EXHIBITION: Risham Syed @ Manchester Art Gallery

  • An underwhelming glimpse into an unglamourised Lahore, Pakistan.

Of all the places in Manchester to admire creative works, Manchester Art Gallery is my favourite. It’s a place to see classic arts, contemporary arts and, more recently, all manners of cultural arts. As part of the New North and South network, I was certain before stepping foot in the exhibition space that Risham Syed’s first UK solo exhibition was going to be eye opening.

Rather than portraying a glamorised and idealistic view of her home city of Lahore, Pakistan, Syed attempts a more honest approach, preferring a realistic account of the transformations the city is undergoing. Where new buildings have perfectly finished fronts, their backs are neglected and unfinished; the parts of Lahore people are not meant to see.

I have always favoured artists whose creative output ranges across varying mediums and Syed’s displayed works did just this, taking form in paintings, textiles and sculpture which allows a rich exploration through the mind behind the work; a confident move for her introductory solo exhibition in the UK. And I wanted to like it – I really did – and yet I struggled.

The solo exhibition space was stunning. Muted purple walls, dimly lit, were lined perfectly with postcard sized paintings of buildings. These minute pieces, from afar, appeared almost abstract. As you stepped closer, evidence of the creative process is etched delicately throughout each piece; Syed’s skill cannot be faulted.

Yet the content of the pieces lacked – well – anything. Paintings of plain buildings were, literally, plain buildings and the colour palette was painfully muted; colours that I can only imagine are remarkably true to life. Blank walls of neglected buildings set on flat landscapes may be realistic to Lahore but will certainly not begin to stir an emotional response in their viewer.

One thing that cannot be faulted was her dedication to her theme. The very first painting in the space managed to display this instantly, featuring a salmon coloured building sat contrasting on a street of bleak, grey buildings. What stood out was the intricate, colourful detail on the door and windows of the building. Greens, blues, reds; the only pattern across whole series. Yet behind this were smoggy silhouettes of rather sad buildings; the reality of Lahore, creating contrast to a perfectly designed front.

What did make me smile was the inclusion of her first instalment within the Victorian gallery 10. Naked portraits line the walls, and so a large bath towel was a tongue-in-cheek addition to an initially pretentious instalment.

A true realist, her second instalment – The Tent of Darius – was symbolic of the war. Displaying the juxtaposition of the romantic connotations with being a soldier and the hard-edged reality of war, visually, managed to strike a chord. The 5 original European army coats were colourfully embroidered with the intention of imagining the women at home, waiting for their men to return to them, having contributed. As you explore the embroidery, you stagger across marks of wear, the odd tear and burn, that drag you away from the romanticism and back to the harsh reality; a clever addition to her debut that really did work.

A confident and varying solo exhibition. Maybe – hopefully – I can conjure up a more devoted and emotional response on her return.