Syed uses painting, as well as other mediums, to explore questions of history, sociology, and politics.
Syed's use of fabric, embroidery, found objects, domestic ornaments and 19th century furniture, along with her painting, speaks about her connection with the personal, as well as historical, weaving in history with the present moment. Her multimedia works reference historical and political shifts in education, architecture and gender roles, exploring Pakistan's cultural inheritance, collective memory and colonial history.
While visiting Manchester City Art Gallery she saw George Stubbs' Cheetah and Stag with Two Indians. She immediately recognised the painting from a reproduction of the work at her grandfather's house in Lahore. The painting by Stubbs depicts "the first cheetah brought to Britain" from India as a gift, which "took part in a stag hunt at Windsor Great Park……The stag hunt is said to have descended into farce when the skittish cheetah ran away and had to be rescued by its Indian handlers". Syed deconstructs the painting in her work bearing the same title. But the selection of this picture connected to her childhood memory has another justification. The "stag repulsed two attempts and then took to the offensive, chasing the cheetah". The image besides depicting an event can also be read as the symbol of Indian defeat against the colonial power.
In her exquisite postcard sized paintings, she shows the ever-changing urban landscape of her home city of Lahore. Instead of idealised postcard images for tourists, Syed depicts the construction work which transforms her home city. The recently built houses in Lahore's new residential quarters have perfectly finished facades but unfinished back walls. She reveals these darker, neglected areas which are not for public view. Her work is a reflection on how the city is changing its physical appearance as an outcome of social and economic transformation as well as change in perception.
Risham Syed is currently head of the Department of Visual Art and Associate Professor at the School of Visual Arts and Design at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore, Pakistan. Her work has been shown in the ABRAAJ Capital Art Prize Dubai, Asia Pacific Triennial Brisbane, Hangzhou Triennial of Fibre Art China, Mohatta Palace Museum Karachi, National Gallery of Art Islamabad, Barbican Centre London, and the Fukuoka Triennial Japan. Most recently a solo exhibition of her work was included in Beyond Borders at Manchester Art Gallery and Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester 2017-18.