Unraveling Complexity: an Interview with Shezad Dawood

by Mara Sartore
September 21, 2018
Mara Sartore
Dawood Shezad

On the occasion of Frieze and our digital issue on the art week, we’ve interviewed London based artist Shezad Dawood to learn more about his practice, recent and upcoming projects.

Mara Sartore: Your artistic practice involves the use of various media. You work across film, painting and sculpture to explore multiple narratives, such as migration, climate change and environmental issues. Could you tell us something about this multi-layered approach?

Shezad Dawood: My projects are about unravelling complex histories and issues, so I often think that it requires more than one approach or medium to make a suitable, respectful or poetic response. I like to think of my use of painting in relation to film, as parallel ways to think about the editing process, and allow me to create space in an exhibition, where people can start to explore a complex topic without being assaulted with a simple black-and-white response. 

M.S.: Last year you presented the ten-part film cycle Leviathan at Palazzina Canonica and Fortuny Factory for the occasion of the Venice Biennale and the project is travelling to various cities until 2020. In this project you explore notions of marine welfare, migration, mental health and their possible interconnections. How did you translate these concepts into your multidisciplinary practice?

S.D.: The simple answer (after a couple of years of research and conversations) is that I used painting to talk about the present; sculpture to talk about the past; and film to envision the future. The paintings on hanging Fortuny textiles (the Fortuny Factory was one of three key partners in Venice, alongside ISMAR – the Italian Institute of Marine Sciences and the Fondazione Querini Stampalia), depict objects lost at sea by migrants and refugees attempting to make the Lampedusa crossing. The sculptural works looked at some of our foundational myths of the sea and how they interact with political and symbolic systems, as in for example Thomas Hobbes’ work “Leviathan” on statecraft. And the continuum of stories around the subject of the whale that exist from the Torah to “Moby Dick”. Whereas the films are based on my own fictional imagination of the future 20-50 years from now, but informed by a number of conversations with oceanographers, activists, journalists and mental health specialists.

M.S.: You are currently exhibiting in two major shows in Korea: the 12th Gwangju Biennale and the group exhibition “Delfina in SongEun: Power play” curated by Aaron Cezar and on view at SongEun ArtSpace. Could you tell us about this experience in Korea? How long have you been working on these exhibitions and how was the collaboration with the curators?

S.D.: Well the film shown at SongEun, “Towards the Possible Film” (2014), was originally co-commissioned by Delfina Foundation, so it was a project I’d spent many years developing with Aaron (and also with Steven Bode from Film and Video Umbrella), so in a way Aaron was exhibiting a work he knew intimately, and I am glad he is still as passionate about it 4 years after it was initially finished – that’s flattering for an artist. And for Gwangju, it was the first time that Clara Kim and I had worked together, but the project came out of many studio visits and conversations around her interest in artists’ responses to the utopian aspirations of non-western modernist architecture. I thought her exhibition “Imagined Nations/Modern Utopias” at Gwangju (coming as it did out of sustained inquiry of hers) was so well-considered and tight, I was proud to be part of it, and exhibiting alongside artists whose practices I respect, some of whom are old friends, with whom I share a number of interests. I really would like to see the show tour, and alter as it moves. But in any case I really enjoy working with Clara and hope to do so again – she really gives artists the room to do what they do best, while having a keen eye on the superstructure. 

M.S.: You live and work in London where you have your own studio. Does your varied cultural heritage influence your relationship to the melting pot that is London? Does the city itself inspire your work?

S.D.: Although I’ve lived in many places, I was born in London and always return here. I love its history of filth and esoterica as well as its contemporary amorphous quality – which a lot of cities have, but London does seem to allow a greater degree of freedom and self-expression than elsewhere. Although it must be remembered that this tolerance and cosmopolitanism was born out of the more ubiquitous racism and intolerance of previous generations, and the work of many to overcome and transcend this.

M.S.: My Art Guides likes to recommend to its readers unique places to visit in each destination, not necessarily connected to contemporary art, in your opinion, what are the absolutely unmissable places, landmarks and spots in London? And could you recommend something that shouldn’t be missed during the art week?

S.D.: I’ve had studios all over east London, but one of my favourite spots was on Tabernacle Street, as it was just around the corner from Bunhill Fields (originally Bonehill Fields), the Non-conformist burial ground that was in use from 1665-1854. John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe and William Blake are all buried here, and I used to love taking a break from the studio on a sunny day to read a book on one of the benches. I also recommend the free tours of Freemasons’ Hall, the centre of English Freemasonry for 230 years that begin in the Library and Museum and finish, appropriately, in the Grand Hall, which is a marvel. 

M.S.: Any upcoming project we could look forward to see?

S.D.: In November I have a solo exhibition opening at my Dutch gallery HE.RO in Amsterdam, in parallel with a solo exhibition at non-commercial institution A Tale of a Tub, in Rotterdam, both extending and expanding the “Leviathan” project, to look at new ways in which commercial galleries and public institutions can work together, including supporting commissioning, public engagement and collaboration. And also in November I will be presenting a new Virtual Reality work as part of a solo installation at the West Bund Art & Design fair in Shanghai, curated by Art Review and presented by my London gallery Timothy Taylor.  Currently you can view “Kalimpong”, my first Virtual Reality art work at Brown’s East until 31st October. And “Leviathan” will be travelling to Bluecoat in Liverpool, and MOCA Toronto next year.  

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