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Even as the doors to Art Dubai, the Middle East's biggest fair, opened last week, Pakistani artist Risham Syed was busy with needle and thread. Pulling out a string here and quickly sewing on a button there, even as the champagne-swilling art frat streamed through the halls, expecting to see paint and not patchwork. Instead of canvases, seven intricate and detailed quilts hung from the ceiling - the result of Risham's handiwork over the past year which has won her the prestigious Abraaj Capital art prize for 2012. The cavernous white-walled spaces of the art fair seemed to immediately shrink to a more intimate setting, reminding one of days when domestic flotsam - scraps of old fabrics and outgrown clothes - was sewn together to make cozy, colourful quilts. But these are not coverlets that you want to dive under, for they hide in their many layers untold stories and hidden histories. The work, titled 'Seven Seas', sourced fabric from seven nations - Turkey, Bangladesh, UAE, Sri Lanka, UK, India and Pakistan - to connect the cotton trade of the British empire with contemporary geopolitics. The quilts depict maps of various port cities - such as Mumbai and Izmir in Turkey - that were strategically located on colonial European trade routes. Apart from being trade gateways, they were also sites of rebellion against imperialism. The 43-year-old artist's quilts are like collages of physical materials, thoughts, ideas and memories. TOI-Crest caught up with Syed
Artists are experimenting with a host of new mediums and materials. Why have you chosen to go back to something as old-fashioned and traditional as needle and thread?
With Seven Seas, I wanted to start a dialogue with a tradition and what better way to do it than with something as multi-layered as a quilt? And this isn't the first time I have worked with needle and thread. When I was studying in London, I became interested in Victorian lace patterns. I started painting lace in my work and juxtaposing it with photographs in the nineties. Since 2001, I have been using a lot of stitching. For one work (Tent of Darius), I bought army coats from the second-hand market in Lahore and embroidered them. I think it all goes back to when my son was born and my mom took out all those frilly baby sets they made us embroider in the convent. It was assumed that when we grew up, we would find a suitable man, marry and have children. This is my way of being critical of the expectations imposed on women.
Needlework carries the baggage of domesticity. Yet you embroider guns on military uniforms and juxtapose flowers with missiles.
I use domesticity to present things in a pretty way but there is violence within that domesticity which connects with the violence outside.
Your work is called Seven Seas. Did you travel to all the seven countries mapped in your quilts?
I travelled to most of them. I couldn't come to India because of visa problems but I have been many times before, so I could draw on my memory. For the map that shows Mumbai, I got friends to send over a Warli tribe sari and Maharashtrian handloom. The gara and dabka badge that you can see on the quilt was done in Lahore. The base material for all quilts is cheap cotton from Lahore with European prints.
Why the fascination with maps?
Maps connect the past and the present. The maps on my quilts show modern-day geographical boundaries but they look old - that play is important. Maps say so much about history, about how land is defined and divided. In the UAE map, I made a mistake, calling the Arabian Gulf the Persian Gulf, and I had to correct as it would have caused a controversy. But that mistake became part of my work.
In a work from the Needlework Series, that showed at the Devi Art Foundation in Gurgaon, you borrowed an image from the news coverage of the US invasion of Afghanistan which showed a missile launch. Does all that is happening in Pakistan and the world influence you?
Even when I started painting, I used to collect images from the newspaper and use them. The idea was that so much happens around us but in print, the news somehow becomes distant. Even now, I paint journalistic photographs. I animate them by painting them but they're plastic because I use acrylic.
You have explored colonialism in several works, especially the one titled Two Indians Viewing the Landscape. Tell us about that work.
I made a replica of Thomas Cole's Indians Viewing the Landscape (1827) which sums up the philosophy of the 19th century - discovery, exploration and settlement. I then placed two child-size Victorian chairs in front of it so that any two 'Indians' could sit in the chairs and view the two Indians viewing the landscape in the painting. In a way, they then become a part of the dialogue of the present with the past. The two Victorian chairs that I made are still used today in upper middle class homes in Pakistan - we love the Victorian era and still like to live it.
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