Farazeh Syed finds beauty in flesh; for her, the more the better
Weight, according to contemporary standards, is a cause and manifestation of ugliness. Men and women - young, adolescent, middle aged or old - all strive to shed their extra pounds. Visiting gyms as regularly and religiously as going to a place of worship; perhaps even more punctually. Just look at the shift in fashion; the new chic is to wear designer’s exercise outfits, compared to elegant trousers, jackets, skirts or other formal dresses. If to Greeks the term for ‘beauty’ was the word ‘just’, today being ‘beautiful’ is being ‘fit’; some sort of a natural reversal to the origin – of European philosophy, aesthetics and art.
On the contrary, Farazeh Syed finds beauty in flesh, and the more, the better. Pretty is plenty. Her women are not skinny models on catwalk, but matron-like gown-up females, belonging to an environment that is as phantasmagorical as the protagonists. Interestingly, her ladies are not alone. They are joined by other women, animals and birds along with overcrowded vegetation. What makes her paintings (from her forthcoming solo, My Body Remembers, November 2-19 at Sanat Initiative, Karachi) unusual is the presence of echo of human bodies that exist and melt with their backgrounds (two of her canvases are called Like Echoes Hanging in the Air!).
Spanish author Javier Marias in his novel, Your Face Tomorrow, reflects on objects, furniture, spaces which were used or visited by others before us, but when we pick a plate, sit on a chair or entre a room, we never think about those, who were there prior to us, performing the same acts. According to Marias, their invisible shadows still possess things, and occupy interiors. In a similar way, Farazeh Syed carves out outlines, and silhouettes of characters, close to other, more visible and solid bodies. Traces of limbs, legs and hands of background figures also remind viewers of Paul Cezanne’s apples. The French post-impressionist’s fruits are drawn with several outlines that generate the sensation of an apple moving, shifting, and sliding.
Farazeh Syed’s multi-layered women have a life of their own. These are also surrounded by parrots, tiger, monkeys and fish amid a thick growth of monster plants and a number of flowers. The atmosphere of mystery and unreality is enhanced by Syed’s preference for an uncanny skin colour and the play of light. While some of these females have natural, brownish complexion, a majority are rendered in tints of turquoise, blue and green. These human figures, other creatures and plants are distributed in the shades of light and dark; the origin of light in this environment is invisible, rather absent. Her world does not depend upon sun or any outer source of light.
Farazeh Syed carves out outlines and silhouettes of characters, close to other, more visible and solid bodies. Traces of limbs, legs and hands of background figures remind one of Paul Cezanne’s apples; drawn with several outlines that generate the sensation of an apple moving, shifting, sliding.
Nor do her women need the company of men. Hence no male figures or articles associated with masculinity are visible. Syed’s females are content, comfortable and complete in a world without the other gender. Companions from the kingdom of animals, substitute/ compensate for the male presence/ absence; hinting at a period mentioned by Intezar Hussain in his essay Ijtimai Tehzeeb aur Afsana. Hussain invokes the ancient communities in which mankind was not viewed as being different or distant from other species, but one amongst many living beings which included plants, animals, demons, fairies and angels. This was an atmosphere in which birds conversed with princesses, animals were given human personas and flowers, stars and stones were endowed with meaning. The world was vast, coherent and connected.
Syed’s scenarios too are like those primordial settings, where human beings and other creatures coexisted; only man had not yet started colonising the realm, a phenomenon that eventually led to dominating his own specie: women. Farazeh Syed recognises this in her statement: “I explore broader themes of sexuality, identity, taboos, patriarchy and representation. I thus, create visual narratives that are autobiographical but have universal/ collective relevance, for it is every woman’s story”.
Her practice, according to her “centres on the female body and the observation of gender.” There is, however, something more to these sensuously constructed canvases. She draws her figures and other pictorial matter in a line that does not describe, but envelopes the contours of figures. Paint application – naturalistic or imaginative – is mixed with pleasure. Her surfaces, built with initial (though not abandoned) marks, attempts, and traces of forms, are rich; her blue, green, pink are not single hues, but each a combination of various shades. Similarly, a woman in her painting is a composite of several females, since most of them share identical histories, experiences and fears in a male-dominated society.
One is reluctant to place Farazeh Syed or her art into a category, because categories in most cases end up as cages. However, it seems that Syed endorses an individual approach to addressing issues prevalent in a complex and controlling society. She has formulated a perfect place for women with its timelessness and calmness. Even though a crouching female is confronted by a tiger, or a reclining woman is surprised by a buffoon like creature, there is no danger. There is no man around.
And there is no direct content. Farazeh Syed, trained in the Indian classical music and an heir to masters of this genre, is familiar with its structure, of having no apparent message/ agenda in the sound of instruments. Thus, it seems natural that she focuses on the pictorial delight of her visual creations.
The pleasure is (in) that man-less world (as for some, satisfaction is in meatless meals). Joy is, also in the way Syed builds this private arena through sensitive brush strokes, which record and convey the artist’s physical movement and emotional state. Compared to her 2019 acrylic on canvas (I Dance with You Between the Worlds) and a few mixed media on wasli, most of her recent works (from 2021) confirm the celebration of paint, and of body.
For an artist like Farazeh Syed the two states are not different, because the body with its pleasure, pain, perception and the past can be related to paint with its pleasure, pain, perception and the past.
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore