Artist Risham Syed captures and catalyses the disintegration of boundaries, both geographical and physical, in her solo show at Manchester Art Gallery. The exhibition forms part of New North & South, a wider project that aims to bring art organisations from South Asia and North England together.
Syed engages with a variety of historical materials in the creation of her work, which takes the form of both installation and painting. Utilising army jackets and gilded frames alongside imitating the styles of postcards and Victorian paintings, it simultaneously references and becomes documentation, thus enabling her to converse with various different dialogues throughout history.
In this way, the exhibition transcends the cultural barriers between Manchester and Lahore through its recognition of the universal processes of change. Syed draws comparisons between the developing urban landscape in her home town of Lahore, Pakistan, and the ideas of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels; thus, highlighting Manchester, with its central involvement in the 19th century Industrial Revolution, as an ideal location for her work.
The exhibition has been curated with this in mind. Its main focus, the Lahore Series (2010–12), takes the form of a collection of postcard-sized acrylic renderings of the depleted exteriors of new developments that remain hidden on the backstreets of Lahore. These are presented surrounding fragments from the Manchester Central Library 2010-14 refurbishment, whilst three separate, sculptural ‘interventions’ are situated throughout the rest of the gallery’s permanent collection.
Syed’s creation of pseudo postcards, gilded frames and imitations of classical oil paintings questions the validity of history, particularly in art. Each piece presents us with a fresh approach to our perceptions of the East, as epitomised in Indians viewing the Landscape (2010), for example, which features a faux Chinese gilded frame and two reproduction baby Victorian chairs. These elements work to isolate the viewer, placing them in a voyeuristic position that allows them to notice and consequently distrust the various idealistic generalisations that have been imposed by the West’s colonialist past.
Rather than the glossy exterior usually presented, Syed acknowledges the fragility of rapid development and wealth, whist simultaneously exposing the misleading exoticized representations of the East. She removes and subverts what we expect from a postcard, and largely from Eastern cultural depictions in general, with something that is not only more beautiful but also a humble, relatable and honest reality.