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Present history

In her latest solo exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery, UK, Risham Syed negotiates with diverse worlds

Present history

Through his work, Paul Cezanne wanted to “make of Impressionism something solid and durable like the art of the museums.” Following the French painter, several artists including Risham Syed are creating works that fall in the same category: art of the museums. Her latest solo exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery, UK is a testimony to how an artist living in Lahore negotiates with diverse worlds, words and histories.

Syed’s work is shown at various locations but the recent exhibition in Manchester — Sept 30, 2017 to Feb 25, 2018 — is distinct because the venue provides a different context to her work. From an early stage in her creative life, Syed has been interested in exploring ideas beyond the formal exercises of image-making. The series of works that won her Abraaj Art Prize in 2012 was the outcome of her research into trade routes, and the exploitation connected with it in the context of colonialism. Thus, the work was not merely a visual fabrication of images but a comment on the unjust relation between Imperial powers and subjugated territories, and the exploitation under the pretext of progress, prosperity and civilization.

Her work is also associated with sinuous beauties and ignorant men — all that was brilliantly collected, compiled and analysed by Edward Said in his seminal book Orientalism.

The contradiction in the narratives of the oppressor and the oppressed is the main content and recurring theme of Syed’s work. She paints with an incredible level of accuracy, adds objects, devises a display order to create a narrative which describes the situation of a society that has faced calamities and atrocities. Looking at her art in retrospective (the Manchester exhibition comprises works from different periods), one realises that her work, grounded in Lahore, is not landlocked. It conveys concerns which are connected to all those cultures and communities which suffered the claws of colonialism.

To achieve this, she incorporates objects, artefacts, ornaments and photographs for creating a complex set of meaning. These are comments on an era that has witnessed two world wars, demise of ideological positions (especially Communist modules), destruction of Twin Towers in New York, and deposing of dictators particularly in the Middle East. These also refer to how the East is viewed by the West and, more importantly, by the East itself that assumes the position of an outsider and perceives itself as the exotic paradise.

In her work, especially from the Manchester Art Gallery, Syed denotes these relationships in which the East meets West, comfortably, in the fields of war. Men from North India were dispatched to far off lands to fight a war that had nothing to do with them. In her work ‘Tent of Darius’ army drench coats with some floral embroidery on them are hung next to a small painting, all indicating how men are dragged into a conflict that is unnecessary. Because no matter what the political outcome is, war always brings death and destruction.


However, in today’s world, conventional wars have been replaced by media campaigns. Indian journalist Shekhar Gupta, replying to a question about the prospect of war between India and Pakistan in Lahore remarked that war is not possible between countries that both have McDonald’s! Risham Syed refers to that power struggle in a number of works, in which the two worlds — developed and developing, dominant and dominated, powerful and poor —view each other at multiple points.

Her work is a chronicle of those contacts in which the East is often considered as primitive, savage, raw and dark. It is also associated with sinuous beauties and ignorant men — all that was brilliantly collected, compiled and analysed by Edward Said in his seminal book Orientalism.

The commentary upon the political position emerges in works like ‘The Cushion’, ‘History As Re-Present’ and ‘History As Past’ where references about the representation of East from historical sources are used for re-reading the past and its powerful authors/authorities. The images are combined to assert a reality that at the same time is cruel but comfortable, both for its pictorial as well as political consequences. Syed elaborates on these situations in different ways. She documents local products, cultural expressions and indigenous craft, all part of a larger scenario, in which the relationship between an outsider who heralds progress, development and opportunities and the native living at a comfortable location are in a confrontational state. Yet, through her work, one comes to recognise the strange link between tradition and modernity, progress and past; as she translates the shift in a culture.

Initially inventions, these works have turned into interventions at the Manchester Art Gallery. Due to their historic references, gilded frames and subjects, it is difficult to distinguish the production of a contemporary artist from a museum piece displayed next to each other. Instead of creating confusion, these links lead to the realisation that a work of art speaks the same language across continents and ages. The scheme of display — perhaps best suited for the nature of her work — completes and contextualises her creations. For example her work ‘History As Past’ — which is a small painting about a female in bath that reflects oriental approaches and a large towel draped on a rod — is installed next to a classical sculpture of a female nude.

Probably the most important work at Manchester is about Lahore where Syed delineates the undergoing shift in urban development. In a series of immaculately created small canvases, she paints images from Lahore that suggest a division of power. She focuses on the segmentation of newly built environments with all their details next to objects collected from various sources. So the haunting scenarios of human-less houses are paired with items touched/used by a human hand many years ago. This blend is remarkable as it suffices the existing societal situation along with its critique.

In these works, Risham Syed demonstrates her maturity, in fact mastery, in depicting details that add up to make a large narrative. Her works at the Manchester Art Gallery, carefully chosen and creatively arranged, allude to how the local spaces in a city are a subject of tremendous and terrible transformation. In her sensitive paintings/installations, she reconnects with ‘the art of the Museum’, since her work has always been about turning thoughts into tangible forms, which offer different meanings with each new contact — just like objects from museums all over the world.

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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