*Featured photo: Residence 15 Series II (Emerald Green with Goblets)
Unconsciously or deliberately, knowledge never ceases to transmit itself from one mind to another. If one person discovers something, it becomes easier for another person to make a comprehendible sense. However, the rhetoric and the decipherment of the thought processes function very differently for every recipient, individualistically. Most contemporary artworks, time and again, carry a backstory that reflects the cultural ideas, historical context, and inventiveness that went into their production, whether steeped in the centuries-old mythology or firmly grounded in the socio-political reality of the era one lives and experiences. These tales never fail to fascinate and educate, especially when they are about cities’ Etymological, historical, geographical, discursive and formidable political past, present and future narratives. Regardless of size, location, chronological context, or cultural environment, cities have many rudimentary social traits and serve comparable functions in diverse human cultures. The fundamental demographic processes of development, maintenance, and decline are critical to cities time and again. In all towns documented by archaeological historians or anthropologists, the presence, size, and importance of economic growth, either in terms of material progression or increases in output per capita income, has been a source of much controversial yet inevitable elude discussion in both pre-modern and modern cultures. Most cities before the contemporary era were political cities, which meant that their major institutions were in the areas of power and administration by a ruler or ruling elite; nothing much differs when it comes to the historic Indian continents (present-day Pakistan, Bangladesh and India), British Raj through the extortionate administration―empires in general.
Risham Syed is a well-acclaimed visual artist of her time and a seasoned educator (Professor of visual arts) who poses important questions covering historical, sociological, and political perspectives. Her hometown of ‘Lahore’ takes centre stage in her work, particularly regarding how the region’s colonial history has altered the city’s present culture. She gathers and re-aligns archival pieces, either from her mother’s collection or from old bazaars of Lahore, producing a social reference and connotation with the past as a present. Risham Syed’s new body of work was displayed as her solo show ‘Appointments and Disappointments with History’ at the Canvas Gallery in ‘Karachi’ from 26th Sep to 8th Oct 2022. Her work once again captivated visitors, collectors and critics with unique interwoven stories of cloth, thread, and found objects and their association with the post-colonial visual and material cultures. A series of colourfully collaged tapestries made with Chinese Silk Brocade inspired Syed to collect, preserve and share the charm, kept alive through temporally manifested milieus on both personal and public echelons.
One mustn’t forget that within the weaves of excellent manufacturing of silk cloth lies an intriguing process of unwinding the cocoons and combining fibres into silk and threads. However, cocoons are steamed to kill the growing moth in this whole process of mass production, and it doesn’t stop here. In their books, Inglorious Empire, Shashi Tharoor, and The Anarchy, William Dalrymple both mentioned the ferocity, pillage, corporate violence, adversity, turmoil, and conflict related to trade authoritarianism, class stratification, and cultural deceit―East India Company as an aggressive colonial power practised in India. As a direct result of this exploitation, Mughal Empire―which dominated world trade and manufacturing and possessed almost unlimited resources―fell apart. Tharoor categorically mentions the devastating impact, as Britain’s Industrial Revolution was founded on India’s deindustrialisation and the destruction of its prominent textile industry. A famous Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe also ends his novel Things Fall Apart with a brief excerpt from a British District Commissioner’s English-language report on Umuofia, a potent symbol of the problematic ways in which West African settings, peoples, and history have long been inadequately and negatively portrayed by ethnographers sympathetic to the British Empire.
The connection between what has aesthetic value and what hasn’t, what’s worth keeping and what isn’t, is entirely subjective and relative. Syed’s interest in exploring textiles and fibre-based materials draws first from her mother’s collections of unique fabrics, quilts and upholstery she has collected throughout her life, parallelly being a very eminent Punjabi-language singer with a peerless voice, a dedicated music teacher and an ardent homemaker. A common thread between mother & daughter’s aspiration and interest in textiles connect through their schooling at Sacred Heart Convent―a missionary school in Lahore, where music, handwriting, needlework, sewing and embroidery all were given immense importance, taught by devoted Christian Nuns, following the norms of Victorian England. Risham has always been interested in examining the history of the textile and the entwined facts and figures a fabric represents. During her post-grad at the prestigious Royal College of Art, London, Syed, as a curious, creative mind, found the connections between Punjabi-Victorian families living in the post-colonial sub-continent and Elizabethan-Victorian England. Syed as an artist doesn’t just see her practice from the pre (post) colonial lens but the potent exercise of mapping cities, counties and regions. Maps have been vital for her to understand and decipher the power politics, commerce routes, ideological differences, anthropological deportment and beyond. Her MA thesis at the Royal College of Art was based on a simple yet brilliant idea using an AZ London map with photographs of her mother’s Victorian collection. Syed’s work then evoked complex connections and connotations between the lace, and multiple valuable objects, like the lace’s connection with Nottingham, a centre of the world’s lace industry during the British Empire. After that, Syed started exploring and using intricate lace patterns juxtaposed alongside newspaper cuttings with photographs of Lahore.
Syed very strongly and adamantly observes geographic changes in the maps and how they vicissitudes all of the typology and the topography at once. Risham also collects curios found in Punjabi-Victorian homes, some originals and some pastiche, and sometimes from charity shops. A pink lamp from British Home Stores (BHS), Thomas Bradbury & Sons silver plated vases, Cardinal plate, Hard soldered Art Deco sugar pot, A pair of white English lamps, Johnson Brother’s teapot, Royal Doulton plate, Alfred Meakin gravy boats, Silver-plated goblets and a fake Gardner Teapot, all reminiscent of the British industrial past, Russian Imperialism and the evidence of Chinese acquisition with time. The sophistication of unknown bourgeoises who were the once-keepers of this high-maintenance material culture is very much visible in the artist’s practice. Syed then finds archival photographs in which their imaginative owners and stakeholders of this gold standard of living have used these objects of the nobility in different eras of socio-political shifts. Risham Syed’s recent exhibition displays eight new pieces―quilts with a fabric collage achieved using permanent markers and embroidery on Chinese silk brocade, all stuffed with American wool. All of the quilts in the exhibition use the primary construction technique of piecing combined with applique on top of inherited jacquard woven patterns. Multiple Bric-à-Brac objects, perched in front of the hanging quilts in various settings, play a significant role in meaning-making. As Syed mentions, living in any big metropolis like Lahore, one continuously experiences a momentous ‘urban transition’, which has become very tangible over these past few years.
All new quilted pieces have a couple of high-rise budlings―recurring, which are underway in their construction phases, the architectural style of these new classy ones is taken from developed nations and plugged into the developing country, a ‘dream comes true’ analogy works here very well. One is Ali Trade Centre, located on one of the busiest roads, almost downtown Lahore, known as M.M.Alam Road, full of foreign and local high street brands. The other building is Residence 15―also under construction, located on Ferozpur Road before one enters or exits Model Town. Both locations are considered the top-notch area to live by the affluent and affording families of post-India independence. A Hindu humanitarian, Dewan Khem Chand, established ‘Model Town’ in the 1920s. Therefore, S.A.Rahim planned Gulberg under the supervision of Sir Ganga Ram―an Indian civil engineer and architect, later known as “the father of modern Lahore”. These new under-construction buildings appearing in Syed’s work comment on the proliferation of her city with the popularisation of high-rise structures amongst the young population―to live and work in one such compound with a foreign look and feel. One of the concomitants of living in the high-rise edifices is that it diminishes people’s propinquity. It creates a very finite and encapsulated worldview in and of itself―nonetheless, the most sought-after offering is a room with a top view of the city but no private garden with plants of your own choice. This critical approach might be labelled anti-development, particularly by the developers. However, the cluster of these buildings pollutes the urban fabric more. It makes the open spaces supplementarily congested for many dwellers, especially in cities with no concept of leaving a greenfield land to evolve naturally around the built apartments. One study says that for potable water, one has to dig down at least 85-115 feet in most areas of Lahore, whereas up until 1980, it could be found some 30-45 feet underground. We use the term post-industrial era, mostly academically; yes, it’s true in England’s case. Still, the contamination of this imperial and capitalist phenomenon practised by the rest of the world has prompted many writers, filmmakers and creatives to suggest the ideas of dystopia―more frequently.
As history tells, ” China room” or “house of china,” translated as “Chini-khana,” was the original term given to structures or chambers constructed during the Timurid dynasty as a designated location for showcasing Chinese ceramics, primarily priceless Chinese porcelains. It’s interesting to note that Chini-khana underwent similar evolutions in Safavid and Mughal architecture; both indicate the continuity of an architectural device from a shared cultural heritage, despite variations in form, function, and aesthetic preferences. Much later, The Duchess of Bedford, credited with starting the tradition of afternoon tea parties in Britain in the 1840s, may have used cosy tea covers of thick brocade to compliment and insulate beautiful China tea sets at her courts.It is also noteworthy that People from many different civilisations have worn and used brocade, woven fabric with intricate designs. The preferred material for apparel throughout most of the brocade’s history has been silk, although today, wool, cotton, and even synthetic fibres can be used to make brocade. Intricate brocade designs might be made using colourful threads. The first recorded use of brocade fabric is from the Chinese Warring States period, which ran from 475-221 BC. As brocade and other silk fabrics gained popularity throughout the Eurasian continent, other nations attempted to develop their silk industries to reduce their dependence on China. Later, Byzantine brocade was the go-to material for noble clothing throughout Europe and Central Asia, and China continued to dominate the brocade trade in East Asia. Some brocaded Byzantine tapestries have survived to the current day. Christian symbolism was frequently included in Byzantine brocade. Then Italian weavers pushed the complexity of their brocade designs to the farthest extent, and evidence of the elegance of Italian brocade is still visible in paintings from the Renaissance.
Brocade remained a standard fabric for curtains, draperies, and upholstery, even though it saw a substantial decline in favour as the Renaissance drew to a conclusion. In women’s apparel during the Victorian era, brocade saw a rebirth in popularity. Silk Route has been the most significant segment in these transitory occurrences. China still wishes to expand through a global infrastructure known as The Belt and Road Initiative, formerly One Belt One Road; another cartographic exercise is to render this significant change in the world’s map. Being an avid observer of these geographic, economic and political changes, Syed explores the need to look at and understand the phenomena of development and prosperity through the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor project. CPEC is a collection of infrastructure projects under construction throughout Pakistan beginning in 2013.
Syed creatively uses these kaleidoscopic woven images, patterns and motifs in the brocades and prints various world maps on top to create an unprecedented visual narrative. However, most maps show the colonies under the British, including Africa and most of South East Asia. In one of her pieces titled Ali Trade Center Series I (Room with a View), the quilt’s imagery is divided into a grid on the edges with some crucial figures from Greek and Latin mythology. Some appear from the Renaissance, claiming and announcing aqua (water), terra (soil), air, and inga (fire) elements of the earth in Latin, along with other planets of the solar system, including Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter and the seasons we enjoy. A high-rise certainly shows wealth and a particular social stratum, as the tallest buildings are built at or around the most expensive areas of any city, and developers sell them not as flats/apartments/shops but as the most sought-after address of that city. A monkey on a tree’s branch reminds one of a term the British coined for Indian-educated office workers, Babu, believed to be derived from Baboon. The derogatory play of adjectivisation happened both ways. Nabob has been used to define a glaringly affluent individual, especially an Englishman who made his fortune in India in the 18th century with the privately controlled East India Company. The origin of Nabob is said to be coined from the Urdu word Nawab. The fable mentioned above about Nabob and Babu aside, the monkey refers to the anthropogenic impact on this planet’s ecology, especially when one looks at the incomplete image of the space launcher at the bottom left-hand corner. A room with some serene views from its glass window, what a confined and restricted viewpoint exploring beauty with lots of Victorian-styled furniture, an almirah, a French wall clock mounted on the wall and multiple mantle pieces on a few isles above the window. A pink lamp from British Home Stores (BHS) is placed on the plinth to denote a strong connection between the viewer, the viewing and the viewed. An embedded barcode takes an observer to the folder, saved in the cloud drive, which tells more about BHS’s rise, merger and eventually its fall, selling it out in just one pound sterling in 2016.
Ali Trade Center Series II (Peach with Leopard), a peach-coloured quilt, signifies a connection between the trade routes and trends of drinking tea in 18th-century Britain. There is a leopard, which seems isolated due to the ecological change as the world rushed toward industrialisation in the last couple of centuries, with smoke chimneys, fumes and hazardous chemicals as a direct result of consumer cultures; one mustn’t forget the nuclear explosions and the use of toxic warfare. A region of the West Midlands County in the United Kingdom, with coal mines, coking, iron foundries, glass manufacturers, brickworks, and steel mills contributing to a high level of air pollution, once declared a ‘Black Country’ during the Industrial Revolution. The term, which goes back to the 1840s, is said to have originated from the soot that heavy industry coated the region in the almost thirty-foot-thick coal seam at all times. The heavy industries have shifted from Britain to China & India; one can imagine the rest. Climate change is something which we all are experiencing in one form or the other.
Interestingly, in this piece, the map originated from the Arab world this time, with an unyielded conjoining to another British industrial city, Sheffield, famous for silver smithing, cutlery and plates. Two vintage and unique silver-plated vases made by Thomas Bradbury and Sons, silver platers of Sheffield, perched on a couple of plinths, establish an exciting linkage. A photograph of the painting by Richard Collins’ (likely) c. 1727, “A Family of Three at Tea,” is on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. A family displays their pricey silver tea set with pride. The family is (awkwardly) demonstrating that they know how to hold the cups properly, while you should note that the porcelain cups lack handles. One can’t resist remembering the Oscar-winning series Lawrence of Arabia by looking at this slice of history.
Ali Trade Center Series III (Red with Leopard), a bright red quilt shows a few thick and thin lines, a fragment of a silk route, or maybe a part of China Wall, drawn by the black marker over the gold threaded peony flowers and Chinese dragons. One of China’s most beautiful flowers, the peony, represents riches and success. Chinese emperors and other prominent figures grew and relished the peony in the past. Chinese dragons influence aquatic phenomena, including the ability to call down rain during a drought. They are solid and beneficent icons in Chinese culture. Dragons appear in mythology, festivals, astrology, art, names, and idioms across China. Leopards can be seen in Saharan Africa, some parts of Western and Central Asia, Southern Russia, and Southeast Asia. Leopard populations are threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation. They are declining in large parts of the global range, habitat of wildlife―a direct concern of an artist. Elkington made a silver-plated vintage hard-soldered sugar pot from Sheffield―who brought the electro-plating technique to perfection, which hangs over the quilt with a fish wire and suggests a dynamic art movement known as Art Deco. In its primetime, Art Deco combined contemporary fashions with exquisite craftsmanship and luxurious materials. Plastic, stainless steel, and chrome plating are among the new materials. When World War II began, the sleeker variety of the class, with its curved shapes and smooth, polished surfaces, began to lose ground. Syed’s keen observation of history attests to her viewpoint of rising and fall, just not of the nations, countries and cities―subsequently, art and aesthetics movements.
Ali Trade Center Series IV (with Buddleia) has multiple references, unfolding certain links vis-à-vis ecological apprehensions, rise, fall and the mergers at the transnational amphitheatre, map―meaning-making and altered perceptions of reality. There is a contested play in-between, the Buddleia with green leaves from the Caribbean and the classic gold-plated swan-necked white English table lamps with frosted alabaster-medusa shades―the inscription ‘Made in England’ at the bottom. A pair of plumaged eagles on a tree branch waiting for the following hunch, whales woven into the bright and vibrant pink silk near the volcanic Solor, one of the Islands of Indonesia. The island supports a small population that has been whaling for hundreds of years. A significant compass with cardinal directions to decide the navigation and geographic orientations is printed just above the unknown Beach. China and Pars (Persia or Iran) are read broadly and clearly on the map imprinted over the embedded flowery patterns of the silk, ATC embroidered aside with mauve, silver and golden threads. Factory chimineas are ousting the smoke full of carcinogens as usual. At the same time, an old picture shows the bourgeois lifestyle with a piano, rocking chair, teak wood tables and other fundamentally essential objects of richness and financial stability. The aspect ratio of these little pictures compared to the whole quilt may define the unequal distribution of wealth, as very few are the beneficiaries of the world’s disorderly affairs.
Syed determinedly expresses her valid and apparent viewpoint that none of the superpowers remains intact forever, leaving an irreversible influence on future generations, especially when we all tend to live and enjoy the perks of being global citizens. Ali Trade Center Series V (with Orange Flamingo), with a very bright and deep orange base of the quilt, persuasively shows another interesting map with illustrated mentions of China and West Bengal. Some upraised commemorative badges are made with appliqué embossment. The orange flamingo―an Afro-Eurasian bird is associated with an indirect message of beauty, harmony and balance, predominately positioned on one side of the quilt. Interestingly, the interwoven mono-coloured imagery shows the Jerusalem cross and the merchant navy ships. According to some historians, the central cross symbolises Christ, while the four lesser crosses stand for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Others contend that the image represents the gospel being carried to the four corners of the globe. Two fascinating objects from the collection of the artist’s mother have been kept in front of the quilt in two tiers, one beneath the other. The pot on top was made initially by the esteemed manufacturers of tableware ‘Johnson Brothers of Stoke-on-Trent’, known for its pottery par excellence in Britain’s industrial history. It’s a fable in its own merits as how Johnson Brothers had to merge their once-powerful existence into Wedgewood, which also attracted Meakin, Coalport, Midwinter and Mason’s into one giant dinnerware blue-chip. Eventually, this went to China in 2003 and was sold off to the Finnish design-driven brand Fiskars. On the contrary, a commemorative plate by Royal Doulton, an English ceramic and home accessories manufacturer from 1815, still exists and operates in London with stamps ‘Made in Indonesia’ on most of its articles. The factory’s smokestack persists both in Indonesia and in the UK.
An interesting confluence of Chinese birds over the beautiful flowers, woven into an intense pink jacquard brocade with a rich gold thread, creates a nuance of beauty and elegance. A colourful Scarlet Macaw and a pink Flamingo from tropical South America undoubtedly generate a potent conversation. The artist intentionally adds these foreign birds and animals to discuss endangered habitats. The built environment can disrupt species’ feeding or breeding behaviours, and thousands of species echo-locate yearly due to these occurrences. Embroidered high-rise building ‘Residence 15’I signifies another western style of dream living. A couple of Alfred Meakin gravy boats are rested on an isle in front of the quilt. Alfred Meakin, another fine ironstone china producer for the domestic markets of the British colonies, from Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent. Indirectly indicating the high-class but problematic living illustration through the black & white picture of a couple on a dining table, on which a similar gravy boat can be seen―seemingly a scene from a Russian film. Films do advertise objects of desire covertly, old and new alike. Few factory conduits inherently continue to expel carbon emissions.
Similarly, in the next quilt from the Residence 15’series, a uniformed Khidmatgar (personal attendant), is serving his Sahib (Lord/Master), his family or guests, holding a tray full of silver-gold-plated serving pots, balanced on a large serving tray―appliqued. In his Glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian vernacular words, phrases, and kindred terms―Hobson-Jobson, Sir Henry Yule writes that the Khidmatgar ‘is the Anglo-Indian word applied for a Musulman (Muslim) servant, whose duties were serving meals and waiting at the table. It was standard for each family member to have two or even three Khidmatgars at their service. Unfortunately, we never have been able to change that practice in the subcontinent. The emerald green quilt shows the yellowish hues of the residence building. A set of six silver-plated vintage goblets accessorised in the dark green wooden box made with velvet are perched on the white plinth. This piece of textile shows various standing figures on both left and right sides of the quilt, denoting masters from numerous empires, from Greeks to Romans and beyond. The map can easily read South and North, while long, coarse, deciduous clusters of ovate-shaped Plumeria (Champa) leaves are also appliqued.
The last piece of the Residence 15 series, a lime green quilt, shows two large circles―the western and eastern hemispheres; one shows North America, and the other shows Africa, and Asia, though vaguely. The Residence 15 building appears in red and greyish-silver embroidery this time. A few beautiful fishes can be opaquely seen in the weave of the fabric knitted with the green colour in the habitation of the Atlantic and Indian oceans. Scarlet Macaw, a giant Red Torch Ginger and a Reindeer pose the question of whether anthropogenetic expansion is destroying the planet’s environmental design and bringing undue climate change. These pursuits of unlimited concrete extensions and city proliferations must be kept low, and nature-friendly to survive better and not invite the post-apocalyptic era with much obliteration. A black-and-white picture shows a serious round-table meeting; possibly, a few Russian dignitaries are taking some important decisions. A fake Gardner pot (made in Japan) is placed on an islet forward-facing of the quilt. During the 18th-19th century, F. Gardner’s porcelain manufactory was one of the best private factories in Russia, producing porcelain, faience, opaque glaze, and biscuit articles. The main share of the products was tea and dinnerware sets, single-piece utensils, decorative plateaus, trays, vases, and diverse subject matter small statuary. In 1856, the Gardner Porcelain Factory received the title of a ‘Supplier of His Imperial Majesty Court’ (Czars) till 1917, before Bolshevik revolutionaries toppled the monarchy.
As a socially-engaged practitioner, Syed says, ‘we may learn about time, history, memory, emotions, and their connection to the current moment through materials, textures, seals, patina, and objects. Her work both centres and broadens our comprehension of the handmade and its significance to contemporary art. It also contemplates our shared and personal circumstances, which connects the artistic process to examine the impermanence and transition. We must investigate if living indigenous culture can be considered a contemporary culture.