The documentary on Philip Guston shows the old painter wearing an overcoat, walking from one gallery to the next in those huge halls at the Museum of Modern Art filled with his own canvases. When asked how it felt being at his retrospective, Guston replied, “Very good, because this is the only exhibition where I am allowed to touch the paintings!”
A small retrospective of Risham Syed ‘Look at the City from Here: Through the Rear View Mirror and the Looking Glass’ is being held at the Gandhara Art Space, Karachi from May 12 to June 30, 2016. Curated by Hajra Haider, the exhibition is part of Gandhara Art Anniversary Series, and comprises her works from 2006 to 2016, thus offering a comprehensive view of the artist’s development.
A term like ‘development’ is hardly relevant or applicable with reference to art. Following the pattern of walk, pushing one foot ahead and the other back, in each new work the artists incorporate elements and themes from their earlier works. Thus art exists in a multitude of times.
In that sense, a single work may also serve as a retrospective because it includes the past, the present and the future of an artist. As Juan Gabriel Vasquez mentions in his novel Reputations: “…the past is what is in front of you, because we can see it and know it, but the future is what is behind: what we do not see and cannot know.”
In a way, the past canvases of Risham Syed foretell her future. Looking at her work from various periods, one becomes aware of the common concern that binds her artworks which differ in terms of their scale, medium and pictorial substance.
In the eighteen works on display, one recognises how the artist has been concerned with the city. She is no flag-bearer out there to save the architectural heritage of the town. Syed’s work is a reflection on how the city is changing its physical appearance with the social and economic transformation. Her mode of expression is not romantic but realistic. She investigates the shift in culture not on a superficial level but searches for subtle modification in the public taste for beauty, comfort and grandeur.
A large part of the exhibition consists of images of houses which embody the aspirations of a rising class as well as scenes of a city that is going through the unending cycle of construction and expansion. Some are painted in acrylic while others are created in digital jacquard. One quilt from her installation Vaila K’vaila (Time Un-timed) 2015 is based upon the recollections of her grandparents’ huge house in Lahore, which is now being divided and converted into various buildings. Syed superimposes these on a quilt that reminds of another series of quilts (it won her the Abraaj Capital Art Prize in 2011) where the artist was inquiring into the economic and political interaction between regions. For her, each stitch in the fabric was not just a random or formal choice but a manifestation of the segregation of power amongst the raw-material-producing nations and consumers of these resources in order to establish their economic supremacy.
This retrospective touches on these points of segregation, be they amongst the classes of a society, their aesthetic preferences, political unrest and turmoil or the presence of (state) power. The first line of the title of her show is a translation of Faiz’s verse that deals with a city that has emerged in this age of industrialisation and alienation. In Syed’s work too, one can see the sense of displacement which is social, regional and cultural besides being political. As her quilt maps the colonial conquests, similarly her views of Lahore in digital jacquard manufactured in China indicate that a place cannot exist in the land-lock of convention and tradition.
Association and identification with a cultural place in a romanticised scheme is subject to question, because Syed comments upon the phenomenon of globalisation in which a simple act, incident or accident can be decoded as a series of several countries’ participation. Yet, globalisation is not limited to glorious or gloomy milestones in history; it can also be felt in our surroundings. For instance, the newly-built houses in our metropolises reiterate how an idea and ideal of an internationally attractive house is admired everywhere.
In her last exhibition in Karachi (Canvas Art Gallery, 2014), Syed hung the cityscapes of a European capital forged in China which were so identical that these could be a rejoinder to Walter Benjamin’s essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Because, with the demonstration of human hands’ machine-like ability, the works appear as mechanical replicas even though rendered by hand. In this retrospective, this body of work is missing and it’s a crucial absence.
In the past few years, Syed has moved away from executing a single work, though even in her earlier paintings a large composition is imbibed with a small window of another image that complements and contrasts it. Lately, the artist has been constructing a combination of painted surfaces and objects which delineate the totality of our reality that is formed with diverse strands and situations. Similarly, in the current show, with antique objects either from a grandmother’s trunk or attic or a shop selling such stuff next to her painted surfaces, she establishes a link between separate narratives to define and describe her ideas. Thus, old and defunct items are composed with her canvases, in order to convince that every facet of our cultural expression can contribute towards creating a vision that besides being personal ad poetic encapsulates the harsh realities.
The art of Risham Syed is the cartography of our desires, destinations and disorientations. Her work is not a celebration of the past or a confirmation of the customary way of living but a critique on the way a person survives, and wrestles with forces that belong next door or to New York. On the way, he has to negotiate with yesterday or tomorrow; because like the Urdu word kal, there is hardly a separation between the two.