Dr. Abdullah M. I. Syed is a renowned Pakistani-born contemporary artist and designer working between Sydney, Karachi and New York. Working as an artist and designer for nearly two decades, his art practice weaves real and fictional narratives of east and west, seamlessly knitting together cultural and art historical references and concerns from each. Trained in diverse disciplines, Syed utilises a variety of mediums and techniques including sculpture, video installations, drawing, performance and texts to investigate collisions between art, religion, economy and politics. Syed earned a PhD in Art, Media and Design (2015) and a Master of Fine Arts (2009) from University of New South Wales, Sydney. He also holds a Bachelor of Art in Design (1999) and a Master of Education (2001) from University of Central Oklahoma (UCO), Oklahoma, and U.S.A.
Syed’s work has been featured in ten solo exhibitions and several national and international curated group exhibitions and performance events such as Divine Economy: Structures, Aicon Gallery, New York (2017); Asia Contemporary Art Week (ACAW) Thinking Project, Asia Society Museum, New York (2017); Asia-Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts (AsiaTOPA), Melbourne (2017); Karachi Biennial, Karachi (2017); Substitute, Fairfield City Museum and Gallery, Sydney (2016); Creative Accounting, Hawkesbury Regional Gallery, Sydney (2016); WAR, Newington Armory Gallery, Sydney (2016), and Future Archaeology, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney (2015). He has undertaken artist residencies at Fairfield City Museum and Gallery (2015-2016), Parramatta Artists’ Studios (2013-2015), Cicada Press (2009 and 2013) and Blacktown Arts Centre (2011) in Sydney. His major awards include NAVA’s Carstairs Prize, Australia (2017), the Blacktown Art Prize (2010), the UNSW Postgraduate Research Scholarship (2009) and the IAO Installation Art Award, U.S.A. (2003).
To have a look ‘Inside Artist’s Mind’, we have the winner of innumerable awards and hearts, passionate and witty Abdullah M. I. Syed in conversation with Maheen Aziz.
Maheen Aziz: You are a remarkable artist and I find you humorous too. I would like the readers to know the journey of Abdullah M. I. Syed starting from his student life. How were you as a student, when did you decide to be an artist and how challenging and exciting was it?
Abdullah M. I. Syed: Humorous, now that is an exciting way to describe my practice and start a conversation. You may find it interesting to know that what transpires in my art as humor and everyday personal encounters is a result of my failure to understand satire, sarcasm, and jokes; which results in situations that sometimes lead to laughs, but also misunderstandings. I am hopeless in telling jokes and sometimes take insults as compliments. Call it my ego or naivety or a self-preservation mechanism, it has protected me from unwarranted worries.
I was an excellent student and never had any issues with getting good grades. However I think it was more to do with my memorization skills. I was like a parrot, memorizing everything from A to Z and Alif say Yaa and spilling it on the day of exam. There was no sleep during the exam time as sleep wipes my memory clean and disrupting my recall mechanism. I did fairly well in all subjects, even mathematics. However, I truly excelled in liberal arts, literature and drawings courses. My calligrapher style handwriting and drawings skills even helped me to get full marks on my science journal, filled with detailed pencil diagrams. I feel my memorization ability has translated into my interests in repetition, patterning, mimicry and doodling.
Growing up, I loved reading Arabian Nights, flying kites, playing cricket and airplanes, and drawing exotic locations from postcards, Disney cartoons, and sometimes portraits of others. I was not forced to choose the type of professions that others had around me. Art as a career was not something I aspired towards because of the stereotype perception that art does not pay bills. I studied both science and business. It was only when I moved to the U.S.A. that I developed a serious interest in visual arts and communication; I took drawing and art and architecture appreciation courses in my first year that included museums and exhibitions visits and a trip to Europe. I simply wanted to have fun and see the world. Gradually, upon realization that words and images can bring joy and have the power to change minds and history, art and design became my obsession. However, it was not an easy task to shift gears; it even took me a year to reveal to my parents that I was studying art and design. I was incredibly lucky to have my family’s support and met some amazing teachers, friends and colleagues who helped me to recognize my creative aptitude and polish my artistic talent. I think becoming an artist has made me a happy and satisfied person.
M A: How exciting or exhausting are the experiences you have from the time of conception of a project to its final execution; from initial drawings to sculptures and from video installations and performances which often last for days?
A M I S: Since establishing my Sydney studio in 2015, I am gradually moving away from working towards a single project or exhibition. Instead I am making art that challenges me and gives me a purpose. By focusing on my art practice, I am trying to curtail and manage the creative euphoria that kicks in a month before the exhibition or the project deadline. That is when my studio transforms from a pristine and a minimal space of self-reflection and calmness to a no go area –it literally looks like a land-mine of finished and unfinished artworks, junk, books, coffee cups and chocolate wrappers. As much as I love this mess as it is a maker’s mess and it excites me, I find this practice exhausting. The moment a project is done and delivered; I have to spot clean my studio to its original calm and thinking state. I party, catch up on my sleep, travel and the entire process starts again.
M A: You have won many awards, held many solo and group shows. How did you feel when you received your first award?
AMIS: I was over the moon when I won my first award for my very first exhibited drawing “The Last Supper” (1996) in a student Juried art exhibition. However, my joy was short lived, as I was denied the prize money. Apparently, I was the first international student to win, and the prize was not meant to be given to an international student. However, one of my drawing teachers invited me to sit in a portrait-drawing course as a consolatory prize, which I felt was a far better reward. Professionally, It was the Individual Artist of Oklahoma’s Installation Artist of the Year award for my work, Discourse within Discourse: The Circle (2003) that I still remember and cherish, as that was the first time I collaborated with my mother, Azra Wassem, who was visiting me in the U.S. She not only taught me how to dye fabric from spices for the installation but also shared her love for art and revealed to me that she wanted to be an artist but could not, as growing up in India; circumstances were not in her favor. Discovering that I got my artistic talent from her gave me the assurance and validation that I am meant to be an artist. This award further brought me closer to my mother leading me to investigate her life as well as my relationship with her as a son and as a man in an exhibition entitled Substitute: The Untold Narrative of a Mother & Son which was first unveiled in Sydney in 2016 and then traveled to Karachi in 2017. My mother is my first true mentor in life and art.
M A: Why do you draw a Muslim male to explore narratives of traditional and contemporary masculinity in your art? Is it just confined to your art practice or you want to share a specific message through this element?
A M I S: Born in a society that operates under patriarchal order, my bodily experience, my intercessions with gender politics and male gaze have largely shaped my creative expressions and experiences of the world. As a man, I can only claim to understand and relate to men’s issues and to some extent the issues we share with women. This I learned from an unsuccessful attempt to explore the violence against women in my first solo exhibition in Pakistan in 2001. I did, however, learn that first I need to look inwards and acknowledge that creating discourse around men is beneficial to both men and women. My talking about men is similar to how women are tackling issues that are pertinent to them. It is about sharing the gender equality and burden of bringing focus to the balancing act of gender performances. Based on such experiences, my artistic practice and research focuses on exploring several nuances of masculinity, power, politics, and emotions. In my opinion, it’s time for men to amplify their voice of compassion and empathy. I see a big paradigm shift underway in this regard and that is exciting to see. In summary, as a man and artist, I believe in balancing masculinity as professed in Islamic teaching of Jalal (majesty) and Jamal (beauty) that professes that we carry within us both qualities, and these qualities vary from person to person, as well as within a single person at different times.
M A: When there is a beard on a male, they are targeted as suspects and terrorists, mainly out of Pakistan. In your drawing series Make-Over (2008) you drew beards onto western male figures on different magazine covers and wrote sentences which had multiple meanings to depict them as a stereotypical ‘Muslim terrorist’. What difficulties did you face after these series, specially being a national and international renowned artist?
A M I S: Exploration of a beard as an identity marker, in this case on a Muslim male, came about from my observations, stories, and personal experiences of living in the west. I explored this subject extensively and produced these drawings during my Master of Fine arts research in Australia. Despite the seriousness of the topic, I had a fun time making these drawings as it allowed me to bring humor and immediacy to a subject that is increasingly becoming problematic for Muslim men both in Pakistan and the west. Make-Over series draws its inspiration from fun doodling exercises as means to increase visual literacy. I used to draw hair, flowers, birds, and random designs on digests and fashion magazines as a child. For this project, I would pick up a weekly magazine such as Time and Newsweek from a newspaper stand on my way to the university, which was on public transportation. The task was to draw and scratch a full beard on the male figure with a ball-point pen and a razor blade during the hour long commute. I never had any problems exhibiting these drawings both in Pakistan and abroad. On the contrary, I feel the audience connected to the absurd and fun nature of these drawings and could relate to their own doodling habits. However, one time, an elderly passenger who was sitting next to me on the train, observed me doodling on the cover, gently tapped my hand and said, “Didn’t your parents ever tell you not to do that?” Subsequently, as a courtesy, I started to hide my doodle activity from the fellow passages.
I personally like beards and perhaps will have a beard in future, but certainly neither for a religious purpose nor for projecting my identity as a Muslim man. As part of an experimental art project, I grew a beard and after keeping it for two years, I ended up liking it on my face. I observed my feelings and people’s reactions and comments towards my beard. Some liked it and some didn’t. Although such comments and action are banal in my view, from a research stand point, I think they suggest a prevailing attitude in our society towards a certain type of “religious” sans mustache bearded look that define moral goodness.
When all is said and done, I came to realize that despite holding diverse religious views on the beard, I see it as a type of natural camouflage, a vanity, and perhaps a type of mask. In my earlier art years, I was interested in bring attention to issues that were gradually becoming a taboo subject. In Pakistan, even during General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, at a social level, mustache was in vogue and shaving or keeping a beard was a personal matter and never discussed or moralized in public. General Zia, (who was a mustache man) was more interested in covering women both on national TV and in public. Things have gradually changed and the beard became an ideological identity symbol for Muslim men in Pakistan similar to what the Burka became for women.
M A: Consistently it also witnessed that your artwork, be it performance, paintings or drawings, has an essence of spirituality and patriotism. Nur-un’al Nur (2015), Sculptural installation comprised of hundreds of prayer caps emitting light within, Aura I and Aura II (2013), Photography series Soft Target (2011), Buzzing and Murmuring (2009), all these powerfully challenge the message of Islamophobia, western differences with east and Muslim’s image in the world. Do you face any difficulties on international level working on the controversial subjects?
A M I S: My answer to your second part of the question is No. However, it also depends if the project is executed in public or private space. In each case, I assess the risk. In some instances I tread cautiously and with extreme care. For example, in 2014, when I planned to perform Soft Target in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, I had to chalk out an escape route and a contingency plan is developed in consolation with a local artist who also was my photographer, interpreter and the guide. I spoke to a few friends about the idea and they all advised me to tread carefully and not to take the risk in the heighten environment of terror attacks in China. With all the preparation and practice, I did manage to perform for a few seconds and got a single photo before the guards were alerted. I tried to go back again, but the guard searched my bag and took out the target and admonished not to open the target within the premise. A similar incident happened in London in front of the gate of the Elizabeth Tower (Big Bang) and the Palace of Westminster in 2011 when a guard saw me performing and asked me to leave the area. A friend who was strategically asked to stand among the onlooker also photographed this interaction. Looking back now, I feel I was incredibly lucky that I got away with only stern warnings.
Coming back to the first part of your question, I think speaking about the issues such as Islamophobia, racial and religious intolerance, the War on Terror, and the lack of empathy towards migrants and refuges are not East vs. West issues, but are Global ones. In Pakistan, we are dealing with such issues in various different forms, names and disguises. I believe that art has to say something about the time we live in, reflect on who we are, and what we witness and experience. As an artist I want to reveal what others do not see or feel. In all good faith, I do not prescribe to a ‘sensational’ art practice that hinges on ‘controversies’ as it is limiting; both in terms of visual as well as theoretical discourse. I prefer to look and explore challenging clues, prophecies, symptoms, or seeds from which larger problems will manifest in the future. It is like how George Orwell’s in his seminal novel 1984 maps out a possible future to prevent it. For example, my 2007 solo show Born to Be at V. M. Art Gallery, Karachi in which I investigated the state of patriotism and nationalism under religious and political identities in Pakistan, and how it has deviated from the founding father Jinnah’s famous national motto ‘Unity, Faith, and Discipline’. The show revealed a mindset that seeks to accept a hybrid military and civilian leadership as a norm to find balance and normality in everyday life. I began the project in 2004 and incidentally, when I exhibited it in 2007, the issue of the hybrid presidential wardi (uniform) that first General Zia-ul-Haq promoted and then General Pervez Musharraf tried to repeat and further legitimize was at the forefront of Pakistani politics. The week my show opened, the wardi issue was the front-page news and posed some logistic and legal challenges for the gallery. Later another project, Aura I and Aura II (2013) constructed from white and black Muslim skull caps (taqiyah or topi), emerge from this earlier investigation of political and religious attires. However, the focus of this work was to bring together the masculine and feminine expressions in Divine balance that is professed in spiritual Islamic teaching, but ignored under patriarchal and political Islamic governance. Furthermore, such issues were timely, contemporary, and misunderstood politically. Intertwined with religion and driven by political misgivings, patriotism and nationalism, though they differ both in anatomy, meaning, and identity, have become a form of religion themselves.
M A: Among one of your astounding performance series, Ashk (Tears) , you had to reach out to a wide range of feelings to shed tears onto ‘watercolour painted’ boards. You listened to sad songs, Quranic versus, and sat in silence for hours for this performance. How deeply were you involved in your performance while being conscious of having people around? How emotional was it and how was your experience?
A M I S: The Ashk (Tears) is primarily a performance based multi panel drawing work, which I first created as a single piece Continuous Thoughts 2005 for a show about Karachi in 2005. In 2017 I expanded this work for an exhibition in New York that investigates the new development in Minimalism. I am a believer of what I call ‘Humanistic Minimalism’ imbued with emotions and marks that reveal themselves only upon close inspection. Performance of Ashk (Tears) happened in my studio in Sydney over a five day period at various times. Although a private activity, a few close artist friends were also invited to witness the process (upon their request) and to take a few photographs. It was one of the hardest performances I have ever done. Shedding tears is not easy (I believe this is true for both men and women) and crying on the spot is an art itself that I believe only a few have mastered. What surprised me the most is learning that out of the three kinds of tears distinguished by scientists (Basal tears, Irritant tears and Emotional tears which differ from each other by function and composition), only emotional tears of sorrow and joy (which are almost impossible to produce on command) have chemicals that actually leave a mark on paper. The paper on which the tears are shed have an application of dark ink that allows the surface to further highlight the tear stains in the presentation of the work. Once learned that I have to shed Emotional tears on paper, I had to reach out to a wide range of feelings including elation, sorrow, frustration, and rejection. In the end, there were no tears of joy but plenty tears of anger, fear, blessings, gratitude, and forgiveness. From reading the Qur’an and listening to its recitation with reflection to sad songs, to simply looking out the window or sitting silently in the dark, thinking about my past and present and forgiving others helped in shedding tears. But it was when I began to caress the surface of the paper, tears started to flow and the performance become visceral. Perhaps that is why we need someone else’s shoulders, hands or presence in the time of mourning and grieving.
M A: You covered three iconic and historical sites of conflict around the world standing on the map in your photography series Soft Target. I found it really a powerful concept. How was your experience?
A M I S: Soft Target performance photographs combine my passion for travel, geography, architecture, and performance art. What started as a live public performance, resulted in looking again at my art practice and discovering its backbone, which I call ‘manzoom muzahamat’ or poetic activism. Driven by empathy, it is a form of activism that respects vulnerability and combines it with passion and beauty to disrupt, introspect, and retrieve subjective agency. Silence, rhythms, and intervals play a crucial role in performances of poetic activism as they allow reflection and introspection. It all began when I read Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’ in which she declares “the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.” The Soft Target project takes this profound idea and examines the construction of a cultural identity in relation to iconic sites and structures on a tourist map, which have been marked as ‘soft targets’ more specifically since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Since 2011, I have been appearing with my makeshift target at various locations around the world, including Sydney, New York, Auckland, Beijing, Dubai, and Hong Kong. Some of the structures shown in the series such as One World Trade Center, Empire State Building, Sydney Opera House, and the Great Wall of China, are popular tourist spots or sites of human achievements and failures. The resulting photographs are markers of time and are both the message and the medium. It is up to the viewer as to how they interpret the image and experience. This shifting interpretation and misinterpretation of meaning from a site first to an individual, and then to a collective, is the essence of the resulting photographs of the performances. I feel that Soft Target is an ongoing journey where I am the traveler, the observer, and the recorder of time and history.
M A: Time to time you have been using one dollar notes. Why do you continue to use American currency? Is there a reason behind using dollars?
A M I S: My use of banknotes engages with the central role that money plays in economies of consumption and exchange, and how money often navigates cultural and political identities and power structures. Within such structures, the green US dollar bill acts as a dominant instrument of addressing the micro and the macro, especially in the Global financial market. Many currencies are pegged to the U.S. dollar and America’s economy drives the financial reactions from the rest of the world. The US one dollar bill has reached an enigmatic status with its hidden meanings, occult symbolism, and myths and has a psychological effect on pricing and value, including art as commodity. In my art practice, the temporal dimension of using the US one dollar bill and other currencies are infinite, connecting histories with the underlying human desire for power and lust for money on the one hand, while battling the overriding realization that the building of human relationship is imperative to existence.
M A: Your profile is very extensive and it is hard to jot down every artwork you have done so far. What was your favorite performance piece you personally liked and would always like to mention?
A M I S: I enjoy talking about my endurance body performances such as banknotes eating and regurgitating performance, Bucking (2011); the wall pelting drawing They see neither their heads, nor the stones, nor even the walls! (2011) performed at Gandhara Art Gallery, Karachi, Singing in Operatic tradition Anthems (2013) and most recently Flesh & Blood (2017) performed at Asia Art Society Museum, New York. These performances are prime examples of my controlled and intuitive art making process working in tandem. Each performance is aesthetically and physically challenging to perform. Each reflects the political ferment of the time speaks against a form of oppression and has played an instrumental role in my success, recognition and growth as an artist and performer.
M A: Tell the readers something about your recently concluded exhibition, Divine Economy Chapter 1: Structures at Aicon Gallery, New York?
A M I S: Divine Economy is a trilogy that documents the state of the world through the structural, conceptual, and material languages of the economy. It offers an exciting way for my art practice to enter an unchartered territory of religious and political economies while bringing a long-term commitment to live, sleep, breathe, and consume a single concept. Despite the current secular and democratic belief that politics and religion are separate, Divine Economy claims that all economic systems are still based on the notions of trust or promise that stems from religion. I argue that in this Divine Economy, ideas of Janna Heaven (swab, reward and pleasure) and Dozaq Hell (gunah, punishment and pain) are normative structures of moral transactions within everyday situations and have inspired creative minds for centuries. Ultimately, when all three parts are completed, I am not aiming to create a resolution, but seek to display an artistic endeavor that springs forth new ideas, responses, and perspectives.
The first chapter, Divine Economy: Structures maps the economies of religion, science, and politics and how ‘power’ structures are linked in a mutual and complex relation; constantly reinforcing and modifying each other. It studies and focuses on how these themes are intertwined and how they continually create and destroy aesthetic structures and visual languages. For this chapter, I painstakingly collected and used a wide variety of printed banknotes, including the U.S. dollar bill, Pakistani Rupees, and Saudi Riyal that are printed with images of political and religious structures, mottos, and texts such as, “In God We Trust” and the first Kalimah of Islam as evidence. Chapter One Structures builds upon this Divine Economy that disseminates through performances, rituals, and myths in our everyday transactions.
M A: What message do you want to give to the art lovers and the emerging artists of today?
A M I S: Rather than talking about artworks or specific ideas, focus on your art practice, its readings, its articulation, and most importantly recognizing its potential contribution in visual art and culture. Look for a mentor or a friend who can provide counter arguments and can challenge your thinking. If you plan to exhibit professionally, then a strong work ethic, clear and timely communication, and a professional attitude towards your artistic practice is essential. Furthermore mutual loyalty and support between the gallery (agent) and artist is highly regarded and makes the experience mutually satisfying.
Seeing art is an active experience of gazing and being gazed at. Give at least a minute to an artwork, keep an open mind, and use your imagination to see what the work is about before reading its title or text and passing a judgment. It is not surprising that the bombardment of images on social media and our immediate desire to like or dislike is further hampering our ability to view and experience art.
M A: On a lighter side, how many dollars have you used for the sake of art?
A M I S: (Laughing) I use enough dollars that soon either I may need some financial therapy or eventually to perform a vanishing act to hide from the debt collectors. And as for how many, now that is between me and my sympathetic accountant, but suffice to say every bill used is legally recorded and accounted for in a diary.
Special note: In the last of this interview, I would like to thank Abdullah for taking out time from his busy schedule and attending the interview. Knowing Abdullah and talking to him was an immense pleasure.