Archaeology of the future

October 9, 2022

Artist Risham Syed offers a view of our existence, normally unnoticed due to its familiarity

Archaeology of the future

Arriving in London in 1994 to acquire her MA Painting from the Royal College of Art, Risham Syed bought that small book, which every traveller and resident of the metropolis used to have, London AZ, the street atlas, with all lanes, roads and neighbourhoods clearly marked, mapped and defined.

In 2022, you hardly find this publication in a bookstore, or at tourist shops – because of Google maps, an app that enables a user to find his/ her way with the help of a smart phone anywhere in the world.

Before these handy devices, humans needed to navigate their routes, record their voyages, document their conquests and plan their trade with maps made on multiple surfaces. Maps were also a means to connect and contextualise one’s location – hence identity – in relation to other regions. From the Babylonian world map (750-500 BCE) to Indian, Chinese, Aztec, Arab, Medieval European and colonial cartography, mankind has been denoting/ documenting its surroundings, employing several methods, means and systems.

Some of the earliest maps are commerce routes, or sketches of distant lands occupied by invaders. In a sense, there is no difference between the two. For example, the East India Company started its business as a merchandising body, but eventually became an accomplice in the occupation of the subcontinent. The phenomenon has gone on till this day in various disguises. Culture, politics, ideologies are spread through commercial goods. In this age, multinational businesses entail the strategy of alienating a people from the harmony of their traditional existence: creating a yearning and need in them for items produced outside of their geography, way of living, environment and introducing products that satiate their inflated desires/ requirements. Billions enjoying Coke in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are substituting their conventional beverages for the Yankee delight, thus yielding an invisible supremacy to North America/ West. McDonald’s, Papa John’s, Levi’s Jeans are just a few names in the long list of food and clothes chains that have transformed societies around the globe.

Risham Syed, recognises this situation in her recent work on display at her solo exhibition Appointments and Disappointments with History (September 27-October 6) at Canvas Gallery, Karachi. A total of eight artworks installed at the gallery (abundantly lit, but suspended in dark space) are mainly textile-based surfaces along with domestic objects. Hung like carpet/ partition/ painting, the artist has created quilts with layers of images. Her show seems like a walk through a museum of industrialisation, colonisation, and exploitation.

The quilt like panels are fabricated with Chinese silk of her “mother’s prized possession. She [the mother] would talk about making quilts out of these”. Now the daughter has accomplished her mother’s plan, by “probing the history of this fabric as a material tied up with trade, power, class and culture, hence smeared with violence, drudgery, upheaval and turmoil”.

Syed has been inquiring into the anatomy of trade for more than a decade. After winning the Abraaj Capital Art Prize in 2011, she showed a series of seven quilts in Art Dubai (2012) recounting the merchandising connections between different regions of the worlds. The commercial links eventually led to political control. However, in the present times, the flux of trade has shifted in varying directions. Now China dominates large parts of the world. Articles of domestic use, aesthetic needs, mechanical requirements and decorative purposes are produced in China and sold to countries across the world, including Pakistan. We are also a partner in the CPEC project, hence the Chinese influence on life, objects, tastes.

In her art, Syed has created a cartography of interactions between communities, countries, and continents through time. She blends episodes from history to produce a composite narrative about subjugation through modernity, progress, knowledge, trends; the concepts one tends to associate with the Western civilisation.

In a post-colonial society, you become a clone to your former masters in matters like how to place knives and forks at the dinner table, what spoon should be used for dessert, the order of serving dishes. Language, dress, music, food hark back to this condition. This is unavoidable because one writes with computers, communicates on mobile phones, travels in aeroplanes – and trains, cars, cycles, all Western inventions.

Drawing from this background, Risham Syed offers a view of our existence, often unnoticed due to its familiarity. In her work, one finds strands of cultural and commercial landmarks that have transformed a country. A recurring motif in all her work, is the view of a high-rise building (Ali Trade Centre or Residence 16 – both from Lahore) signifying a nouveau-riche class that aspires to this kind of apartments/ offices. These are structures where an air of alienation looms – both in private homes and in the corridors of mercantile companies. Yet citizens long for these dream-constructions, so Syed renders these buildings in glittery fabrics and stitching, alluding to the illusion of glamour a high-rise promises.

Just the term high-rise, associated with a residential block animates an uplift in one’s social status, job opportunity, happiness. These dreams, woven through time, are probed by Risham Syed. She treats them like modern-day screens within which the drama of the past keeps unfolding in multiple layers - not without its political, commercial, historical connotations. In these exuberant works, maps of an empire (in Africa, Asia Australia, and America) are printed and drawn, with views of industrial towers emanating smoke. Sections of animals, birds and plants – picked from other tapestries – are cut and sewen in the larger narrative, reinforcing the idea of outsider and otherness that emerged with the European Imperialism/ trade; because prior to that stage everyone belonged everywhere – you did not require a passport, visa or return flights when moving from one region to another.

Syed creates a chronology of diverse pasts, by combing Arab atlases with a cropped canvas of a European family enjoying their food and drink, juxtaposed with identical utensils attached to the work. The artist interweaves multiple folds of human existence to comment on the present. Exotic species and unusual vegetation allude to the act of confronting the unknown. Yet the contact with the alien (soil, people, custom) could take any form. One, normal and obvious is the trade, manufacturing plants and industrial debris, with a number of factories exhaling lethal vapours.

In all of her work, one comes across tunnels with fumes/ clouds of smoke, as well as objects of desire, like lamps from BHS, Cardinal Plate, Alfred Meakin Gravy Boats, Thomas Bradley & Sons Silver Plated Vases, and Silver-Plated Goblets, fake Gardener Teapot, Jonson Brothers Teapot, and Royal Doulton Plate, attached to quilts thus completing archelogy of the present and the future commerce.

Risham Syed, has been interested in maps – her first work at the Royal College of Art, Text and Contexts: Home was a collage of a London map (probably a spread from London AZ) and a layout of Lahore (from the recollections of her ancestral city) – but maps more than denoting geography indicate the construct of knowledge/ power of a time. Maps in her latest artwork, address the relation between humans, politics and history. Human beings do deal with time, as said the American literary critic James Wood, referring to the World War I that started after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo: “The Archduke has an appointment with history”. Almost a century later, we – including Risham Syed – have disappointments with history.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

Archaeology of the future