In her retrospective, Risham Syed laments the present of her home city Lahore

Syed's series attempt to reconcile the past with the present and in some way talk about unwanted change and loss
19 May, 2016

There are artists out there with unfathomably complex works beyond the scope of mortal understanding, and there are artists dealing with simple, sublime ideas, but it is not very often that you get to witness work that can be both refreshingly simple as well as highly complex.

When you do come across such work it is nothing short of brilliant, and that is one good way to describe the work of Risham Hosain Syed in her latest show Look at the City From Here: Through the Rear-view Mirror and the Looking Glass..., which opened at Gandhara Art-Space on the 12th of May 2016.

Risham Syed is one of the most prominent Pakistani artists of our time, with a number of awards to her name and countless solo and group shows all over the world. She is the first of three artists being showcased in Gandhara’s Anniversary Series, Look at the City From Here, curated by Haajra Haider Karrar, the other two being Bani Abidi and Farida Batool. The series will also be accompanied by a publication to go along with the exhibitions, which will be released midway through the project.

Risham Syed's 'Through the Rear-view Mirror and the Looking Glass 'is the first in a series of three artist retrospectives as part of Gandhara Art -Space 10-year anniversary series, 'Look at the City From Here' - Poster courtesy Gandhara Art-Space
Risham Syed's 'Through the Rear-view Mirror and the Looking Glass 'is the first in a series of three artist retrospectives as part of Gandhara Art -Space 10-year anniversary series, 'Look at the City From Here' - Poster courtesy Gandhara Art-Space

When asked to curate a show for the 10th anniversary of Gandhara Art-Space, Karrar realized that one show would not be enough to encapsulate everything the gallery cum art publishing house has accomplished in the past 10 years. “I wanted to create a dialogue rather than just put up a few pieces by each artist,” says Karrar, which is where the idea of having an entire series came into being, with each show acting like a mini retrospective of each artist.

This first show contains works spanning the past 16 years and four different series by Risham Syed. As you walk in, you are met with works dealing with the recent past, which moving on starts going further back in history. The curatorial efforts are worth commending; the layout and display ties in with the ideas being presented in each piece and gels in with the work, while highlighting its evolution and growth over the years.

Although each work has a very diverse appearance, and associated techniques, conceptually there are strong connections. Through most of her work Syed talks about histories as collective memories, and how present human experience is moulded by it. “I use historical images or references as metaphors for these collective experiences, the remnants of which still live within us,” she says. However, apart from talking about histories, or perhaps because of it, her work gives off a strange sense of holding on to nostalgia. Each series attempts to reconcile the past with the present and in some way talks about unwanted change and loss.

Lahore series

Her Lahore series comprises little “postcard” paintings of various back walls of houses all around Lahore, unfinished, patched and cemented walls that defy the very idea of a postcard.

Syed's Lahore series represents the transformation of her hometown over the years
Syed's Lahore series represents the transformation of her hometown over the years

To Syed, these houses represent how her hometown has transformed over the years, how new developments have sprung up and how a city, especially in our part of the world, continues to expand, while the people who grew up within can hardly keep up. The postcards are almost like mementos of a city that is constantly evolving, a way to take ownership and control in the face of alienation from your own hometown. The use of painting is the artist's way of participating in the work while also bringing in the idea of possession and ownership.

Pieces of the Lahore series were juxtaposed with life-sized construction objects
Pieces of the Lahore series were juxtaposed with life-sized construction objects

These paintings are juxtaposed with life-size objects mostly associated with construction; a mound of earth, an iron rod or a spiked grill from atop a wall. These make it almost seem like you are viewing the house from afar instead of just viewing a painting of it, in a way making it more real, more physically present.

Sorry for the Transient Inconvenience

This same idea is dealt with in a dramatically different manner in her next series Sorry for the Transient Inconvenience. This series is a collection of woven tapestries, but instead of depicting serene landscapes they show ugly scenes of an injured city, dug up and stabbed with construction material.

Sorry for the Transient Inconvenience
Sorry for the Transient Inconvenience

It is interesting how a Karachiite can easily relate to this, with new flyovers, underpasses and housing developments rendering the city nearly unrecognizable from what it was 10 years ago. The images are taken from the artist’s daily route around Lahore, and she deals with the idea of becoming a stranger in the very place she grew up in.

The space itself is transformed here into a construction site, with an entire area blocked off with blue plastic sheets and a chain link fence, with the tapestries hung across them like banners. This not only drives home the idea of change and inconvenience, but also completely subverts the purpose and usage of a tapestry.

Sorry for the Transient Inconvenience
Sorry for the Transient Inconvenience

Here again the medium and technique is adding another layer of meaning to the work, as these are made on a jacquard loom, which represents the 19th century mechanization of the handloom as a result of industrialization. Their origination in China is a nod towards the country’s trade monopoly and its effects on world economy.

Vaila K'vaila

The next series, Vaila K’vaila, takes us further back in time to the demolition of the artist’s grandfather’s home. This installation comprising a quilt, a painting, Syed’s grandmother’s wedding dress and a video come together to again talk about the significance of an old building, a home that contains a lifetime of memories, and how present actions effect these collective personal histories built over time.

A wedding dress, a quilt and a painting came together for the Vaila K'vaila installation
A wedding dress, a quilt and a painting came together for the Vaila K'vaila installation

The painting depicts Syed’s mother sitting amidst rubble in a half demolished home with broken walls, something she would do every day during that time. The machine-made quilt depicts the house commenting on how modern methods erode places of significance, and how people are affected by it. All the while a black and white documentary commissioned by the artist’s mother plays projected on the wall with a woman describing a home soon to be demolished.

History as Re-Present-Ation

We finally arrive at the last leg of our journey through time to a space imbued with vintage elegance. A lot of Syed’s work deals with our colonial legacy and ways in which it has shaped our current environment and behaviours.

The History as Re-Present-Ation series is a small glimpse into this aspect of her work, where she again turns her collected images into paintings but then juxtaposes them with elegantly curious objects of historical significance, in order to contextualize the present and understand it better.

Here, Syed turns her collected images into paintings and juxtaposes them with elegantly curious objects
Here, Syed turns her collected images into paintings and juxtaposes them with elegantly curious objects

A baby Victorian chair sits atop a rundown wooden stand, next to a painting of a busy road and a rickshaw being towed away. A 19th century tripod is draped with a luxuriant black fur quilt, supporting a dark and eerie painting full of smoke, or maybe fog. These objects embody class, prestige, luxury and comfort, but sit next to mundane scenes of the city, help put a lot into perspective and begging existential questions of past and future.

At this point a comment made by Karrar seems to hold a lot more weight than I initially imagined. “I could write an entire essay on just one piece here,” she said, and after trying and failing to keep this brief, I agree. Risham’s work is simple in its visual content, and even in its message, but as layer after layer of meaning peel off, you realize how deep it really goes. It makes you think in so many different directions that you’re bound to see where she is coming from, and on some level you know you have been there too.