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Risham Syed

Pakistani Contemporary Artist
Born 1969, Lahore, Pakistan
Lives and works in Lahore, Pakistan

Risham Syed is a Lahore-based artist who uses painting, as well as other mediums to explore difficult questions of history, sociology, and politics, and post-colonial identity. Her native city plays a main role in her work, as do related inquiries into what the colonial history of Pakistan has meant to today? culture. She exposes inequities and injustices, using her paintings as pieces of a much greater, often global context through installation and use of objects rife with social reference and connotation.



Master of Arts, Royal College of Art, London, UK


Bachelor of Fine Arts Honors (Painting), National College of Arts, Lahore, Pakistan


Bachelor of Arts Kinnaird College, Lahore, Pakistan


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Syed plays with mediums to add context to her painting

She plays with her medium, making unexpected choices to convey her works' messages.  Early in her training, Syed's professor Zahoor ul Akhlaq at the National College of Arts in Lahore challenged her and her classmates to be creative with their painting.  For Syed, this creativity meant that she would experiment with nontraditional mediums in order to add context to her paintings.  This continued during her time at the Royal College of Art in London, and is now a central feature of her art.  This is apparent in pieces such as The Tent of Darius, where a painting hangs above a row of embroidered military jackets.

​Syed's artistic style is steeped in her background. Her father, Najam Hosain Syed, was a poet, and her mother kept trunks of fabric and curiosities in her childhood home.  Though initially she wanted her mother to empty their house of these things, Syed eventually grew connected to the meaning these objects could represent.  Her use of fabric, embroidery, found objects, and words, along with her painting reveals her connection to personal, as well as cultural and political history.

Risham Syed, The Tent of Darius, 2009, hand embroidered Army Vintage Coats (five), acrylic on canvas on board.

Syed exposes and links shared history with Seven Seas project

Upon receiving the prestigious 2012 Abraaj Capital Prize, Syed travelled to various regions of the worlds to examine the British Empire’s 18th and 19th century cotton trade and textile production, and to collect materials for her project. This endeavor resulted in a series of seven unique quilts, one for each region involved in this history of trade and political resistance: Chittagong, Izmir, Mumbai, Preston, Sindh, the UAE, and Sri Lanka.

Syed’s Seven Seas works towards exposing and linking the shared history: the location of various points of materials and their production; British extraction of natural resources such as jute, tobacco, dyes, and spices from their colonies; political resistance to this assertion of power; and the elements that this industry has left in the post-colonial context of these regions. To reflect the complicated history of the British cotton trade, she used fabric from each region, on which she printed 19th and 20th century maps of major port cities. She layers her stitching, fabrics and printing to sew together the many pieces that reflect many histories, including the one currently evolving.

Risham Syed, Seven Seas, 2012, cotton quilts filled with synthetic American wool.

Fulfils her role as a teacher by encouraging the next generation of artists

Syed now encourages young artists to develop their own style, but to be more adventurous with their work.  She both inspires them through her own work, and teaches them to be bold as their professor at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore.  When one artist forges ahead with a nontraditional idea, she believes, another has space to build on this and make it one’s own.  Her students inspire each other, too:  one student brought in soil to her class, to use as a medium for a piece, and inspired another woman to use this in her own work.

Risham Syed with students in Canvas Art Gallery. Image Courtesy: Canvas Art Gallery. 

Syed's work comments on painting as an idea

Syed demonstrated her ability as a painter, and images of a modern day Pakistan with her 2010 solo exhibition at the Rohas Gallery in Lahore, aptly titled Lahore, 2010. This installation featured a series of postcard-sized paintings of Lahore’s residential and commercial blocks.

Syed addresses these urban spaces through her own version of miniature paintings, meant to be as much a commentary on painting as a form itself, as a commentary on her native city. Her miniature paintings take a traditional art form and she uses this form to expose images of Lahore that are beautiful and dilapidated at once. As with much of her work, she provided context to these paintings by hanging them on an urban-like brick wall she built for the exhibit. Her four inch by six inch paintings evoke postcards, broadening the relevance of an otherwise local reference to aged concrete walls painted in colors faded by the sun, or homes overgrown with urban greenery. She reminds her viewer that both the paintings and their contents are today’s remnants of history.

Risham Syed, Lahore 2010, 2012, acrylic on canvas on board. 

Her work is a critical reading of post-colonial identities

Native to Lahore, Syed's work points critically to post-colonial identity in Pakistan, and the cultural and historical inheritance that manifests in Pakistan, and other countries in the region. This can be seen most acutely in her most recent work, The Seven Seas, a project of seven quilts that examine and comment on the 18th and 19th century cotton trade with the West, which she completed as a result of receiving the Abraaj Capital Prize, a prize which awards proposals of art.

She is a trained painter, but places paintings based on familiar methods in unique, nontraditional contexts. She uses materials such as frames, furniture, fabric, and even a marble mantle in Marble Hearth to contrast with or comment on her paintings. Her work handles tensions such as power, gender dynamic, and economic and social inequity. Through a variety of mediums, she exposes the changes that take place in the world, her own reactions to her environment, and the responses her work elicits.

Risham Syed, Marble Hearth, 2010, painting in a marble mantelpiece.