Abdullah M. I. Syed 

Born 1974, Pakistan 

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Abdullah M. I. Syed. Photo: Diego Flores

About Abdullah M.I. Syed 

Abdullah M. I. Syed is a Pakistani-born contemporary artist living and working between Sydney, Karachi and New York. Syed sees art as a transformative expression as well as an obsessive playful activity that oscillates between outward material realities as form and inward imaginative experiences as content. His artistic expressions stem from his readings and observations of human desires, achievements and failures. Syed primarily reflects upon this in his own displacement as a Muslim man having lived in Pakistan, United States, and now Australia. He utilises a variety of mediums and techniques including drawing, sculpture, video installations, performance and texts to examine economies, structures, and performances of power in their myriad forms. Using a dot (nukta) as a starting point, his artworks emerge as a unified expression of the infinite connections between small marks, shapes, objects, and actions that make iconic images, evocative forms, and surrealist structures.

Syed earned a PhD in Art, Media, and Design, 2015, and an MFA, 2009, from University of New South Wales. He also holds a BA in Design, 1999, and a Master of Education, 2001, from University of Central Oklahoma. Syed is a member of eleven collective, Australia. Syed’s work has been featured in both solo and group exhibitions as well as performance events including Infinite Present, Gallery 344, Cambridge, 2018; Khallas, UNSW Galleries, 2018; Waqt al-Tageer, ACE Open, Adelaide, 2018; I don’t want to be there when it happens, PICA, Perth, 2017; Flesh & Blood, Asia Society Museum, New York, 2017, The Flying Buck, AsiaTOPA, Melbourne, 2017; Karachi Biennial, 2017; Between Structure and Matter, Aicon Gallery, New York, 2016; Creative Accounting , Hawkesbury Regional Gallery, Sydney, 2016, WAR, Newington Armory Gallery, Sydney, 2016, and Future Archaeology, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, 2015. Syed has undertaken artist residencies at: Fairfield City Museum & Gallery , 2016; Parramatta Artists Studios, 2013-2015; Cicada Press, UNSW, 2009 & 2013; and Blacktown Arts Centre, 2011, Sydney. He is the recipient of numerous awards and prizes including the Blacktown City Art Drawing Prize, 2008; Time Olson Drawing runners up cash prize, 2010; Individual Artists of Oklahoma’s 2003 Installation Artist of the Year award and the NAVA Carstairs Prize, 2017.

2019 One Year Studio Artist Abdullah M.I. Syed in his Artspace Studio. Photo Jessica Maurer

In Conversation 

Abdullah M.I. Syed in conversation with Artspace Executive Director Alexie Glass-Kantor

Alexie Glass-Kantor (AGK): Can you briefly describe for us your practice as an artist and any current projects?

Abdullah M.I. Syed (AS): I am a Pakistani-born contemporary artist, designer, scholar and writer living and working between Sydney, Karachi, and New York. Trained in diverse disciplines, I identify my interdisciplinary art practice as an archival form of manzoom muzahamat, or poetic activism based on ideas of shared vulnerability, love, empathy, and memory. As a transnational artist, I coined a term for my a Barzakhi which literally means a veil, barrier, space or place between two things. It is a way for me to find intersections between Eastern and Western philosophies and ideas of politics of power, spirituality and archival practices. I work in both figurative and abstract forms and frequently employ tropes of the grid, fragmentation, and light and shadow to generate new forms and acts whilst re-examining my diaspora identity within a Global context. Materials are reactive agents within my artistic processes, purposefully entangling audiences in a web of social connections and experiences, which subsequently inform the poetic aspect of my body endurance performances.

While at Artspace my focus is to further research on systems of trade, socio-political and religious economies and materials of commodity exchange, such as banknotes, precious metals, spices, and flora, specifically their relationship to Australian identity, power politics, social inequality, issues of migration, race, masculinity and mortality. I am currently preparing for the Karachi Biennial 2019, which is opening at the end of October and after that I have a solo show in Karachi, Pakistan. Other than that, I plan to read, research and experiment with material, skills and process as ways into further development of my drawing, painting and performance practices.

AGK: And your projects are a mixture of performance…

AS: Yes, performance has increasingly become an important research tool and conceptualisation process in my art practice. I am a practitioner of ‘manzoom muzahamat’ or ‘poetic activism’ which is based on ideas of shared vulnerability, love and empathy. Similar to my object-based art practice which is solitary, in my performance work my body is the site of carefully choreographed poetic activism play, occupied in seemingly playful but also violent acts. Such acts take the audience on the course of various emotional engagements and physical reactions. This potentially increases the audience’s awareness of the agency of time, in which they acknowledge the confronting whirl of global politics and economies and their personal embroilment within it. For the upcoming Karachi Biennial, for the first time I am developing a project that brings together the local street performers and professional theatre performers. Responding to KB 19’s larger thematic idea of mankind’s invasion of ecosystems and our inability to find a balance with nature, my project has interconnected artworks that each inform the other: A drawing/papercut and sound installation of dugduggi, which is a small two-headed drum used in South Asia and Tibetan Buddhism, and various banknotes, printed with beautifully engraved images of wild and domestic animals from all over the world juxtaposed with human figures and urban structures/machines. [These banknotes] create a hybrid system that highlights the power and seduction of consumer society. The live performance, Bacha Jamhoora, will be performed by theatre performers and myself. It is a contemporary interpretation of street theatre performed by trained animals such as a monkey and a goat who mimics and impersonates various social and political personalities, which collectively speaks about ideas of mortality, archive, and the taming of nature.

AGK: What are you hoping to achieve during your time at Artspace?

AS: Gaining visibility across the organisation, institutions, curators, writers, collaborators and researchers in Sydney as well as internationally is crucial for me as a fulltime art practitioner. As a Western Sydney artist, I feel Artspace provides me an opportunity to widen my network, expand and introduce my art practice to new audiences and share my work and ideas with peers. While I’m here of course I will make artwork but my focus is more on exploring ideas and practices that I was unable to practice before due to studio limitation. For example I have been thinking about how my drawing and performance practices can be translated into painting, a genre that I have yet to fully explore. I left painting a long time ago. I feel here at Artspace I can experiment with painting. Knowing that I may fail, I want to see how the process of ‘painted failures’ can yield something new and exciting. To me Artspace is not just a physical site that has roots in crafting a place of production but more so, it is a contemporary experimental Karkhana (‘workshop’ in Urdu). Karkhana, a concept first established in the fourteenth century, is a workshop where several artisans would work to produce jewellery, textiles, weaponry, and art in collaboration. I took these views and formulated a strategy where my Artspace studio is a Karkhana, a workshop that has strong roots in traditional approaches, but remains in the present as a conceptual site where scholars, artists and craftspeople are invited to discuss problems. While at Artspace, I am drawing from such experiences, evolving my practice and growing personally from the experience. The studio as a fixed point also allows me to travel, make work on-site and then bring it back to the studio for refinement. In essence, in this conceptual space, if I can get some visibility and begin something exciting here that I can explore further, that would be a huge success for me.

Abdullah M.I. Syed, 'Nūr-un ‘ala Nūr (Light Upon Light)', 2015, courtesy the artist and Aicon Gallery. Photo: Diego Flores

Abdullah M.I. Syed, 'Nūr-un ‘ala Nūr (Light Upon Light)', 2015, courtesy the artist and Aicon Gallery. Photo: Diego Flores

Abdullah M.I. Syed, 'Flesh & Blood', 2017, performance documentation, Asia Society Museum, NYC, courtesy the artist and Aicon Gallery. Photo: Charlene Wanja

Abdullah M. I. Syed, 'Illuminated Prisms Manuscript I: Pgs. 1 & 2', diptych, 2017, courtesy the artist and Aicon Gallery. Photo: Diego Flores

Abdullah M. I. Syed, 'Illuminated Prisms Manuscript I: Pgs. 1 & 2', 2017, detail, courtesy the artist and Aicon Gallery. Photo: Diego Flores