Artist of the Month: Risham Syed
By Saira Ansari
Pakistani artist Risham Syed made it into the forefront of Pakistani art world news when she was selected as one of the five MENASA (Middle East North Africa South Asia) artists receiving the gargantuan Abraaj Capital Prize 2012. Working with Dutch curator Nat Mueller, her project titled The Seven Seas has received kudos back at home and in international circles. However, Risham, who works with themes of history, culture, and post-colonial identity, already had a strong practice prior to this and was well established amongst leading Pakistani curators and gallerists.
In this interview, Saira Ansari talks with Risham about concerns that are part of the staging of works, providing a glimpse into what happens behind the scene.
Saira Ansari: Can you talk about the projects you were working on at the time you applied for the Abraaj Capital Prize grant, and how that did work the plan out into the proposal?
Risham Syed: I sent in my proposal for the Abraaj Capital prize in 2011. Before that, in 2010, I had two solo shows – “Lahore”, Rohtas Gallery (Lahore) and “And the Rest is History”, Talwar Gallery (New York). So directly, I wasn’t working with the materials that I proposed. Indians Viewing the Landscape, Painting: Acrylic on canvas on board framed in Chinese faux gilded frame – baby chairs, 2010. The idea of this award is that you propose something you want to do but cannot pursue due to lack of funds. I have been interested in eighteenth and nineteenth century politics and travelling was was one of the components of the work I wanted to produce. That’s how I came up with the proposal.
SA: With the “And the Rest is History” show, the work is decisively about postcolonial elements. So the element of history is present but not the materials perse. Marble Heath, Painting in Marble Mantel Piece, 2010.
RS: Yes, not the materials directly. Although, I had worked with similar materials in 2007/2008. I had made a quilt that had two maps of Lahore superimposed on each other. One was a nineteenth-century map and the other was a current map. This was exhibited in Canvas Gallery (Karachi) in 2008, and later in”The Rising Tide” show (Mohatta Palace Museum, Karachi).
SA: Once the proposal was approved, how did the work progress and what was the level of involvement of curator Nat Mueller?
RS: Since the proposal outlined the entire project they knew exactly what I was going to do and that I was going to make seven quilts. I had also proposed at that time that I would make seven paintings. But much of the actual work was supposed to take shape after I travelled and collected materials from different regions. Once I did get selected for the grant, the challenge lay in working out logistical details. Travel itineraries and tough visa requirements made it very hard to work in a smooth flow. It wasn’t easy at all. It was especially problematic for Egypt and Morocco. For Morocco, I was told, it would take at least a month to get my visa. So when my passport was gone to any embassy for visa processing, I couldn’t travel anywhere else either. And if I wasn’t travelling, and didn’t have access to the materials I needed, I would be unable to go ahead with the work. I had to try and juggle all these different aspects and still get the work completed within the given schedule.
Throughout this time, I was constantly in touch with Nat and was sharing images and files via dropbox. These included updates of whatever I was documenting, whatever material I was collecting, and I kept getting regular feedback on it. This was part of the curatorial process and the others were also doing the same – sharing their work.
SA: So there was a group discussion within the group of the five Abraaj Prize 2012 winners?
RS: No, not really. There wasn’t any discussion amongst ourselves, but we were all aware of what the others were doing as the images were being shared by all.The Seven Seas: Quilt 2: Izmir, Turkey, Cotton quilts filled with synthetic American wool, 2012
SA: With a project like this – where the entire concept has already been proposed but the development lies in the production phase – how hard was it to visualize the end result when logistical issues constantly stalled development?
RS: I think that was the fun part for me. I usually have a very concrete idea in my mind in the beginning on what I want to do and how the work would shape up in the end. In this case, until I had the material I couldn’t get the work was done and I couldn’t imagine how the final pieces would turn out. It was quite challenging in this respect and I enjoyed that a lot. Even when the work was getting done, a lot of the process was based on intuition. With the material that I collected in different locations, my choices were based on picking up anything that I really liked. I mean what I was collecting was relevant, but still I selected things based purely on what appealed to me at that point, and not on what I thought I would do with eventually.
SA: But were there ever any panic moments where you thought: will itbe done in time, resolved in time?
RS: Yes, that time does come. Once the work was done, I was very concerned with how the pieces would be displayed, considering that there wasn’t a lot of space allotted to each artist. Even in the beginning the idea of seven quilts sounded heavy and was at risk of being repetitive and monotonous. I deliberated over the presentation and whether the work should be displayed as one structure or should the display sizes vary. There were lots of decisions to be made at every stage of the project. But one just had to resolve it and get on with it. Especially because there wasn’t a lot of time to get caught up in specific complications like that.
SA: In the past you worked with many curators and gallerists in Pakistan (including gallerists who call themselves curators). Now that you have worked on an intensely curated international project of this scale, would you like to comment on curatorial practices in Pakistan?
RS: The experience with Nat was very different. Her involvement with the work was very in-depth. I have not experienced that before. She wanted to know where I was at every stage of the work and gave her input each time. Normally this doesn’t happen in Pakistan. At least, it hasn’t happened in my experience, where someone is constantly giving feedback on the work and expressing their view on your decisions. So I haven’t worked with such a directly curated project before. After this experience, it has made me question the role of a curator – on what should be and what actually happens. It’s tricky.
SA: For the “Lahore”show (2010), the re-created wall in the centre of Rohtas Gallery was very interesting. It changed the gallery space dynamics and seemed like a curatorial intervention. The thing is, not many galleries are experimenting with the display space even when showing experimental work. Can you talk a bit about how that happened and how the gallery responded?
RS: The gallery was willing to comply as long as I wasn’t damaging anything, and I wouldn’t make too much noise or bring in a lot of helping hands. I tried to be as quiet as possible got done with a lot of work in my studio and assembled it later at the gallery. Generally speaking, Asad(Hayee, at Rohtas) is open to such concepts and tries to help as much as he can. So is Umer (Butt – at Grey Noise). The shows I’ve seen for Grey Noise have been interesting in regard to content and displays, including your show.
Back to the wall — the postcard-sized paintings that I had worked on were pictures of residential buildings and commercial blocks. I didn’t want to see them on white walls. Hence, the brick wall was a solution I came up with at that point. I wasn’t completely satisfied or happy with it because there were a lot of other possibilities that could have been explored. But it was interesting at that time.
SA: Well, as students or younger artists, when we discussed the wall, we appreciated it even though it may not have been a startlingly unique idea. But it did help set a tone for the possibilities of what could be done, and gave other artists an incentive to experiment further. Just to deviate from using standard gallery display space is an interesting aspect that many artists are not looking at, here in Pakistan.
Another thing with your work is that the experimental pieces always contain areas that are very meticulously drawn or painted. One could obviously tell that the small pieces at the Rohtas show were paintings, but they were done in a very delicate photo-realistic manner. How important is that element of meticulously detailed finish for you, in installations of experimental media?
RS: I think as a painter, there is an innate desire to include your painting in your work and have it feature as an integral part of your installation. But recently my new work has included these photographic-quality paintings because there are many other concerns that I’m working with. For me it is a comment on the history of painting, looking at eighteenth/nineteenth-century painting. When you replicate a photograph as a painting, it’s a comment in itself on the idea of painting. Those elements push me to be meticulous. I’m sure though that my skill is still very crude in the eyes of miniature painters. It’s not as precise as they would like it to be. But it’s enough for me.
SA: You have been teaching at Beaconhouse National University (Lahore) and are obviously working with a lot of students who wish to push their practices in a very experimental direction. How is the experience of teaching them, and what do you think the new generation is doing now?
RS: I think teaching is a very interesting experience and seeing the kind of work students are coming up with now is exciting. It relates to the point we discussed earlier: When one artist dares to push forward, he/she creates the space for the next to push even further in a more adventurous way and build upon that. One example of this is from my own student. Ehsan (Ul Haq) brought soil to the studio for one of his pieces. Down the line, another girl is thinking of bringing soil into the studio, and going a step ahead to fill the entire studio space with it. People can be bolder each time and perhaps even refine previous ideas. That’s how it goes.