Common Threads Run Deep presents a cross-section of recent and previous work by Pakistani-Australian artist Abdullah M.I. Syed. Syed’s art practice is a cerebral but also deeply personal and visually sophisticated one that draws on the traditional art and craft skills and heritage of Pakistan as well as global 21st-century art practices. His provocations span identity politics, power structures, displacement and memory in a multidisciplinary practice of drawing, sculpture, video, textile, photography and performance.
Works such as the drawing series Balancing Act (2013), installation/sculptures Aura (2014) and Brut for Men (2013) delve into ideas of the personal and familiar, esoteric knowledge and masculinity, using cultural emblems and figures and layering various techniques and media to give historical perspective and depth.
Balancing Act uses symbols such as the target and the technique of presenting figures in profiled silhouette to tap into influences as diverse as Pop art and traditional miniature painting of Pakistan. Syed made the work to honour his father, but also in response to negative stereotyping of Muslim men circulating after the events of 9/11. His warrior and poet figures face off in a self-portrait of two typical versions of masculinity—one the older, more respected and mature artist/leader, the other the younger, gentler, perhaps more naïve and contemplative artist/thinker. Syed suggests that separately these notions of masculinity are one dimensional but together present a more nuanced version of what it means to be a balanced man.
Brut for Men also expands ideas around masculinity, converting the medallion found on Brutfragrance for men—very popular in Pakistan during Syed’s childhood, and long associated with a confident and macho male ideal adopted in the West—into large, colourful handmade badges embellished with colourful stickers (chamak patti). The stickers have been cut and applied over hand-beaten metal by truck art artisans who worked under Syed’s creative direction. The artworks resemble those ornaments displayed on restored Bedford trucks in Pakistan, but now the idea of the ‘brute’ is transformed into a cultural object of beauty that requires closer inspection and interrogation, like society’s definition of the masculine.
For Aura I and Aura II (2013) Syed takes the prayer caps (taqiyah or topi)of Islam and stitches them together into abstract domes that are illuminated from within. The first is the deep black of the night sky and the second the luminous white of the moon. The arabesque patterns on the caps resemble the dome shapes of mosque design and Islamic architecture and suggest the divine, but it is the jalāl (beauty) and jamāl (majesty) of nature that is celebrated here. Each Aura is a sphere or world in opposition to each other, but also in balance.
The transformative treatments of mundane, everyday objects provide a meaningful anchor for Syed’s work as it takes on the delicate task of bearing multiple, difficult and sometimes diverging ideas. His work also hints at the value society places upon material objects rather than on a labour of love as it invokes the less tangible but more sustaining values of family, home, the handmade and the communal. Syed says he is interested in ‘finding common threads and poetic balance between real and fictional economies and the polarities of material economies (economics, politics, power, identity) and emotional economies (spiritual, love, empathy, home).’
In several series, Syed takes currency as a medium, manipulating and imbuing this most prosaic and practical of items with alternate values and histories. In one work, the US flag is embroidered on a dollar bill in striking silky red and blue thread, while in the series Fabricating Economies (2020), copper, silver or gold thread is hand-loomed with the shredded notes of two different currencies, disrupting and layering official narratives and hinting at the complicated stories that carry these notes from one place to another. Again, Syed worked with assistance to produce this work, this time with weaving artist Janet Maughan in Adelaide. The meticulously handcrafted, wearable jackets of Capital Couture (2019) are stitched from currencies that include the RMB and the US and Australian dollar and suggest that our various national identities might hang upon ideas cloaked in little examination or analysis. They also hint at the behind-the-scenes deals holding governments and leaders in power.
Syed’s practice of working with craft assistants is not a collaborative one, but one of ‘assistant-ship’, and is based on the Karkhana model. He says, ‘As a contemporary artist, besides having a solitary practice I am also an advocate of collective art practice, hybridity and generational storytelling. I follow the philosophy of the studio as a Karkhana (meaning ‘workshop’ in Urdu). Established in 14th-century South Asia, Karkhana are sacred workshops where several artisans would work together to produce jewellery, textiles, weaponry and art. I see my studio as Karkhana, a workshop for critical thinking and contemporary art production that has strong roots in traditional approaches but remains in the present as a conceptual site where intellectual and thoughtful conversations and actions of change happen.’
A new work, Ralli II, 2021, also touches on labour, memory, identity and worth. The piece is based on two Pakistani craft practices: one of handmade folded and stapled celebratory money garlands, now a declining art; the other ralli (meaning patchwork), a craft found in traditional Pakistani Sindhi textiles with strong links to South Asian chattapatti, a form of patchwork that Syed’s mother used to make new household items out of scrape fabric. Syed learned these crafts and then created his own contemporary hybrid method and aesthetic by folding and stapling banknotes, while using colours and patterns reminiscent of the traditional textile-based craft. For Ralli II he uses both the front and back of the banknote to create a hexagon pattern of portrait and structures that speak about care and connection.
Invisible threads are also common threads, and they hold partnerships, families, friends and even nations together. Syed picks and pulls at these connections; he unravels them and then stitches them back together to make new connections. His remark that ‘artists are prophetic’ references this idea; that in deconstruction the way forward can be re-mapped. It is no coincidence that in drawing, cutting, stitching, splicing and embroidering, Syed often renders his media worthless even as he creates objects far more precious than their cumulative assigned face value. This metamorphosis is at the heart of Syed’s practice and gives his artworks both intellectual heft and aesthetic pleasure.