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Art trio unearths a hidden gem linking Lahore and London in Bristol archive

The trio found uncovered this early work by renowned Pakistani artist Risham Syed while searching through the British Empire & Commonwealth Collection in Bristol

When the trio discovered the artwork in the archive, they contacted Risham to confirm if their hunch was correct

Press release issued: 24 October 2023

While searching for art pieces for an upcoming exhibition, a University of Bristol academic and her colleagues recently stumbled across a hidden gem at the British Empire & Commonwealth Collection (BECC) in Bristol.

Lecturer in the History of Art, Dr Zehra Jumabhoy visited the archives alongside Bristol-based artist David Alesworth, and Frances Davis of the British Empire and Commonwealth Collection.

The trio were on the hunt for pieces for an exhibition called ‘Tigers and Dragons: India and Wales’ based around Imperial connections between Britain and South Asia set for Swansea’s Glynn Vivian Art Gallery in 2025, while Dr Jumabhoy was also seeking material to include on the University’s new ‘Art & Empire’ course – a new module part of the History of Art department’s drive to create a more global curriculum.

While trawling through the collection they discovered a painting which struck a familiar chord. David recognised that it might be the work of renowned Pakistani artist Risham Syed.

“The style of the painting is a little different from Risham’s recent work, but the image was so haunting and featured her signature map-like motif, that I thought it was worth checking,” David said.

David was able to reach out to Risham, having previously taught with her at the prestigious art college Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, Pakistan between 2005 and 2015.

Risham soon replied, confirming the striking image was actually her first work while she was studying at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London in 1996, and provided some hitherto unknown context about the artwork.

“This was the first work I made at the RCA. I treated it like a diary where I was putting down all that I was thinking about,” Risham Syed said.

“The photo is of my grandad who was in the British Civil Service. He was an income tax commissioner, which was a powerful position in those days.

“It got me thinking about the Victorian Punjabi upbringing and where it was coming from – which after seeing London it was starting to make more sense.”

As with many of Syed’s other works, Lahore is represented. The piece features a map of London superimposed with sections of a map of Lahore to illustrate the geographical and personal connections Risham has experienced.

Her work often weaves in references to colonial histories and has been shown and collected by British institutions as well as internationally in places like Dubai.

Dr Jumabhoy added: “This find just shows how rich Bristol’s own history is with regard to the British Empire and lasting South Asian artistic legacies. It also demonstrates that the History of Art’s newly revamped syllabus is already making an impact on how we can read this past by uncovering hidden gems. Hopefully the stars align and we can feature Risham’s piece in the Swansea ‘Tigers and Dragons’ exhibition.”

Further information

For more information about the Swansea Glynn Vivian Art Gallery ‘Tigers and Dragons’ exhibition, click here: 

For more information about studying History of Art at the University of Bristol, click here: Department of History of Art | Department of History of Art | University of Bristol

For more information about the British Empire & Commonwealth Collection, click here: British Empire & Commonwealth Collection | Bristol Archives (

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