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Published: Verve Magazine, Nerve, June 2010

Risham Syed is an artist who understands the influence of history in contemporary life, and expresses it through her often ironic and provoking tableaux. Sitanshi Talati-Parikh explores her intent and thought

Lahore-based Risham Syed stages provocative set pieces by juxtaposing the power of the past with symbols of contemporary Pakistani society. She paints art, historical images or even photographic images in acrylic, which is essentially plastic. Paintings are turned into objects and ‘conceptual pieces’. There is a very strong influence of power play in the mise-en-scene of installation art and the placement of objects. Domestic objects are used to talk about her experience of living in a society “which imposes certain roles on (men and) women who in turn assume these roles most of the time without challenging/questioning them. This is a take on that, but then these objects engage in a dialogue with the larger social/political picture.” She chooses objects that carry a particular historical/cultural context. For example, the white marble mantelpiece is very Victorian with Indian elements. Along with representing the family unit or the institution of it, it represents a certain class. The wall lamp pretends to be ‘Victorian’ but is a very cheap Chinese version of it. The vestiges of cultural inheritance are observed to suggest an origin and it’s very perceived authenticity.

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In conversation with the artist:

What inspires your works?
I collect photographs from newspapers, magazines, life around in general on a daily basis. I also collect old photographs that inherently carry a particular context with them. I am interested in history and how it connects itself with the present moment.

What draws you towards historical power play?
I connect history with the present. It is also a way of looking within and outside and I like this recurring dialogue. The way I construct this connection, I feel it remains open and every time a new narrative can appear, depending on the sequence of the connection.

Are you using space as a metaphor?
The most apparent thing is a domestic space that comes through from these constructions. It’s a metaphor for roles, personas, pretences, power play, control, etc. Domesticity is a tool that I use to connect various issues with the larger picture. You see a quiet wall lamp with a small painting under it but on close inspection the painting is of disturbance or violence. In this way within the quiet, apparently pretty domestic spaces, there is another space within the painted surface which again is a metaphor for the space outside of us which is alien yet it’s the space within us.

What does power mean to you?
The idea of power or ego is within us and it manifests itself in various dislocated channels resulting in destruction. There is power play from within the basic family unit structure of the society to the larger global picture. It’s the base of the economic structure and that becomes the driving force. It is connected with identities, images, personas, relationships and attitudes.

Influencing artists

    Zahoor-ul Akhlaq, Salima Hashmi, Quddus Mirza (her teachers at National College of Arts, Lahore).
    Indian artists like Amrita Sher Gill, Arpita Singh, Bhupen Khakar, the Warhli tribes.
    Love looking at: Rembrandt, Leonardo, Vermeer, Gauguin, Van Gough, Magaritte, Joseph Cornell, Frida Kahlo, Chagall, Rothko, Rauschenburg, Richter, Peter Blake, Hockney, O’Keefe, Cartier Bresson….

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