Lost and found

January 16, 2022

In his search for the missing, artist Munawar Ali Syed is looking for/ at himself and his history

In Search of Knowledge-2016.
In Search of Knowledge-2016.

If one starts enumerating all the shapes in Munawar Ali Syed’s recent work, it will be a very long list. There are many forms and they are of many different kinds, ranging from natural entities to man-made objects; all executed in lines, all overlapping to create complex structures.

They are almost like some puzzles, especially those you see in children’s books. Exercises of mind and memory, which require us to retain a collection of jumbled up things, and to list their names on another page after a single/ brief glance. Many are familiar with these tests of observation and concentration, arduous yet engaging because one disentangles the cluster, separates all the items and arranges them in a sequence - not physically, but mentally. Such an effort could result in one recollecting every object even after half a century.

Syed’s metal wire sculptures provide the same delight and difficulty. These captivate a viewer so that he/ she spends longer than usual time in front or around each art piece. Combinations of contours, of birds, animals, human infants, bric-a-brac, weapons and toys are joined like riddles, inviting – actually compelling a spectator to locate every element. An activity that leads to the title of the exhibition, Talaash-i-Gumshuda (Looking for the lost) held from December 31 to January 10, at O Art Space Lahore.

What is found in this surge amounts to a number of ideas, connections and connotations. In both his paintings and sculptures, the outlines of superimposed figures and objects remind one of Michael Craig-Martin. The British artist layers “ordinary, everyday objects” in outlines of various colours. His work was shown in Lahore at an exhibition of sculptures, Changed World, organised by the British Council Pakistan, at the Lahore Fort in 1997. Sculpture students from the National College of Art took part in installing this show. Munawar Ali Syed was one of them.

That early exposure to Craig-Martin’s art, while Syed was in the third year of his sculpture major at the NCA, seems to have stayed. It also appears to have been resurrected in the latest body of his work, in which lines, either drawn in ink or shaped in metal, are placed in random groups. But there the link starts to stutter and shift.

Craig-Martin, in his apparently neutral and subtle tones, picks products that reveal a human substance, things that you touch, hold, use and possess. It is a reflection on human society that has been altered by mechanical goods and has come to be dominated by them. His work is a comment on the ‘development’ of a consumer culture. He observes, “many objects are now merging into one thing, so the phone is now the camera, the computer, the sat-nav, the compass, the torch, the wallet, the TV, the book, the music player, the briefcase, the clipboard: multiple objects condensed into one”. This blurring of identification can also be read as a loss of identities in a homogenous environment.

On the other hand, Munawar Ali Syed opts for a simplistic narrative - handy, joyful, and fabrication-oriented. In his wire sculptures (titled Between the Lines) and diptychs (In Search of Home and In Search of Soul) one traces birds and animals and objects of separate origin/ function. Some quickly recognised segments include dog, elephant, lion, pigeon, parrot, wolf, cow, bull, reindeer, rabbit and cat along with products like chair, box, a pair of scissors, knife, gun, paper planes, milk bottles and pacifiers next to the outline of a child.

Quarantine diary VI.
Quarantine diary VI.

That early exposure to Craig-Martin’s art, when Munawar Ali Syed was in his third year of sculpture major at the NCA, seems to have stayed. It has been resurrected in the latest body of his work, in which lines, either drawn in ink or shaped in metal are placed in random groups. But there the link starts to stutter and shift. 

The list can be haphazard but one speculates otherwise. One of the most accomplished earlier works of Munawar Ali Syed was the sculpture of a buffalo perched on a base consisting of books (displayed at Sindh Art Fest at Frere Hall Karachi, 2014). For some of his solo exhibitions in the past, he has also created a number of books in wood and barbed wire. This background provides a passage to read his new works at O Art Space, Lahore.

Syed’s animals, birds, and other elements are like pictorial words: lines that conjure images of a living being or a familiar reality. The way these are drawn in whitish hues on a dark background in his two paintings is similar to chalk inscriptions on blackboards in school classrooms. Though these are not as casual, free and intense as some of the works by Joseph Beuys and Cy Twombly, Syed’s decision to describe every object (living being or other) in a neutral and elementary tone may revert to the institution and regimenting of learning in our midst.

A child with a milk bottle and pacifier can allude to how while growing up one is conditioned into a specific character. This starts with the primer. A student is trained, groomed and brainwashed through alphabets coupled with their signifier pictures. For instance, A for apple, A for Adam or A for aircraft; and C for cat, C for cycle or C for car; and P for parrot, P for pistol or P for Pakistan. There are messages that are more than a connection between the letter and the word. These include messages about class, identities, societies and histories, too.

Munawar Ali Syed refers to these and other instruments of imparting knowledge employed by authorities to mould minds, by adding a knife, a pair of scissors or a gun in his stock of imagery. Apart from its multiple undertones, Syed’s work is a rare example of controlled execution. Precise outlines of these elements (which feel like words in some language) also suggest a confusion that is primarily pictorial, but can be extended to societal and economic, about the practice of pedagogy, which besides imparting ‘selected’ knowledge, introduces a specific world view.

A couple of works, from the recent exhibition denote the aspect, impact and imposition of a strict training. A majority of artists, and others in our society have spent their formative years wrestling with English language, its grammar, spellings, adjectives etc. Art for some offers a way out, a substitute for the ‘other’ language. But once a young person is enrolled in an art institution, he/ she is instructed in the dogma of art making: chiaroscuro, proportions, perspective, resemblance, reproduction. Munawar Ali Syed questions these norms through two of his works created in 2020, with a common title In Search of Knowledge-1996. The first a blank page of an English composition exercise book, and the second, a pencil sketch on a paper – both fabricated with graphite and acrylic on fibreglass. One is a page from a student’s notebook and the other a drawing sheet; both are crumpled. The two works allude to our system of education. These may also rekindle the frightening (but eventually fruitful) experience of Munawar Ali Syed – and many others, who attempted the NCA entry test consisting of an English essay and drawing from observation.

Thinking of the title of the exhibition, one realises that in his lookout for the missing, Munawar Ali Syed is looking for/ at himself, his past as a student and his history as an artist. But when you are looking for misplaced belongings you may also discover some unrelated stuff. It’s like driftwood. On the same note, his works on paper (Quarantine Diary) appear extraneous. Their addition to the exhibition seems as useless as the appendix to a book or the appendix in a human body.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

Lost and found