Abdullah M.I. Syed is a conceptual artist working in many nations, across many media to create captivating art that explores identity, international politics and gender roles.
During the 2018 Adelaide Festival of Arts, Abdullah M.I. Syed was one of the members of Eleven, a national collective of leading Muslim Australian contemporary visual artists, curators and writers, whose exhibition Waqt al- tagheer: Time of change was presented at ACE Open. Syed’s artwork, Aura II, was made from crocheted skullcaps joined together and attached to an illuminated Perspex dome, creating a beautiful, glowing, moon-like sculptural installation.
The moon symbolism is significant in Islam, a lunar religion. The crescent moon marks the start of a month, such as the holy month of Ramadan, a month of fasting that ends with a festival celebration known as Eid ul Fitr or Eid. Abdullah explained that in Islamic mysticism, the moon represents the male while the sun represents the female, and it binds us all, no matter where we are. The skullcaps are a symbol of unity amongst Muslim men; when worn to the mosque, the heads of the standing and bowing men create a line of white skullcaps that signify unity in a shared belief system.
Syed was born in Pakistan, and studied art and design in the USA and Sydney, where he now lives, frequently travelling between the three countries. He is a conceptual artist who uses various media in his work including drawing, digital photography, performance, and installation art to create works that explore ideas about identity, international politics, power and nationhood, and gender roles.
When I met him in Adelaide, Syed was embarking upon completing his NAVA’s Carstairs Residency Prize with a collaborative project involving members of the Handspinners and Weavers Guild of South Australia to whom he showed a slide presentation of his works. He was intrigued when I noted the extent to which textiles featured as a thread running through his work. Later, we met to discuss the ideas he explores in his artwork and the recurring use of textile-related materials, techniques or themes.
Syed’s mother provided him with insights into traditional textile practices in India and Pakistan, some of which he has used in his work. From her, he learned about the traditional use of flowers and spices as natural fabric dyes and subsequently used this technique to create an installation piece called Discourse within Discourse: The Circle, which was displayed in IAO (Individual Artists of Oklahoma) Gallery, Oklahoma City, USA, in 2003.
Using seven spices, he dyed cheesecloth to make small bags of spices, which he suspended in a circle in a darkened gallery using gold thread. The work floated in space, spotlights throwing shadows on to the floor and reflecting glints of light off the gold threads. Syed explains that the work was almost alive – the scents of the spices filled the air and heat from the lights caused the gold threads to expand and contract, so that the circle of spice bags gently moved throughout the month. The piece was about the need for the community to come together in the aftermath of 9/11, yet at the same time, to maintain their distinct identities, just as the individual spice bags maintain their individual aromas and qualities while being part of a unified circle.
It was also Syed’s mother who showed him the methods used in Pakistan to make folded paper planes and flowers, which led him to discover origami and money garlands that are traditional in Pakistan. Such garlands are made of folded and stapled banknotes and paper decorations and are worn at celebrations to show respect, honour and wealth.
Creating his own folding and stapling method, Syed made a garland of money and then a series of installations. These included a patchwork-like wall-hanging made from Pakistani currency folded to show the repeated images of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who founded Pakistan in 1947 and whose image appears on all of the county’s banknotes.
He then created his Flying Rug series (2008-) that is inspired by 1001 Arabian Nights and poetically critiques issues of orientalism, migration and capitalism. In this series, Syed folded crisp uncirculated US dollar bills into paper planes, which he then stapled into a geometric patterned rug reminiscent of Islamic tile work. When hanging in a gallery space, these threw rug-shaped shadows onto the wall and the floor. For miniature rugs, the size of single bills, Syed cut, wove and joined uncirculated banknotes from Pakistan, the USA, India, China and the UK, exploiting the different colours and the graphic imagery of heads of state that speak so potently of national identity.
The pieces of work made by Syed, assisted by the four Adelaide fibre artists, used both whole, crisp new banknotes and also a pile of shredded US dollar bills that had been withdrawn from circulation and acquired by Syed through an auction house in Sydney. Together they explored ways of using these materials, taking the technical textiles processes, such as weaving, crochet and stitching, a step further so that they became more pronounced while the imagery of the currency itself became increasingly integrated within the woven strands and stitches.
Nevertheless, among the physical threads of their production there is still evidence of that other thread that runs through his work: the commentary of international politics and the wishful musing on what might happen if countries such as the US and Pakistan were more open to dialogue.
Header image: Abdullah M.I. Syed, Aura II (detail) (2013) hand-stitched white crocheted prayer caps (topi), Perspex and LED light, 127 (diameter) x 54cm. Courtesy the artist