Paper Money

Folded notes become both garments and art in exhibit

Abdullah M.I. Syed used Federal Reserve notes to create this piece of art, “Moneyscape I,” in an exhibition called “OK Democracy, We Need to Talk,” at a museum near Sydney.

Image courtesy of Abdullah M.I. Syed.

It’s one thing to speak of the engravings on bank notes as the pieces of art that they are. It’s something else entirely when the printed money becomes the art. 

That is what happens in one of 12 newly commissioned works in an exhibition at the Campbelltown Arts Centre, a museum near Sydney. It is called “OK Democracy, We Need to Talk,” described by the museum as exploration of how artists negotiate, examine, maintain and define democracy via themes of identity politics, environmental politics, political structures, economies of labor, currency, and nationalism. 

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An explanation of what paper money art has to do with that subject is best left to the artist, Abdullah Syed, a conceptual artist and designer of Pakistani origin, who works between Sydney, Karachi and New York. Syed told the Sydney Morning Herald that when he was growing up in Karachi, his father worked for an airline and would sometimes bring home notes of other nations, strange to him, that stoked his imagination. 

“To me, they represented an introduction to a country. I always looked at the leader printed on the back and was told ‘This is Big Ben, this is Mount Fuji’ and one day I would go there,” he said. This eventually led to an interest in the intersection of money and power. 

His works at the museum are called “Capital Couture.” They are garments made from real currency, created in the style of clothing worn by leaders of the countries where the bank notes are made. He says that the art is intended to reflect “the power invested in these individuals, immortalized forever in their respective currency.” Fashion, he claims, has always worked parallel to politics and culture, and the clothes worn by political leaders have always helped them telegraph messages about power.

Foremost among the art shown is a rendition of a military coat of the style worn by George Washington, made entirely from hand-folded current $1 Federal Reserve notes, with seams put together with staples. From the artist’s birthplace is a sherwani, a knee-length garment of the type worn by Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, made from Pakistani rupees. Finally, there is there’s Mao Zedong’s iconic Mao jacket, made out of bank notes showing Chinese mountains.

The artist’s website features a few other of his monetary art efforts. Two of his other artworks, Moneyscape I (2014) and II (2016), are from his “Imaginary Landscapes” series. They use U.S. paper money as a base for elements taken from Chinese and Japanese currency. They are intended to show the coexistence between different cultures, traditions, and systems, and how the different systems exert influence upon each other.

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