Photo by Charlese Dawson
Zim Syed is a Pittsburgh-based creative and former resident artist of the 2022 BOOM Universe residency program. The conceptual elements of Syed’s work stem from distinct perspectives shaped by his upbringing in Bangladesh and life as an American immigrant. His paintings are designed to portray a “re-versioning of existing forms” relative to our wider cultural environment – and in addition to Syed’s own personal experiences, his place in time is what leads him toward these remixes. By fusing deconstructed visual languages within one singular image, Syed provides an impactful viewpoint on social issues, economics, music, and culture.
In this interview, Syed discusses the correlation between his identity and his work, driving societal change through creative expression, and inspiring more artists of color to break barriers by turning their passions into a profession.
You spent parts of your childhood between Bangladesh and the UAE before immigrating to the United States. How does your upbringing influence the way you approach the creative process? You’ve mentioned deconstructing visual languages into one singular image to provide a fresh perspective on social issues, economics, and culture. How do you bring your perspective as a Bangledeshi-American to life?
Like any artist, I feel that identity will always play a major part in my creative process. I have views and perspectives based on my upbringing that are fused into certain pieces of work. However, I don’t always feel comfortable using them for shows because, to a certain extent, I’m not trying to exploit my culture just as a way to make money. But even though I am cognizant of that, my perspective is still within my work because my work represents my identity.
I like to make art that will talk about certain societal issues based on what I’ve experienced here. For example, after living in East Liberty for the past 10 years, I’ve witnessed a lot of change and gentrification, so sometimes I’ll use certain images that resemble construction lines or colors to cast a spotlight on the detrimental impact of that change taking place within our neighborhood.
Can you tell us more about your journey as an up and coming artist in Pittsburgh? What compelled you to pursue this as a career? Is there anyone in particular who has inspired you along the way?
I always had an interest in drawing while growing up, but one day after college I just decided that I was going to take painting seriously. There wasn’t any particular reason behind it – just me being kind of crazy I guess. My early paintings were more traditional, but now I just destroy stuff and staple things together as part of my creative process. I draw a lot of inspiration from other artists, particularly Jean-Michel Basquiat. He is a really important part of my story. His work has always been accessible to me in a way that inspired me to make art.
I also need to give a shout-out to Samira Mendoza, a local artist and longtime collaborator, for their role as a community leader across the Pittsburgh art scene. Because sometimes with art, there’s a sense of competition among creatives. Like, whose work is better? Whose work is more impactful? Whose work is more inspiring? None of that was there with Samira. They were always more interested in fostering an inclusive culture of empowerment for Pittsburgh-based artists. Back in 2018, we used to do little basement shows where we’d all just hang out and make art at this house behind Mixtape (in Garfield). It introduced me to a whole new community of people – artists and musicians alike.
You were the lead artist for the John Lewis mural on Locust Street in Uptown to promote visual messages about police brutality, systemic racism, and gun violence. Considering the daily impact those three issues have on Pittsburgh’s BIPOC community, what did it mean for you to be involved in that project? And what did you focus on during the creative process to ensure the mural embodied its messages?
It was a surreal experience and I’m really thankful for the opportunity to be a part of it. Creating the mural was about a month-long process for everyone involved. In the moment, I was more focused on studying the intricacies of Lewis’ face and studying the shading I was doing, but now whenever I drive by it or see a picture, it really brings back a lot of emotion. He was such an important and impactful person, and now his face is there for the entire community to see it.
When I was painting, everyone who was around watching us loved it. You could tell they valued the meaning behind it – and that isn’t always the case. For a similar project, we were doing a BLM mural in Oakland. There were some people around who were mad about it and let us know they were mad about it. The whole situation got pretty intense, but it just made us want to keep going.
As an artist, have you faced similar experiences in your own life that compelled you to keep going and leverage creative expression as a way to inspire others?
Yeah, it’s a driving factor for sure. I’m not naive to the fact that I’m different. Even being in the Pittsburgh art scene here right now, sometimes I’ll go to essentially what are “progressive” shows and I’m still the lone artist who looks like me. There is still this narrative that exists about artists of color – that they are only given opportunities because they’re artists of color or because they’re making work about being an artist of color. I don’t care what other people think, but I’m still aware of it. I view being an artist of color as rebellious, so that others who look like me can draw inspiration from it and see that anything is possible.
You received a BIPOC micro-grant from the Pittsburgh Foundation’s Center for Philanthropy. The grant is designed to provide artists maximum freedom as a way to carry forward Mac Miller’s creative and artistic legacy and his family’s vision for helping artists, particularly younger artists, recognize their full potential. How did you leverage the resources provided by that grant?
Around the time I received that grant, I was really interested in taking my work to the next level. It allowed me to buy more art materials and resources I needed to do that. Going back to my Basquiat inspiration, at the time I was very interested in collecting other pieces of artwork and painting over them. The grant enabled me to experiment with that stuff for artistic development and not feel like I needed to perfect it.
The unstretched canvas, for example, was something I had always been interested in, and now it’s a huge part of my work. It’s so important when the larger forces of the Pittsburgh art world, like BOOM for instance, are interested in supporting and developing our creative community. I think Mac’s foundation is a big driver of that.
You’ve been a frequent collaborator with the Pittsburgh Solidarity for Change. How can muralists drive positive societal change for local communities in Pittsburgh?
Lately, I’ve been studying a lot about the role that murals have historically had on political change. It’s really interesting. I would love to see more of that in Pittsburgh. I know there are amazing muralists around and I think the city could use more street art. There is such a deep history here. We should be using that, as artists, to create more. Doing the John Lewis mural opened so many doors for me as an artist.
I’d love to see more people get an opportunity to showcase their work outside of a gallery setting. Political work is much better for murals because there’s a heightened level of accessibility to it. If I go into a white wall gallery where there’s a bunch of powerful work about political change, but it’s hanging on white walls where they are serving white wine and it’s boujee — there’s a disconnect associated with it.
What type of projects or gallery shows do you have planned for this summer? Where can people check out your work?
My gallery with the Brewhouse Association on the South Side wrapped up in mid-June, but I’m also currently in a group show at the AAP and have another group show coming up at the Irma Freeman Center in Garfield, as well as a piece that showcased at the Three Rivers Arts Festival juried show in June. During my BOOM residency, I started a collaborative project with some friends. We worked on an installation of a camera mirroring itself so that everything in the lens was completely amplified. We were trying to create an interactive experience where you could come in and play with lights and color. I’m working with Radiant Hall to try and organize that installation at their McKees Rocks location this summer.
For more information on Zim Syed and his artistic work, visit https://zimsyed.com/
Chris Mueller is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. Twitter/IG: @bychrismueller