‘Look at the city from here: through the rear view mirror or looking glass’ is the title of Risham Syed’s current solo show at Gandhara Art-Space in Karachi. Borrowed from a poem Yahan se sheher to dekho, by the legendary Faiz Ahmed Faiz, ‘Look at the city from here’ will be the umbrella theme of a series of three solo shows at Gandhara Art-Space (including Syed’s), curated by Hajra Haider Karrar, to celebrate the 10th year milestone of the gallery.
Upon entering the gallery space, the wall text near the entrance served as a pertinent introduction to what one would expect to see in the show. Taking in the artworks around them, one could see a carefully thought-out display of the pieces spanning two floors of the gallery, with each area displaying works from a different series created by Syed over the years, yet interwoven so well that it didn’t seem like a retrospective spanning almost two decades.
However, what was it that enamoured or concerned Syed about the city? Moreover, which city in particular was she speaking of? The artist best explained it herself as she stated, ‘Well I do begin with my own city Lahore that I have lived in all my life. I’ve seen it grow, transform and evolve and take shape that it has. It houses ideals, aspirations, expectations and goals of millions. I use it as a metaphor to talk of life, the system we live in, what this system does to life and the human condition’.
With the ‘city’ as a constant, underlying thread in the show, one was first introduced to her Untitled Lahore series. This series depicted postcard-sized paintings (that at first seemed like photographs) of unusual areas of Lahore in conjunction with objects displayed below, such as a pile of sand or an abandoned iron rod, which were reminiscent of a certain time in history. The irony Syed provided was apparent; postcards usually depict the most scenic and iconic representations of a particular place, while Syed’s pieces displayed mundane facades of homes. Also, why were the postcards painted? Syed felt, ‘For me painting then becomes a deliberate act of participation’ in preserving a moment in time.
The We are sorry for this transient inconvenience series was a number of Jacquard tapestries depicting abandoned buildings or spaces under construction constituting an unpleasant sight, displayed on netted metal frameworks/barriers in a manner reminiscent of negligently-pasted posters on city walls. Hence, she brought to the gallery space, images of sights one comes across when navigating a third-world urban landscape (in this case, Lahore).
But what is the significance of the technique of Jacquard itself? According to the curator, Karrar, jacquard (the first mechanization of the handloom) emerged as a process in China after the Industrial Revolution, which took over the local Indian hand-operated cotton industry. And this is where the artist brought in another historical reference: according to Syed, till the 19th century, cotton and cotton products were one of India’s significant exports. After the mechanization of the handloom, however, only raw cotton was exported while machine-made cotton goods were imported back from China by Pakistan, destabilizing the local economy. By bringing in images of chaos and mayhem woven into the tapestries (which were also made in and brought back from China), Syed brought in the politics of 19th century right into present day Lahore and presented a contrast to traditional 19th century European jacquard panels that mostly depicted life in tranquil settings. The pieces also inadvertently reflected China’s current stronghold on the world economy.
Not only did Syed reference historical narratives that have impacted her city, Lahore (and Pakistan on the whole), as well as current scenarios, she also brought in elements of her personal history to the table. In her Vaila k’vaila series (Time Untimed), Syed’s digitally printed quilt and painting faced a vintage bridal shirt, while a video ran perpendicular to the two. All four objects referenced Syed’s personal history and her ‘Punjabi/colonial values’, in one way or another, yet also struck a chord with the viewer. While the quilt perhaps depicted a mesh of buildings, old photographs and other things familiar to her, the bridal shirt belonged to her grandmother, and the painting depicted her mother. The entire installation seemed to be reminiscent of the 70s; a time much different from today, yet still relatable. We were thus made to see ‘the present through the filter of history’, as Syed stated.
On the floor above was displayed yet another series by Syed- History as Re-presentation (along with a few older pieces by her). This series, again, brought together object and image with the act of painting and deliberated composition. Syed stated, ‘All objects have history and old objects bring the history of their time and context with them. I choose to juxtapose these with the painted surface to create a narrative or to ‘frame’ these paintings so that they are viewed through the ‘filter’ of the history of these objects’.
According to the curator, Karrar, History as Re-presentation 3- the piece with the baby Victorian chair atop a wooden stool and painting on stand next to it- encapsulated the entire exhibition best. That’s perhaps because we could see a correlation between found objects and created/crafted objects that, when composed together, reflected how history is created and represented; rarely in its absolute, truest form, with parts of it fabricated, morphed and maneuvered.