Myth of a Silhouette Portrait (2017)

Appearing across currency, stamps, history books or hanging in offices and museums, portraits of governing officials and their families not only communicate and mythologize their power in the state but are also intended to echo their legacy. For Governance, the lack of archival presence of the unassuming but heavily utilized and loved silhouette portrait of Lady Mary Rose FitzRoy (wife of Sir Charles Augustus FitzRoy the tenth Governor of the colony of New South Wales) - who inhabited the Old Government House Parramatta - was highly intriguing. The portrait’s provenance does not identify the artist and year of execution; neither does it demonstrate itself to be an intended communication of Lady FitzRoy’s achievements in the community, or the qualities she possessed. Yet the messy ink marks and crude execution of the silhouette hauntingly mirror the very tragic and gruesome death of Lady FitzRoy - the only thing about her that was recorded in detail. The cause of her death, a tragic horse carriage accident, even formed most of her obituary, overshadowing what little was known about her aristocratic roots, her “good looks”, “dignified, unaffected manners” and “amiable disposition which formed a large circle of friends.”

Myth of a silhouette and Bust takes such omissions and aesthetic erasures as a point of departure to relationally speculate the recorded history, creating realms of conceptualization where alternative visuals spin expanded narratives. She was a migrant, an industrious community worker, animal lover, avid gardener, passionate homemaker, lover of arts and craft and most importantly a much-loved public figure. Collectively, the works draw a new picture of Lady FitzRoy and how her life matters today. 

Governance Exhibition, Old Government House, Parramatta


Ashk [Tears] (2016)

Tears I: 16 Midnight Blue Squares, Ashk Series (2016)

Tears II: 4 Midnight Blue and Black Squares, Ashk Series (2016) 

Ashk | Tears series is the product of a performance where Syed shed tears onto boards while listening to Quranic recitation as well as thinking in complete silence. Syed's performance of Ashk | Tears happened in his studio over a five day period at various times. Although a private activity, a few close artist friends were also invited to witness the process (upon their request) and to take a few photographs.

To produce tears for the performance Syed had to reach out to a wide range of feelings including elation, sorrow, frustration, and rejection. The artist surprisingly noted that out of the three kinds of tears distinguished by scientists (Basal tears, Irritant tears and Emotional tears which differ from each other by function and composition), only emotional tears were produced during this performance. Syed states "There were not tears of joy but plenty tears of blessings, gratitude, and forgiveness". The board on which the tears are shed have an application of dark ink that allows the surface to further highlight the tear stains in the presentation of the work. 

In addition, the line installation of the series in a linear fashion is meant to reference Carl Andre's 64 Lead Square (1969) work that invites audiences to walk over it - creating a performative element. Ashk | Tears pays homage to this work through showing how each tear shed is a performative action of humanistic minimalism, and action centred work with minimal intervention. 

Image courtesy the artists and Aicon gallery.



Substitute (2016)

The Balancing Act (2013)

Catherine Benz (Delmar Gallery):

Jewel-like Mughal miniature paintings are writ large drawings in Abdullah M I Syed’s self-portraits as a young poet/artist in love and a mature warrior in conflict, travelling amidst the wandering sun and moon.  These shimmering works are arrived at through a labour-intensive process which the artist likens to Mashq, a restorative and cathartic activity.  The figures are drawn on the archery paper and then the paper is covered with acrylic inks. Sanding it back partially reveals the underlying grid, archery target design and drawings. The line drawings are then painstakingly carved out with the tip of a blade and, finally, the paper is stamped to create a veil of lotus or rose. 

Encircling the seated men are motifs borrowed from Persian, Renaissance and Mughal painting that accompany them on their celestial journeys.  In the paintings of the sun and moon, the reference of the target motif to Pop Art fades to the background, and instead a South Asian mandala comes to the fore.  In the artist’s Islamic tradition, a father should ensure that his son develops both mind and body, through instruction of practices such as the ancient art of archery.  


MakeOver (2008-)

In the Make-Over (20103) series of drawings Syed drew symbols, such as beards, and sentences or words, with multiple meanings, onto Western male figures to re-orientate them and see what would happen after a stereotypical ‘Muslim terrorist make-over’.

Over a period of time, newspaper cuttings and magazines were collected mainly for their covers, this included Time, Newsweek, The Economist and renowned men’s fashion magazines. Syed was interested in covers that had an image of a Western male with a tag line that could be used to stereotype the West with icons of Muslim stereotypes such as the beard in a humorous yet sensational manner. He was also interested in cover stories that in some way related to post-9/11 Islam: resurgences, fundamentalism and terrorism, and their link to war, economy and political instability. Syed was surprised to find the frequency of sensational images and gloomy headlines and above all, was very disturbed to see Pakistan’s name appear as a “troubled nation” and “the most dangerous place” on earth.

Pages from Brut-Nama [The Chronicles of Brut] (2013)

Excerpt from BrutNama catalogue oreword by Andrew Shea (Aicon Gallery, NYC)

In 1964, faberge launched Brut for Men, their now immensely popular fragrance, in an attempt to create a new male market within the traditionally feminine realm of perfumes. using the tag line “the essence of man,” Brut set itself up as a catch-all symbol meant to embody a swarm of conflicting notions of traditional masculinity, strength and character, while its extreme binary, signified by the word brute, implied the inherent power to do so by sheer force of will. Half a century later in a starkly different landscape of identity politics, Abdullah M. I. Syed’s Brut-Nama (The Chronicles of Brut) sets forth a series of complex interlocking visual chapters, portraying the multiple manifestations of Pakistani muslim masculinity ranging from the brutish, raw and unrestrained, to the cultured, gentle and atypical. the work explores the very essence of the dichotomy inherent in the term Brut(e) as read through the contemporary undercurrents of political instability, religious and secular tensions, capitalism, terrorism and diasporic issues. using a host of recurring symbols, metaphors and imagery across a dizzying array of mediums, Syed has created a labyrinthine self- referential narrative that draws on an obsession with the effects of history and geography on questions of performed identity and the construction of multiple contrasting ‘others’.


Click here for the catalogue for Brut-Nama (The Chronicles of Brut) at Aicon Gallery, NY, USA. 

The World Knows Sorrows Other Than Those of Love (2012)

'The world knows sorrows other than those of love: Fragrant Roses, Virtuous Lotuses and Singing Nightingales speak in layers of the political and religious colours and symbols and question the anatomy of ruptured masculinities, specifically the Muslim male youth that target the innocent while also being the victims of a system that fails them, demonises them, and eventually denies them redemption and the possibility of returning home.


Ann Finnegan in Death III 2012 exhibition text

"...on a series of found archery paper targets... what appear to be doves of peace, or nightingales, mark up a dark grid, oversketched with the torso of a befringed line figure; in the second a line drawing of a bomber’s vest overlays a red canvas gridded­­­­ over with roses, and a second layer of a thick circle or target.  In the third work, the overlaid figure appears to be that of a captured young suicide bomber, head quietly tilted towards the heavens, a more subdued version of Delacroix’s Victory. The background is a celestial blue, again overlaid with a target, and a grid of gold lotuses.  The figure appears to be contemplating paradise.  The references to the modernist grid, simultaneously traditionally Islamic in form, confounds the modernist bulls eyes of Jasper Johns with terrorist targets. Modernism’s own abstract laws appear to be contested by that of an active, interrogatory political art, which puts bodies on the line rather than forms, and which seems to be interrogating a higher set of sacred laws.  The quasi universal symbolism of celestial blue, funereal black and the passion of deep red readily translates across cultures as do the symbols of the nightingale, the lotus and the rose, all drawn from the South Asian and Persian miniature painting tradition of capturing 'beauty and love.'

In his sketchy overdrawing Syed puts the audience in touch with a phantom body, a spectre of the mind, and makes us see his bomber-figure in Modernism’s abstract quasi-spiritual terms. Rothko’s near-black chapel is there underneath the grid of the nightingales/doves of peace.  We’re asked to muse on this barely-there body, on the body sheath of an unholy bomb, lightly sketched up. (Syed views his work as a conversion of his 'blindfolded/trapped/mesmerised/brainwashed' suicide bomber subjects into 'poets and lovers.') We’re asked to dialogue with this body through the unlikely ruse of art historical themes, if only to shift from clichéd perspectives in commodity-focused materialist times.  It’s as if through art, Syed is…leading us to more spiritual, and healing planes."

Devoid (2009)

In Devoid, the embossed rugs on paper reveal themselves only partially. Light and darkness play an important part in reiterating Allah’s promise to reveal himself to those who seek his light in the midst of darkness. The embossed prints are records of the past and present. Their stark white surface subliminally invites the viewer to reflect. Each embossing is a monolith that has a mysterious appearance and its embedded symbols, requires a surface mapping to decode it. It is a simulation, a seduction that evokes a sensation of melancholia and pleasure. The rugs are dualities hovering between acceptance and rejection, submission and revolt, but always staying loyal to their past, remaining beautiful. It hangs like a stripped and naked monolith. The viewer recognises the form as foreign and familiar, private and public. 

The Devoid series is a personal reflection on my inner conflict and resolution between the East and the West. Combined, the rug and blade (reference to Rug of Drone works) draw on Minimalism's physical, material presence and the generative effect of repetition. Both the rug and blade became models for a Muslim male identity, and an overt social and political commentary. Together they evoke a sense of displacement and loss, ultimately leaving an impression of life and death.

Buzzwords (2009)

Photoetching, hard-ground, aquatint and colour roll on two hexagonal plates, Set of 7, edition of 12, 21.0 × 18.2 Size (cm) | 8.3 × 7.2 Size (in), In collaboration with Cicada Press, UNSW, Sydney.

Visual stereotypes and the endless use of ‘Buzzwords’ like Jihad, Fatwa, War on Terrorism and the Axis of Evil from “experts of Islam and terrorism”[1] in the Western media and the media in Muslim countries, have stripped the complexity of an issue to mere clichéd words. These etchings combine references to the lack of understanding of these seven buzzwords that summarize the post 9/11 world dictionary that has only words but with no clear definition. These words, Fatwa, Jihad, Weapons of Mass Destruction, Islamophobia, War on Terror, Us & Them and Axis of Evil, became the Seven Cardinal Sins or seven chapters of human history. Their arrangement in a hexagonal shape suggests the power of words for the purpose of propaganda. It is reminiscent of a game of Chinese whispers where the word once spoken changes and mutates getting hijacked and losing its meaning and identity. Within the beehive pattern, each word is like a puzzle accompanied by a bee or bee’s internal and external parts.

[1]  Some of these words became the Time magazines’ top 10 word list of 2002 and other followed in later years.