23 September, 2021
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At an exhibition like The National: New Australian Art, whose third iteration sprung up across the MCA, the AGNSW and Carriageworks in March, many of the artworks are big. Not necessarily big in any metaphorical sense. Just large. Imposing. So, perhaps in response to the scale of the works before me, I wandered past Fiona Hall’s ‘EXODUST’ (2021), which reached towards the ceiling of the gallery foyer, past Wona Bae and Charlie Lawler’s ‘Regenerator’ (2021), suspended in dark, murmuring coils through the centre of the entry level, in search of something quieter. I craved something smaller, something I could feel was mine. That’s why, maybe, I was struck by the modest, painstaking quality of a series of austere black frames, hanging on the walls of a lower gallery. They were tiny, crouched. They didn’t call to be seen, and, bending towards them, with my nose to the glass panel, felt like a discovery.
With ‘Currency of Love’ (2016-2021), the Pakistani-born artist Abdullah M.I. Syed has created an installation that speaks to the smallness and delicacy of love. Each frame contains within it a flat, luridly green leaf, from which sprouts a bank note: British pounds, Myanmar kyats, Pakistani rupees. They are connected to each other by a fine gold filigree, which you can see if you get close enough to the frames so your breath fogs up the glass. Gold splodges mottle the leaves.
The leaves in the frames are those fallen from a money tree that Syed’s mother ‘adopted’ when her four sons left the family home, giving her an alternate vessel for her love. Syed has harvested, photographed and printed them (taking care to gather the leaves only after they fell), before threading them back together with 24-carat gold. This practice of repair not only references the Japanese art of kintsugi, but also the importance of the rafoogar (meaning ‘darner’) in South Asian culture: mending is elevated to a skill requiring the utmost precision and care, with the power to return life to old things.
Syed, in his meticulous re-stitching of money (given by his mother, donated by his friends and family) elevates the role, too, of a beloved mother’s duty and care for a child she cannot fully know. An emigrant child, who eats and drinks and talks differently to her. Syed’s mother passed away unexpectedly in 2019, and ‘Currency of Love’ is imbued with this sudden loss. Love here is a pail filled with duty, obligation, sacrifice and grief: it’s not gushy, nor is it even happy, and definitely not photographably so. It’s painstaking.
Around the corner is a whimsical recreation of a bedroom from the artist’s family home. There is a collection of knick-knacks and Syed’s mother’s personal items—cast-iron teapots, bent spoons and padlocks—are tacked to the walls. The domestic is honed in on; the everyday is given status. Each of these household items, usually relegated to the private sphere, are boldly stuck to gallery walls. They are connected by flurries of hand-drawn pencil stars in ice-cream colours (mint choc chip green; strawberry pink; bubblegum blue). While Syed has drawn furniture on the walls in light pencil, the trinkets and everyday domestic items are contrastingly three-dimensional: they are real, and compose the material fabric of their lives.
There’s the kind of love that tastes sweet at first lick and dissolves on the tongue, leaving behind a white scrape of bitterness, but, with this work, Syed is aiming for something sweeter, more filling.
His focus on familial duty and obligation is more like the raw brown sugar that floods into your whole cup of coffee and fattens you up, instead of leaving you hungrier on aspartame. Here, embedded into the floor of the gallery’s sandstone, Syed’s painstaking work, in its smallness and acuity, is the kind of thing you want to press your nose against the glass for.