Portrait of ABDULLAH M. I. SYED. Photo by Jessica Maurer. Courtesy the artist and Artspace Sydney.

Poetic Resistance

Abdullah M. I. Syed

Also available in:  Chinese

When I spoke to Pakistani-Australian artist Abdullah M. I. Syed in February, he had just finished two weeks of hotel quarantine in Sydney, having returned to Australia after nine months in Karachi. His mother, Azra Waseem, passed away in late 2019 and as the family gathered in Karachi before and after her death, Pakistan ceased all international flights due to Covid-19. Syed’s extended time in his family home was spent sorting through his mother’s belongings and readying the house for sale. His mother was a significant influence on his life: she was a matriarch who raised seven children while Syed’s father was away working in Saudi Arabia, and continued to hold the family together as they dispersed across the globe. Crucially, she was a long-time supporter of Syed’s art practice. “I am a product of my mother’s nurturing, friendship, and guidance. My creativity comes from her. She wanted to be an artist and a writer. I only needed her approval and validation to pursue art, as I knew it would also fulfil her dream,” he said. 

Syed had begun a degree in applied chemistry in Pakistan, but his decision to pursue a creative career led him to study design and education in the United States instead. He returned to Pakistan to introduce and establish himself as an artist before emigrating in 2006 to Australia, where he undertook further studies in art, media, and design, and established a studio in 2015. 

Drawing on diverse ideas, including traditional cultural knowledge such as weaving, sewing, and embroidery learned from his mother and craftspeople in Pakistan, and the contemporary art theories he picked up at school, Syed has said that his work is a form of poetic resistance (manzoom muzahamat) that seeks to provoke conversations and engage with mediated grassroot collective actions addressing toxic masculinity, identity politics, religion, social inequity, and power structures. Based on ideas of truth-telling, shared vulnerability, empathy, care, and beauty, this form of activism advocates for community-building, family, the home, and inner transformation over pressures to attain wealth, power, and privilege.

Manzoom muzahamat is evident in several works that Syed is well-known for, including the series Flying Rug (2008– ) and Capital Couture (2019), where he transforms the most practical and prosaic of items, money, into sculptures that broker discussions on definitions of worth and wealth. Comprising USD bills that are conjoined in an Islamic geometric pattern and suspended from the ceiling, Flying Rug promises to transport its occupant to mystical storybook lands, alluding to the migration of Asian, African, and Middle Eastern men chasing the American dream. But the flight of fancy plummets quickly to Earth when viewers see that each one-dollar note has been folded in the shape of an airplane—a reminder of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent discrimination against men of these diasporas. For Capital Couture, Syed meticulously folded, taped, stapled and, with his assistant Sunanda Seneviratne, hand-sewed RMB, USD, AUD, and PKR notes into wearable jackets that reflect the vernacular style of the particular nation’s wardrobe. Syed suggests that our cultural identities often hang on thinly cloaked nationalisms, while also hinting at the behind-the-scenes deals holding governments and leaders in power. 

The intricate subversion of money’s uses is also fundamental to Currency of Love (2016– ). For the mixed-media series, Syed prints images of the spent, decaying foliage that falls from his mother’s money plants (Epipremnum aureum), and collages banknotes and gold onto the reproductions, patching the leaves’ tears and imperfections in a process similar to the Japanese art of kintsugi (golden joinery), used to repair broken ceramics, and rafoogari, the mending of textiles in South Asian and Islamic traditions. In Syed’s attention to the leaves, he mirrors his mother’s care of the plants, which also symbolizes her care for her children. 

Currency of Love forms part of Syed’s contribution to the 2021 iteration of the biennial exhibition The National: New Australian Art. His suite of works, grouped under the title The Longest Way Around Is the Shortest Way Home (2021), elaborates on care, loss, and grief—sentiments that have been at the core of his practice, especially following his mother’s death. Creating the display was “challenging as it is about memories and feelings of loss punctuated with varied emotions of sorrow and joy,” Syed explains. “It is a supposition of a story of me, my mother, the house I grew up in . . . I didn’t want to just represent reality, but to transform emotions into an art practice of care and connectedness.” 

Last Observances (2021), one of the components of The Longest Way Around, is a two-channel video that features Syed’s mother from 2016 up until her last days. Over this period, she performed and taught Syed some of her household chores, which he filmed. He says, “I wanted to record her daily life. Then, after her sudden death, I recorded myself doing some activities she normally did but I hadn’t been able to record—for example, my mother’s maid helped me to learn how to use the sil-butta [grindstone] to grind spices and make chutney. The punctuation between my mother’s activity and my activities is the moment of her death and her burial place.” Attentively captured by Syed, these daily rituals reflect the relationship between a woman and her home, and reference the cycle of care between mother and child.

Also exhibited at The National, the installation Drawing Memories: A Life in a Day (2021) recreates Syed’s family home in Karachi. Household objects, such as his mother’s ceremonial lota (a vessel used to wash the hands of visitors); the padlock for the back door; a gas lamp; her sons’ coats, the pockets of which she used to store miscellaneous items; and two types of tawa (a pan used to bake bread) are included. Syed reconfigures some of these objects as tangential, anecdotal artworks. For example, he fixed the tawa and another tray to the gallery wall as part of a mural that recreates the different phases of the moon as observed and illustrated by Islamic astronomer and polymath Abu Ma’shar, al-Bīrūnī’. Syed’s mother was fascinated by the moon and observed the Islamic lunar calendar, something Syed follows as well. For Syed, the installation references his mother’s devotion to her home and family: “Mother’s soul was in her house, her body, and they both crumbled together in a symbiotic relationship of security, love, and belonging.”

Over the last year, prompted by the pandemic, many around the globe have redirected their gaze to home and family. Syed’s works at The National go to this hearth and he hopes “people can relate to these works on a personal level.” He believes that “art is the best way to share and celebrate ideas around empathy, care, and vulnerabilities.” Syed’s is a wide-ranging purview that incorporates ideas from numerous sources including Muslim and South Asian thinkers, writers, and poets, and Western art movements. His questioning, curious approach not only gives his art practice its timeless worldly quality, but its unmistakably human focus. 

SUBSCRIBE NOW to receive ArtAsiaPacific’s print editions, including the current issue with this article, for only USD 100 a year or USD 185 for two years.  

ORDER the print edition of the May/Jun 2021 issue, in which this article is printed, for USD 21.