The Portrait of Azra (2016)

Nurun 'ala Nur [Light upon Light] (2015)

Nurun 'ala Nur [Light upon Light] (2015) is a sculptural installation consisting of a glowing spherical moon, whose surface is comprised of hundreds of prayer caps emanating light from within. The work rises from Syed’s memories and fascination with the full moon, its reflection and his obsession of finding ever more perfect parables, shapes and materials that are praised throughout history for their purity and Divine attributes. The arabesque design of the caps follows Islamic tessellation principles repeated seamlessly, suggesting the rememberance of Divine unity. The patterns on the caps, the formal construction of repeated shapes, and the use of the grid have strong roots in Islamic architecture, especially the dome, lattice and muqarnas.

As a light sculpture, it addresses Islamic consciousness using signs of divine beauty (jamāl) and majesty (jalāl), and reflects a lifelong pursuit of the transient nature of beauty and perfection, presenting the viewer with a physical experience of a concept that is abstract in nature. The jamāli qualities of awe and beauty are created as a halo, creating a mesmerising tactile allure promising a cosy embrace, which seduces viewers to come closer to contemplate and be surrounded by the work, which is reflected in a ‘pool’ of ocean-blue glass below. The suspended sculpture and the reflective glass on the floor are expressions of the balancing act and harmonious spiritual dualities of the Islamic concepts of beauty and majesty, in an era when Islam finds itself constantly drawn towards narrative extremes.


funDADAmentalist (2013)

Forbidden Fruit (2017 -)

Forbidden Fruit (2007-2018), Hand carved and altered leather Cricket balls, rubber, wood, metal, 24k gold leaf and wire, tape and banknotes in multiple parts, 14cm x 10cm x 10cm (smallest ball), image courtesy the artist, photography by Mahmood Ali and the artist.

Forbidden Fruit (2007 -) series considers the engagement between object, meaning and history through minimal intervention. Since 2007, I have re-appropriated the Cricket ball using incisive surgical cuts, carvings, peelings, and gilding, resulting in forms such as a pomegranate, a half-eaten apple and a hand grenade. The process of this transformation highlights my personal concerns of displacement and coming to grips with shifting universal ethics, morals, and political activism; while the idea of fake and truth becomes an all-consuming idiom of our times. The balls thus morph into objects that depict universal ideas of consumption, power and identity politics imbued with the rise and fall of social, political and sporting icons. Historically, cricket is said to have originated in South Asia as a simple bat and ball game that the British assimilated, assigning rules and making it the ‘sport of the empire’: : an elite pastime for men who wore it as a status crown of high art, enlisted with the power to measure the progress of colonized cultures. However, what once was a triumph of colonized culture and a ‘gentleman’s game’ of fair play has devolved into a morass of controversy, scandal, even terrorism; beset by inequalities of class, race, sex and money.

Keeping this in view, the re-configured ‘tempered’ red and white Cricket balls signify the forbidden fruit, with its associations of pleasure, deceit, humiliation, betrayal, shame and guilt. Each ball insinuates the ethical deterioration of the sport referencing particulate scandal and controversy in the history of Cricket. However, I have watched with dismay while the sport of Cricket, once known as the unifier of audiences across continents, has joined the global dilemma of ‘fixing’ and manipulation, mirroring present vagaries of international politics. Despite such display of immoral power politics, Forbidden Fruit infers my persistence to remain a happy, hopeful spectator always calling for the best team to win.

Aura I & II (2013 -)

Aura I and II (2013 -) are hemispheric reliefs, constructed from white and black taqiyah (skullcaps), which are sewn together in a hexagonal pattern to create a large circle. This circular ‘hive of caps’ is then mounted on white and black acrylic domes. The caps are puffed up, repeating the semi-spherical shape and producing a moon-like surface illuminated from within, creating halo-like effects. The halos are jamāli qualities of awe and beauty inviting viewers to stand in front of the sculpture, contemplate and be surrounded by it. The resulting works are glowing spherical moons, comprised of hundreds of prayer caps emanating light from within.

Aura I and II are not only created to explore beauty, propositions and light, but also to explore the Divine essence that resides in sublime beauty. They reflect Syed's lifelong pursuit of this transient nature of beauty and perfection, which operates on both a perceptual and conceptual level, affecting the viewer with a very physical experience of a concept that is abstract in nature. At a distance, when a viewer stands still as a solemn whiteness in front of these glowing celestial objects, they are left in awe.


Brut for Men (2013)

Brut for Men simultaneously alludes to the immensely popular fragrance among all classes in Pakistan, a blend of spicy wood and citrus designed to a traditional masculine strength of character, and its extreme binary signified by the word ‘brute’. Syed grew up watching men in his family use this fragrance and had a fascination for the design of the bottles, specifically the medallion. Brut was sold under the marketing slogan, “The Essence of Man”; this project is the exploration of the ‘essence of every Pakistani man.’

Made of hand-beaten and hand-crafted stickers (known as Chmak Patti), the Brut for Men relief sculptures combine strength and power with fragility and beauty. The form and the structure of the large medallions pay homage to the hand-crafted tradition of body (breastplate) and face armour (helmet) in Islam. It also takes inspiration from the elegant and fragile traditional craft of flower garlands, called Sehra (chaplet), a flower headdress worn by the groom and bride to cover their face and popular in countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. On one hand, these works are part of Art Brut (or Outsider Art), in that they are a celebration of the tradition of Pakistani metal and hand-cut sticker crafts in truck art, which aligns itself with the Islamic tradition of ustad/shagird (master/student), copying and collaboration. On the other hand, Brut For Men presents contemporary Pakistani masculinities as a cultural trope, ranging from the brutish, the raw and unrestrained, to the cultured, gentle, and atypical. The works explore the very essence of the dichotomy of the word ‘brut(e)’ through chance, experimentation, narrative and collaboration, imaginatively combining an immediacy of expression with technical excellence.

For Sale [Orientalism for Sale] (2012)

The 'Orientalism for Sale' series consists of various autonomous paper-cut drawings, sculptures, collages, and a neon light. Through them, a narrative is created that unfolds through the construction and deconstruction of myths, signs and symbols. These include the fantastical (read cliché) flying rug of the Arabian past, the decorative art of Islamic culture and its currency, brilliant geometric and arabesques patterns, and the imperialist Western hegemonic ideology of global capitalism and its chief currency, the US dollar bill. Such symbols and patterns are at the heart of Orientalist myth, Occidental fascination and Capitalist economy. The sculpture - a yellow neon sign, an invention of western consumerist culture, shows 'For Sale' flashing in an arabesque design, internalizing the discourse of the commodification of such binaries within Pakistan and the contemporary Arab world.

Prayer Rug of Necker Cube (2009)


Abdullah M. I. Syed utilises a variety of media in his artistic practice, through which he communicates complex political ideas. His commentary includes controversial topics such as the War on Terror, immigration, and Western attitudes towards the East.
In 1915, Kasimir Malevich created one of his most famous works, Black Square, a self-explanatory painting made in his proclaimed Cubo-Futuristic  style. Malevich was a pioneer of geometric abstract art and his influence can even be seen in the art created today. In 2008, the German artist Gregor Schneider was commissioned to make a sculpture for the Venice Biennale that was to be placed in St. Mark’s Square. The 50-foot cube was made of scaffolding covered by black fabric and was inspired by the Ka’ba in Mecca. It is interesting to note that the word Ka’ba in fact, means ‘cubic building’.  Afraid of inciting the Islamic community, Schneider’s project was blocked and prevented from being erected during the biennale. Reacting to this news, Schneider commented “We are at war, we can’t even discuss Islam anymore. Everyone is afraid. It’s not the Muslims that are stopping this project, it’s the Christians. If we can’t build an abstract cube anymore, what can we do?” (G. Harris, “Art in the age of global terrorism”, Art Newspaper, No. 160, July - August 2005, p. 7)
Almost a century after Malevich, Syed has cleverly amalgamated the sacred with the profane by commissioning this prayer rug, a very traditional Islamic ritualistic object but rendering it in a completely contemporary fashion. Covered in overlapping and intersecting Necker cubes with a large black cube in place where Muslims would place their head while praying in the direction of the Ka’ba. The Necker cube is an optical illusion that was discovered in 1832. The orientation of the cube can be altered by shifting the observer's point of view. When viewed from above, one side of the cube tends to be seen as closer and conversely when seen from below, a different side comes to the front. By combining this geometric paradigm with a religious object, Syed is using the contemporary constructs of abstraction and cubism to highlight and educate people with pre-conceived notions about Islam in a subtle and poetic manner. This beautiful object holds many different meanings depending on the viewer.