Abdullah M. I. Syed

Where I work

Born in Pakistan, I am a Western Sydney based artist, designer and scholar. My studio is on the second floor of the Queensland Arcade building located in Parramatta CBD. Formerly known as The Queensland Insurance Building and once recognized as “glass palace” due to its large plate glass windows, this four story building was considered, at the time, to be one of Parramatta’s greatest modernist achievements. The architects, Carr Allen and Watts, designed the building to blend in with the layout and colours of St. John’s Park, St. John’s Cathedral, the Parramatta Town Hall Building and Parramatta Square, all of which make for beautiful views from my sunlit studio window. Having a solitary, methodical and meditative art practice, looking out at the sky, grass, birds, trees, flowers and especially crowds of people from all walks of life make me feel connected to the world. I am an admirer of a karkhana (‘workshop’ in Urdu)—first established in the fourteenth century in Pakistan as a workshop where several artisans would work to produce art, jewellery, textiles, and weaponry in collaboration. Thus, I use my studio as a karkhana, a workshop for production, that has strong roots in traditional approaches, but remains in the present as a conceptual site where scholars, artists and craftspeople are invited to discuss topics and potentially collaborate.

What inspired my work

I grew up using Islamic Rugs and prayers mats with elaborate patterns and designs. From arabesque designs of fauna and flora, birds and animals inspired by the garden of paradise to the harmony of geometric patterns and structures meticulously woven to suggest infinite presence of the Divine, rugs are great examples of heterotopic spaces as they defy the normal logic of ordering. As a migrant and transnational artist, I have been investigating the economy of heterotopic spaces, structures and patterns in rugs using diverse materials such as spices, fabric and banknotes. This work was inspired by a set of thousands of decommissioned shredded US dollar bills, which I found, bid on and won at a Lawson Auction house in Sydney in 2016. Since then I have been looking at ways to re-purpose and reuse these shredded bills. The idea that a banknote (cash) that once held value and supported the creation and appreciation of an artwork now has no intrinsic value can be unfathomable. Restoring the bills’ value through craft by converting them into art objects, such as a rug, is thought provoking and challenging. Additionally, banknotes designs are heterotopic, just as rugs are. US dollar bills are made of lint and cotton. In my eyes, they are essentially resilient, hand woven rugs created to honor the economy as well as the value of traditional hand woven rugs in the world.

How I made it

Fabricating Economies series of works are made with assistance from Adelaide based weaver Janet Maughan and were made on a tapestry loom. Each piece took about a month to make. First shredded dollar bills strands are separated in colors. Then a different currency note is sliced into several strips. A template is created which is used to assist in the weaving process. I choose a selection of metallic threads from Pakistan, which are commonly used in ornate embroidery work. Although each tapestry has a precise template, due to the organic nature of the weaving, the finished tapestry results in a unique object of colour and texture imbued with love, care and respect for the textile craft.

What I am working on

I am currently in Karachi, Pakistan where I was visiting before the Covid-19 lockdown. I came here for work as well as to administer my mother’s will and to care for her old home after her sudden death in November 2019. I am taking this opportunity to reflect on my time in this small home where I was born and grew up. It was here where I truly discovered my artistic side which was nurtured by my mother, who herself was an extremely talented but undiscovered artist. I learned textile and fiber craft from her. In the past, I have made textile works in collaboration with her and have produced a body of work about my relationship with her. I am now taking this Covid-19 lockdown time to record, collect and restore her amazing textile craft creations for my upcoming art project which will include textile installation, photographs, drawings and videos and will be exhibited in 2021 in Australia. Furthermore, I am planning to make another series of large scale rugs from repurposed discarded banknotes and textiles in assistance with Janet Maughan for a possible Sydney exhibition in 2020. I feel textile waste is a global challenge with significant environmental issues. Repurposing and recycling textile art and fashion is a meaningful way to face this challenge.


Abdullah M. I. Syed (b. 1974) is a Pakistani-born contemporary artist and designer living and working between Sydney and Karachi. Trained in diverse disciplines, Syed identifies his art practice as an archival form of manzoom muzahamat, or poetic activism based on ideas of shared vulnerability, love, empathy, and memory. Syed sees traditional visual arts and crafts, performances and sacred rituals as a primary resource of inspiration and innovation for the development of his contemporary art practice. Syed utilizes a variety of mediums and techniques, including drawing, sculpture, textile, video installation, text, and body performance, to examine economies, structures, and theatrics of power in their myriad forms. Syed earned a PhD in Art, Media, and Design, 2015, and an MFA, 2009, from University of New South Wales. He also holds a BA in Design, 1999, and a Master of Education, 2001, from University of Central Oklahoma. Syed is a member of eleven, a contemporary collective of Muslim Australian artists, curators, and writers. Syed’s work has been featured in both solo and group exhibitions as well as art fairs and performance events. He is the recipient of the Individual Artists of Oklahoma’s Installation Artist of the Year award, 2003; Blacktown City Art Drawing Prize, 2008; UNSW Postgraduate Research Scholarship, 2009; Time Olson Drawing runners up cash prize, 2010; the NAVA Carstairs Prize, 2017, 2019 NSW Artists’ Grant and 2020 BarTur Photo Award. He was also a finalist for the Blake Prize, 2013, Moran Photography Prize, 2014, and the 2019 Sovereign Asian Art Prize.

Website: abdullahmisyed.com

Instagram: @abdullahmisyed

Facebook: Abdullah Syed M Iyhab

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