The Mancunion

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Remembering Partition with New North South: Risham Syed

Risham Syed showcases her first solo exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery as her postcard-sized paintings trace the developing landscape of her hometown, Lahore, Pakistan


As we begin to conclude our feature on the New North South programme — honouring the 70th anniversary of the independence of India, Pakistan and later Bangladesh — we see how contemporary artist, Risham Syed, contributes to this process of commemoration surrounding the anniversary.

Syed’s first solo exhibition, Untitled Lahore Series, documents the changing landscape of her hometown Lahore, Pakistan. As a city that has undergone imperial rule of the Turkish, Mughal, and British Empires, she remarks “Living in Lahore is living with the memory of Empires”. Yet within a series of postcard-sized paintings, Syed’s pieces capture a combination of beauty and emptiness. Challenging Lahore’s tourist stereotype as a city of cultural exoticism with the brutal truth of apparent modernisation.

The setting of the exhibition mirrored the theme of Syed’s thoughtful work, simplistic and unchallenging; opening the door for the audience to create their own unique impression. Syed expertly created a mood of stillness and calm that dominated the exhibition room in a beneficial and peaceful manner.

Largely void of people or cultural markers, Syed’s art highlights how these images are ‘nowhere’ – allowing for the possibility that they could be anywhere in the world. Perhaps a comment on behalf of the artist, regarding the uniformity of these structures and their lack of character but also their abandonment. These areas are in limbo, as they are not intended to be seen, but are still part of Lahore’s developing landscape.

Though paying homage to the tradition of South Asian miniature painting, the small scale of the paintings is powerful in a different manner, it serves to imply that we as viewers are sneaking a view at a Lahore that we’re prohibited from witnessing, therefore, this limited view is all we are allowed before being noticed. Almost as if we are peeping through a crack in a door.

Depicted in soft colours these buildings are drawn in a sturdy manner that makes the viewer feel as though they are looking at the structures themselves. Appearing to be unyielding and obtrusively concrete, these structures refuse to cooperate with their existing surroundings. Instead, demanding dominance in their environments, despite not being part of what is deemed beautiful about Lahore.

The exhibition served as an informative and insightful method, and credit must be given to Syed’s exquisite talent. With her work laid on display, the audience were able to achieve an accute sense of these environments.

Syed also had a number of individual pieces in the Manchester Art Gallery that were dotted about amongst the gallery’s usual art. Such as The Tent of Darius, which dealt with the reality of war and the contradiction of its romanticised image amongst the former colonies. As well as The Cushion, a piece that highlights the various cogs that help hold an empire together.

These pieces, together with her solo exhibition, encouraged a reflection. The numerous works of art that the gallery usually has on show, combined with Syed’s, highlighted the continuing imperial relation still felt within the UK. For the influx of income provided a platform for many 19th Century artists featured in the gallery, and in Britain’s culture itself. However, this luxury came at the cost of subjugation, which Syed’s art, as well as others within the New North South campaign, remind us of.

Risham Syed is exhibiting his solo show at the Manchester Art Gallery from the 30th September 2017 – 25th February 2018.