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One-dollar bills furiously ripped from a board flew into the air and landed like balls of trash on the floor. This gesture characterised Abdullah Syed’s performance on opening night of his second exhibition Divine Economy Chapter 1: Structures at Aicon Gallery, New York. It set the stage for the artist’s investigation of what the press release describes as how religious, political, and economic systems ‘mutually construct and inform one another’.
Syed has long been concerned with the idea of consumption—and his belief that currency, as he states in an interview, is used ‘for power relations between countries and people’. For the Sydney-based artist, the power of the United States dollar left a lasting impression when he first moved from Pakistan to study in the States more than a decade ago. Its impact took shape in his early paper sculptures, such as Flying Rug IV (2011), in which an Islamic rug constructed from US currency alludes to American Islamophobia. This idea continues to resonate as he probes the collusion of politics and religion through his inventive use of uncirculated banknotes.
But unlike the immediate visual effect of Flying Rug IV, Syed’s intent in his new Mapping Investment series (2017) is not instantly apparent. On first encounter we see diptychs made from sheets of newly minted two-dollar bills filled with both painted and cut out Islamic patterns. Yet embedded in each diptych’s meticulous geometric shapes, designed from combining the square, triangle, and circle, are geographical outlines of Pakistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Syria—all linked to the War on Terror. Here, Syed assumes the role of a musafir—translated in Arabic and Urdu as a traveller in search of the truth—as he attempts to steer us towards reconsidering extremist notions of Islam, which like the camouflaged maps, are hidden from easy accessibility.
The idea of dissembling our perceived views of Islam takes a different stance in Illuminated Prisms manuscript 1: Pages 1 & 2 (2017). In these works Syed is inspired by medieval manuscripts and the notion of the golden mean in ancient texts, which embraces a moderate position between extreme ideologies. Collages are created with cutouts of the miniscule unfinished pyramid with the Eye of the Providence that is printed on one-dollar bills. While scholars have interpreted the pyramid as a symbol of the new world order, Syed’s use of these cut and pasted forms, which are beautifully decorated with twenty-four karat gold borders on illustration board, suggest what Aristotle referred to as the 'golden middle way'. Hence the pyramids appear to be emblems of change—and their forms, on each delicately designed page resembling illuminated manuscripts, seem like encoded scripts from ancient times, filled with imaginary doctrines of transformation.
However, in Topography (2017), numerous sculptural pyramids, devised from crisp folded one-dollar bank notes, resemble inexpensive paper toys—making money appear to be nothing other than disposable fictitious paper. By subverting its value, Syed compels us to examine our socio-political relationship with money, and the complex lines of control enacted through the exchange of currency in our daily lives.
The most captivating work that conveys the complexities of world economies and shifting power dynamics over centuries is Syed’s beautifully crafted diorama Moneyscape VI: Playground of Alternative Economies (2017). Pop-up silhouettes of churches, mosques, monuments, motifs, and historical figures that are printed on currencies from the United States, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates, amongst other countries, are presented side by side. Whilst the proximity of the notes hint at the divisiveness that plays out constantly around the globe in the clash for economic power, Syed’s marvelous juxtapositions also propose an alternate scenario of peace between these nations.
However, none of Syed’s work escapes the irony of the fact that his choice of raw material and the system of capitalism that he assaults is the very framework that supports his success. Even so, it does not diminish his effort to debunk the significance of money, or explore the degree to which we have the ability to define our choices, rather than be defined by our currency.
Abdullah Syed, Illuminated Prisms Manuscript II: Page 3 - Recto/Verso, 2017. Hand-cut U.S. $1 banknotes collage and 24K gold on illustration board, 39.5 x 59 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Aicon Gallery, New York.
Abdullah Syed, Topography, 2017. Ed. 1 of 5. Folded U.S. $1 banknotes and staple pins, 24 x 24 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Aicon Gallery, New York.
Moneyscape VI: Playground of Alternative Economies, 2017.
Hand-cut and assembled various uncirculated banknotes in
custom light-box vitrine, 22 x 22 x 10 inches. Images courtesy
the artist and Aicon Gallery, New York.
Abdullah Syed, Moneyscape VI: Playground of Alternative Economies, 2017. Hand-cut and assembled various uncirculated banknotes in custom light-box vitrine, 22 x 22 x 10 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Aicon Gallery, New York.