting Point’ (2006) by Rashid Rana.