Great Silk Flowers Grew from her Needles
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Great Silk Flowers Grew from her Needles

Entering the gallery space, two things draw one’s attention instantaneously: the soulful voice that sings in the background, and the vibrant colors of the textiles suspended from the ceiling. More details unpack once the initial impact is absorbed. Silverware, porcelain crockery, and lamps are inimitably arranged next to the silks. It creates a warm, welcoming and almost domiciliary experience. I visit on a day when the gallery is empty, it’s almost like the art is set up exclusively for my experience and the song is being sung for me— just me!

The verse that resonates as a Capella within the gallery in Risham Syed's voice. Poetry by her father Najm Hosain Syed, published as an anthology of poetry and prose in’ Paikhnay Os Khayal De’ (2019); his writing is seen under the printed verse. Image Courtesy, Risham Syed.

‘The swirl of your look turns us, the empty-handed ones
Into a thread that enters into the narrow head of the needle
We pass through the destructive splits
Created by dominant possessiveness
We then make available
The art of sewing the separated souls into oneness
Every tongue then tastes the playful songs of Lal Hussain’1

While roaming through galleries and viewing the artworks I subconsciously connect with them through my own personal narratives. The artworks are the artists’ autobiography but to me they become my biography. Where I can’t see my biography unfolding, I cannot connect with the works at a deeper level. There was something here. I felt like I was walking through my maternal great-grandmother and grandmother’s houses respectively— these objects were familiar; the environment was familiar. It transported me, through my childhood memories, to the households I was so familiar with when I was growing up.

Many of the utilitarian objects and ornaments I grew up seeing around me were imported, chronicling a greater investigation on consumption and consumer revolutions through global interconnectedness. Many scholars researching commercial exchange within the historical premise focus on global political economy over nation-focused explanations of economic developments. While commerce and macro-economic practices are of interest, global history has often-times focused on cultural exchanges— which gives us an insight into these objects paving way into our households.

Risham Syed hails from Lahore, with strong roots anchoring her to the culture of the province. The premise for her oeuvre developed not only from the silks that were handed down to her by her mother, but was also influenced by houses and homes and what they carried. A strong historical, and nostalgic, narrative comes into play when witnessing these households and the objects they hold, linking the past to the present and vice versa. The historiography of the nineteenth century Punjab also looked into the integration of Anglicism and Orientalism, and the consequent subversion to the two. Despite the efforts and exertions to integrate2, the imperial mission continued to ride on the back of Western superiority over ‘Oriental’ cultures. This pigeonholed eighteenth-century Western abstraction of the East with the belief that only the English shaped the road to opportunities and success. The ‘corporate’ institution of Orientalism can be identified as a complex symbiotic relationship with imperialism during the Victorian period, and the two cannot be disconnected effortlessly. Barely a decade after the passing of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the strength of the ‘Anglo-empire’ dwindled. The British left behind a Victorian culture meshed into the local household thus developing an elite3 culture which had come to stay, and can be largely witnessed within the contemporary nuanced lifestyle prevalent to this day. Even today there is a surprisingly wide diffusion of original British housewares, decorative porcelains and delftwares with a large percentage of the urban elites owning lamps, crockery, or at least one item for the making or serving of tea or coffee. However, it must be mentioned here that the objects on display — Thomas Bradley & Sons Silver Plated Vases Royal Doulton. Plate, the Johnson Brothers Teapot, Alfred Meakin Gravy Boats— do not limit themselves to colonial wares alone; a broken (fake) Gardner porcelain4, imitating porcelain manufactured at the Gardner Porcelain Factory5, also makes way to festoon the exhibit. These objects create a powerful metaphorical narrative on trade routes, histories of power dynamics and displacement.

Risham Syed’s lyrical voice resonating in the gallery

Residence 15 Series II (Lime Green with Reindeer). Quilt, Fabric Collage, Markers, Embroidery on Chinese Silk Brocade with American Wool. Object: Fake Gardner Teapot.77 x 51 Inches. Year: 2022. Image Courtesy: Canvas Gallery
Gardner Teapot (imitation of original Gardner Porcelain) which was owned by the artist’s mother since the latter’s childhood and passed down to Risham Syed.

Chinese silk makes for a higher inventory when acquiring premium quality textiles, often purchased during travels by the select few. Silk performed a number of important roles in the ancient world, retaining its position as an international currency as well as a luxury product the latter holds true even today (Frankopan, 2015). In the 1980s, Chinese Hajis flocked to Islamabad to sell their wares, primarily Chinese silk and pearls. This factored into allowing, even encouraging, the purchase of silks and pearls by the affluent. It contributed to the developing of new tastes and habits. Somewhat circular in reasoning, it seems innocuous to suggest that it was the rapidly increasing wealth due to a boom in businesses that allowed new consumer behaviors with such fervor. Textiles have always been the stellar medium and the most venerated article within South Asian homes during all important rites and rituals— festive or otherwise, and also through the practice of re-using, recycling passing down to progenies; thereby contributing indirectly to sustainability and perhaps serving as a means to create heirlooms through value addition and memory making.

The silks acquired by Samina Begum were meticulously labeled by her and stored in a jisti sandooq with malmal potlis of cloves for preservation. Image Courtesy, Risham Syed.

Syed’s mother, Begum Samina Hasan Syed passed away in 2016, leaving behind what the artist refers as ‘a warehouse situation with her things that I have yet to explore’. The silks were kept in in a jisti sandooq with malmal potlis of cloves to keep pests at bay. When the hajis landed in Islamabad Samina begum would purchase silks, not in dozens ‘but in hundreds’ over the years. Syed’s mother was a trained singer and was known to be exceptionally creative, she was drawn to these silks for their exquisite detail, and richness of material. Her intention was to create something out of them—someday. She would label them with masking tape suggesting what can be done with them, or how a particular piece needed to be paired with, perhaps, a sari border that her great grandmother once owned and had been passed down to her. The meticulous labeling, and hand written details on them undeniably reveals her affection for the silk collection. I can nostalgically visualize the endless conversations taking place between mother and daughter over the contents of the sandooq on a lazy summer afternoon, or perhaps sitting around a radiator during the cold Lahore winters gently pulling out the silks, running their hands on its smooth texture, bent over the material observing the beautiful motifs and patterns on each, chatting over tea, discussing the endless possibilities of utilizing the rich silks. Have we not been in similar situations with our mothers and grand-mothers?  The intention was never to hoard— but daily affairs, chores and management of one’s household would often leave the women with no time to indulge in their passion.

Two years ago, the artist approached the sandooq to survey the contents, and connections between CPEC, the silk route, world maps of different time periods, and world politics started evolving in her mind to shape a narrative. Syed took them out several times over the past two to three years, each time placing them back in the container, not knowing how to utilize them ‘because of the vibrancy of the colors and due to the opulent ornate surfaces.’ However, it was the summer of 2022 which finally created a blueprint in her mind which consequently led to this body of work, where she primarily utilized her mother’s quilting techniques to create the exquisite pieces.

Syed reminisces about the large farshi gatherings at her mother’s house. At times this meant using whatever was available— chaddars, shawls, dupattas, to be rolled to form faux gao takiyas when one ran out of the farshi gao takiyas. Such was the nature of our older generations, to make use of everything available: recycle, reuse, improvise. The artist remembers how her mother would convert her dadi’s and par dadi’s silk saris into shawls, lining with woven fabrics. The artist clearly points out that she ‘wasn’t consciously thinking of all these occasions when engaged in the process of making, but once completed I started making those associations.’

Ali Trade Center Series V (with Orange Flamingo). Quilt, Fabric Collage, Markers, Embroidery on Chinese Silk Brocade with American WoolObject: Johnson Brothers Teapot and Royal Doulton Plate. 80 x 52 inches. 2022. Image Courtesy: Canvas Gallery.

Through visual metaphors such as the appliqued Ali Trade Center and Residence 15, and maps printed on silk, Syed loosely aims at charting the 19th and 20th centuries geographical movement and technological development in order to develop a greater dialog around the advancements and what it means to us in the 21st century. The routes help in tracing the origins, look into the trade routes, and the consequences of the meeting between foreign cultures and the South Asian region mixed with tolerance and creativity that enabled self-expression. Textiles and trade routes played an important role in interacting with cross border regions. This created cross-cultural circulation embodying trans-materiality while also looking into sociological and intergenerational dynamics. Adding the colonial objects to the artworks creates a commentary on the diluted Victorian culture interlocked into the local household to this day.

However, with urbanization, and with the industrial and consumer revolutions, we see the retreat of premium handcrafted material— intricately planned with utmost care taken towards its design philosophy and modes of making— replaced with slip shod imitations produced for mass consumption.  In 2014 when the artist was traveling to China she made an effort to visit the markets selling silk, what she came across wasn’t even close to her mother’s acquisitions of silks collected over the years. The historical and remarkable emergence of the global citizen has developed new patterns of consumption and consequently new mechanisms and business models with business mergers and acquisitions came into prominence in the 1960s, and again in the 1990s. Most models failed due to over-attention given to financial aspects at the cost of material quality, consumer wellbeing and organizations’ prosperity, perhaps reflective of the title Risham Syed coined for her solo presentation Appointments and Disappointments with History.

While developing the aforementioned narratives one can also see another trajectory developing in Syed’s works through the use of flora and fauna, and her transitory but crisp comment ‘nature is almost ready to exit’ concluding the artist’s statement. I have a strong connection with the visual and metaphorical thematic— anyone who has been to my house can’t miss the large 7’ artwork of Sumaya Durrani that takes up one wall of our lobby. A capacious plant is painted on an otherwise multi-layered and ‘sketched’ canvas. While I sat writing this piece my eye kept hovering to Durrani’s painting, positioned right ahead of me approximately twelve feet away, and then to Risham Syed’s appliqued plants penetrating through the computer screen. Painted many years apart, there may not be any symbolical connection between the themes and techniques of the two artists, but to me this visual parallel was beguiling. Moreover, I have been studying Danish Ahmed’s practice over the past decade and his use of fauna serves as a point of departure to talk about consumerism and its impact on nature, with the risk of possible extinction due to urban possession and reclaiming of land for technological ‘prosperity’. Due to unrestrained urbanization in the region (globally as well), ecological and environmental degradation has been taking place precipitously impacting the climate, biosphere and the ecosystems.

Ali Trade Center Series I (Room with a View). Quilt, Fabric Collage, Markers, Embroidery on Chinese Silk Brocade with American Wool. Object: BHS Lamp. 75 x 52 Inches. 2022. Image Courtesy: Canvas Gallery.

Pakistan has a population with 35 % living in the cities and towns; making the urban proportion of the population in Pakistan the highest among the SAARC countries. At present, the urban population of Lahore is more than 80 % and is at par with the urbanization level of the developed countries. Natural population increase, rural to urban migration, and foreign and local investment in various sectors are the major impetus for growth of cities as well as urbanization in Lahore. This rapid urbanization has caused a number of ecological and environmental problems and has also degraded the quality of environment of many cities of the world (Kazmi, 2016).

Syed comments on this by juxtaposing the beautiful handwoven silk quilts, once her mother’s prized possessions, with oversized appliqued animals and birds cut from large machine produced bedsheets adjacent to the printed maps and subsidiary allegorical motifs. Why didn’t Syed choose to make saris, shawls or quilts from them as her mother may have wanted?

Perhaps Risham Syed’s purpose was multifarious and transcendent, a shift from the mundane. Perhaps a dialog posed for tomorrow and for posterity. The silks and accompanying objects are now public domain, no longer part of one’s private collection tucked hidden in a quiet corner of a room, or stockpiled in a storage space amongst other future utilizable items. It now contributes to greater narratives, serving as a locus, paving way for concentrated dialogs around independent, yet simultaneously interconnected, trajectories.

Risham Syed’s solo show, ‘Appointments and Disappointments with History’ opened at Canvas Gallery on Tuesday, 27th September 2022, and continued till Thursday, 6th October 2022

Title Image: Detail of Exhibit displayed in Canvas Gallery. Foreground: Ali Trade Center Series I (Room with a View) Medium: Quilt, Fabric Collage, Markers, Embroidery on Chinese Silk Brocade with American Wool Object: BHS Lamp Size: 75 x 52 Inches Year: 2022. Left: Ali Trade Center Series II (Peach with Leopard). Quilt, Fabric Collage, Markers, Embroidery on Chinese Silk Brocade with American Wool. Accompanying object in exhibit display: Thomas Bradley & Sons Silver Plated Vases x 2. 76 x 50 Inches. Year: 2022.Background: Ali Trade Center Series IV (with Buddleia) Medium: Quilt, Fabric Collage, Markers, Embroidery on Chinese Silk Brocade with American Wool Object: White English Lamps (1980’s) x 2 Size: 74 x 51 Inches Year: 2022 Image Courtesy: Canvas Gallery

References:

Anon., 2022. Appointments and Disappointments with History. Karachi : Canvas Gallery.

Frankopan, P., 2015. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

Kazmi, S. A. S. a. J. H., 2016. Analysis of socio-environmental impacts of the loss of urban trees and vegetation in Lahore, Pakistan: a review of public perception. Ecological Processes.

Rachel Calipha, S. T. a. D. B., 2010. Mergers And Acquisitions: A Review Of Phases, Motives, And Success Factors. Advances in Mergers and Acquisitions.

Said, E. W., 1995. Orientalism. London: Penguin .

Sousa, M. P. G. ·. L. D., n.d. Global History and New Polycentric Approaches, s.l.: Palgrave Studies in Comparative Global History .

Syed, R., 2022. [Interview] (October 2022).
w, n.d. s.l.:s.n.

Zahid, M. A., n.d. Orientalism’s Last Battle in the 19th Century Punjab. [Online]
Available at: http://pu.edu.pk

Zahid, M. A., n.d. Orientalism’s Last Battle in the 19th Century Punjab. Pakistan Vision Vol 10 No 1.

Endnotes

  1. Translation of the verse recorded in Risham Syed’s voice, set as a Capella. Lyrics by the artist’s father, Najm Hosain Syed. The verse is taken from his book Paikhnay Os Khayal De, 2019
  2. One such example was The Oriental College. Despite being critical of the Raj, the nationalists valued Western education and all that could be achieved through it. The Oriental College Lahore was founded to serve as a locus for classical studies through eastern languages such as Urdu, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Persian, and Hindi (Said, 1995).
  3. Risham Syed refers to as ‘Punjabi Victorian’ culture in the artist statement published in the exhibition’s catalogue.
  4. The Johnson Brothers and the fake Gardner teapots from her mother’s childhood, that she held on to (despite being broken) were confidently entrusted to Syed by her mother saying ‘I’m sure you know what to do with the’. The other objects on display were purchased from landa bazaar (flea market), similar to what Syed would find in her mother’s household.
  5. One of the finest private factories in Russia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries eventually gaining popularity in this region.

Saira Danish Ahmed has a postgraduate degree in Art & Design Education from the University of New South Wales, Australia and another in History from Karachi University. Art history and academic writing have been Ahmed’s core areas of interest. She has served as Associate Editor at ArtNow Pakistan and is an active member of the KB Discursive, the critical dialogue lab of the Karachi Biennale Trust. A published writer and art critic, she has written on art extensively for a number of forums including Pakistan’s premier newspaper, DAWN. Ahmed served briefly as Director, Project & Research at Sanat Initiative.

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