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ArtintheCity Speaks to Abraaj Capital Art Prize 2012 Winner, Risham Syed

ArtintheCity Speaks to Abraaj Capital Art Prize 2012 Winner, Risham Syed

Risham Syed’s practice critically focuses on the remains of cultural and historical inheritance and its perceived authenticity in present-day Pakistan. She received a BFA in Painting from the National College of Art, Lahore (1993) and an MA from the Royal College of Art, London (1996). Risham Syed is represented by Talwar Gallery, New York and is currently an Assistant Professor at the School of Visual Art, Beaconhouse National University, Lahore, Pakistan, where she continues to live and work.  ArtintheCity spoke to Syed ahead of the unveiling of her piece for the Abraaj Capital Art Prize 2012....

AITC: Violence and domesticity are things which have often been juxtaposed in your work, and domesticity seems to act as a means of opening a dialogue about other issues – would you say this is the case?

Risham Syed: Yes I would agree that is the case.  There is violence within domesticity that eventually connects to the violence of the outside world.  A female child’s upbringing intrinsically contains domesticity whereby she is taught to keep things in balance, beauty and harmony - traits inculcated to produce the perfect home- maker. So I use domesticity to present things in a ‘pretty’ way that is tongue in cheek for me.

AITC: Your work is rich in symbolism and allusions to history and culture.  How important is it that audiences understand all these references and are they themselves encouraged to ‘excavate’ the layers of meaning and history?

RS: Well for me it is important that the audience understands these references but I do not give one sort of combination, often using a more than a few images. I hope to encourage the audience to make the connection in their own sequence /order to give the work a new meaning each time.

AITC: In your work, you draw from a wide range of sources, from contemporary news imagery to the Hudson River School. How do you source the imagery you use?

RS: I use images from books, magazines, internet and my own photographs. I look at all these images as ‘quotations’.

AITC: Colonialism is something which you have explored extensively.  The work ‘Two Indians Viewing the Landscape’ in particular strikes me as referring to the relationship of the colonists and the natives, and the condescension involved in this.  What is it that interests you about this and is this investigation a way for you to better understand contemporary Pakistan, given its colonial history? 

RS: Thomas Cole’s ‘Indians Viewing the Landscape’ (1827) represents the philosophy of the 19th Century; discovery, exploration and settlement (again done in a ‘pretty way’) . Man’s connection with nature is used to talk about the worldview of the time, which is very significant. I made a replica of this painting in acrylic (literally plastic) and placed two child-size Victorian chairs in front of it so that any two ‘Indians’ could sit in the chairs and view the two Indians viewing the landscape in the painting. In a way they then become a part of the dialogue of the present with the past. The two Victorian chairs that I made (deliberately in miniature) are still used today in upper middle class homes in Pakistan - we love the Victorian era and still like to live it!

AITC: What I love about your installations, particularly those in the 2010 exhibition ‘and the rest is history’ in New York, is the playful combination of sculpture and painting.  In ‘The Marble Hearth’ a scene of a space shuttle blast off stands in for real fire in the marble fireplace; and in ‘Two Indians’, a painting about viewing becomes part of a theatrical tableaux involving the act of looking. Paintings become props in a larger scene in addition to carrying their own meaning.  Can you discuss the relationship between sculpture and painting in your artistic practice?

RS: As I said earlier paintings for me are ‘quotation’ in acrylic (which is significant for me). These are ‘framed’ by or given a certain ‘context’ by the objects, be it the fireplace or a lamp or the Victorian-style chairs. I like to invite the audience to view these quotations in a certain context that these objects provide.

AITC: What are your thoughts on the importance of prizes like the Abraaj Capital Art Prize, which award proposals for art, rather than finished work?

RS: It’s a kind of a risk that is taken when the award is given on the proposal rather than a finished work but I think that is also the strength of it.For me the ABRAAJ prize worked particularly as it allowed me to do all the travelling required for the work, which I would not have been able to do otherwise.

Risham Syed’s piece for the Abraaj Capital Art Prize will be unveiled at Art Dubai this March, from 21 – 24 March, 2012.

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