This statement couldn't be more evident than in the practice of artist Masooma Syed. Born in Lahore, Syed's enrollment in art school was quite unplanned and the same strain of spontaneity reflects in most of her art. The ever-so-polite and rather shy artist took an evening out to accommodate my many questions while she ran me through the beginnings of it all. Conservatively raised by her grandmother, Syed's early days in school were spent amidst one of the most successful batches of the National College of Arts, Lahore. Her early works lacked the formalism and finesse of a trained hand, but were pure in their childish abstraction, imagination and freshness. They revealed a curiosity to experiment with diverse mediums like cosmetics and rusted metal — cheap materials that told of a modest living but more so of the inherent charm in inventing and discovering. Why paint with paint? Who prescribed that we do?
Syed began another phase of self-discovery following her graduation. Doubts shadowed her beliefs, leading to a darker, sombre self and to macabre imagery. The overwhelming emotions translated into a series of works with hair and nails. When she looked at herself, she began with the body, and its outgrowths were examined anew. Like specimens in a laboratory, the clipped nails of her hands were arranged into ornaments of jewellery, a way of trivialising human vanity by decorating parts that were dead. The collected strands of hair belonging to her and her loved ones were cast in the form of feet, or a crown, held together by hairspray and reconfigured as art. The tactility of the form speaks of her painterly sensibilities — like layers of texturing with different strokes of the brush, while covertly conveying a distinct vulnerability.
Like specimens in a laboratory, the clipped nails of her hands were arranged into ornaments of jewellery, a way of trivialising human vanity by decorating parts that were dead.
I notice that Syed's art has not evolved linearly, for it is but a reflection of her many moods and thoughts and the delicacy with which she expresses herself — her speech is soft even when powerful. She speaks of a time when her art was unrestrained and free, when it enthralled both the maker and the viewer, and the burden of maturity that brought about a care for archival materials, preservation of forms and a means of livelihood was yet to come.
Syed is not in the least bit resentful, but she acknowledges the role that chance and opportunity have to play in life. Her recent show titled Sublime West, hosted at Gallery Ske (New Delhi) last October was a solo exhibit presented after a six-year hiatus. Her deliberate shift to the larger scale, of juxtaposing cinema with newsprint displaying news of corruption and violence, and her employment of the theatrical stage was the result of harboured anxiety. It was an outpouring of her everyday struggles — of living between India and Pakistan, of reassembled emotions as well as a manifestation of all her curiosities: cut outs from family albums, film memorabilia, newspapers and magazines.
When asked about her sources of inspiration and choice of subjects, she explains her work is not intellectualised; it is intuitive. Whatever is observed more keenly and felt more strongly creates more palpable imagery, even if small or fragile or degenerative.