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In Focus: Alia Syed 1

Alia Syed made her early 16mm films at the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative in the mid-1980s, using the Co-op’s optical printer as a means to explore issues of identity and representation. Her work investigates the nature and role of language in intercultural communication, with a focus on borders and boundaries, translation and the trans-cultured self.  Syed’s films draw from personal and historical realities in order to address the subjective relationship to gender, location, diaspora and colonialism. 

Alia Syed | 1987 | UK | 5’ | 16mm

A white swan prepares for flight, flexing and caressing, extending and folding its wings repeatedly as if bracing for a long journey. The close-up images of the swan are de-contextualised via repetition and framing; abstracting the natural form until it becomes a blank screen, onto which the viewer can project their own meaning.

Alia Syed | 1986 | UK | 15’ | 16mm

Unfolding depicts the gendered space of the launderette as both a site of oppression and possible resistance. “I was interested in making a film about women’s workspaces; the launderette is a functional space, but it is also a place where women meet socially. I got to know the women, took my Bolex (a wind-up camera), and after a while I felt comfortable enough to start filming. It made me aware of the way in which documentaries can be a form of control. On the one hand, it was a straightforward documentary and, on the other, it questioned my role as maker. It took a long time to make and was extremely rigorous.” (Alia Syed)

Fatima’s Letter
Alia Syed | 1992 | UK | 20’ | 16mm

A personal documentary around journeys, memories and watching: a woman remembers her past by faces she sees while travelling on the London Underground. She begins to believe that these people, like her, have all taken part in the same event. The story, which takes the form of a letter to her friend Fatima, is spoken in Urdu with subtitles in English, although the subtitles do not always appear in conjunction with what is spoken. Syed expresses the dislocation of the diasporic experience while questioning the role of language in structuring power relations between class, race and gender.

Eating Grass
Alia Syed | 2003 | UK | 23’ | 16mm

Filmed in Karachi, Lahore, and London, Eating Grass comprises five overlapping narratives, each representing different emotional states experienced throughout the day that are marked by the Muslim tradition of the five daily prayers. Invested in a material reflection on language and translation, memory and displacement, Syed’s haptic cinema emphasizes the tactility of 16mm film. Layering of voices and layering of images produce a hypnotic effect in this meditative and sensuous work.

Followed by a conversation with Alia Syed

Born in 1964 in Swansea, Alia Syed grew up in Glasgow and now lives in London. Her films have been shown at international institutions such as LACMA, the Moscow Biennale, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Hayward Gallery, Tate Modern, Tate Britain, INIVA, WKV Stuttgart and the Yale Centre for British Art. This retrospective is the first comprehensive survey of her work in the UK. It provides an overview of four decades of moving image practice, from early student films such as Swan (Syed’s degree piece at the University of East London) and Fatima’s Letter (made whilst at the Slade) to the festival premiere of her recent video work Snow (2019). The retrospective is accompanied by an exhibition at Mimosa House of Syed’s Meta Incognita.