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An interview with Shezad Dawood

June 15, 2012


“The seating was designed to give a sense of weightlessness, and communal experience – perhaps something like riding in a spaceship.” – Photo courtesy author
“The seating was designed to give a sense of weightlessness, and communal experience – perhaps something like riding in a spaceship.” – Photo courtesy author

While Shezad Dawood works across a broad spectrum of media, including interplay of psychedelic images and sound in the New Dream Machine project, he chose film-making as a medium to “negotiate and reflect” the world in his latest exhibition at the the Modern Art Oxford, commissioned by In Certain Places. This, because Dawood says he finds something “immediately social and collaborative” in film-making.

Interestingly, the genre he has chosen is science-fiction in “Piercing Brightness,” a film which is still under production. A young Chinese boy and girl are dispatched on a mission to retrieve the Glorious 100 agents, who were sent to the planet millennia ago to study and observe. The film has been shot in and around Preston.

Piercing Brightness is accompanied by a textile painting shown as part of the Global Threads exhibition, in which Dawood has made good use of ralli as his canvas.

London-based, the work of this 38-year old artist, amply reflects his strong Pakistani roots. Through the lens of popular culture, he searches for identity, religion and culture.

Trained at Central St Martin’s and the Royal College of Art before doing his PhD at Leeds Metropolitan University, Dawood, was one of the winners of the 2011 Abraaj Capital Art Prize. His work has been shown internationally at the 53rd Venice Biennale, Busan Biennale, Dubai, Mumbai, New Delhi, Fribourg, Amsterdam, Sydney and Winnipeg. In the UK, he has had solo and group shows at galleries like Satchi, Whitechapel and Tate Britain.

Here are excerpts from his interview with Zofeen T. Ebrahim for

What was your inspiration in this feature film Piercing Brightness? My films are always concerned with place. In this case, it is the Northern English City of Preston, in Lancashire. I was interested in the city for its various histories of workers uprisings, migration, belief systems: as well as having large Pakistani Muslim and Gujarati Hindu communities, did you know the Mormons trace their origins to Preston?

And is it a sequel to your earlier project New Dream Machine? All my works are a sequel or progression from one to the next, in a loose way. I see them as an ongoing mapping of the world.

What is the idea of the Dream Machine project? I was interested in a particular history of Tangiers in Morocco in the 1960s, where iconic writers and artists of the Beat generation in the US, escaped their repressive government to an equally repressive politics in Morocco, and how the fruits of that encounter related to my own present-day experience of working with artists and writers in and around Tangiers.

And your paintings on textiles like ralli and patchwork, where do they feature in all this? They help me make sense of all the ideas and connections floating around in my head. At one moment they can be a storyboard for a film (I use a lot of layering and montage in my films), and at another, they can be a way of exploring symbols and form.

Why have you chosen films as a medium to articulate your ideas? There is something immediately social and collaborative in film-making that I like as a way of negotiating and reflecting the world.

You have used the technique of montage and lighting – is it to give a sense of time and do both these elements go well with your sci-fi theme? I’m quite interested in time distortion, and perspective – this idea that what we perceive with the naked eye is not all we perceive. I think not just with a sci-fi theme, but that these elements are a key way of unlocking the deeper mystery of perception.

Why this fetish with UFOs and extra terrestrials? Why Lancashire? Why this genre of film? I often think genre is a good way to talk about politics and place. It actually allows people to reveal themselves more in the guise of fiction. There’s something in both film and fantasy that allows us to understand more about our deepest hopes. And by way of factual equivalence Lancashire has one of the highest UFO sighting rates in the UK.

You said there is a smattering of politics, racism, migration, beliefs in your film – can you explain a little more the reason for putting in layers upon layers of conversation in one film?      I guess it goes back to this idea of montage. I like to reflect the world, in all its unexpected nuance. And that’s a more difficult path to tread without overloading your film or your audience, but I think a necessary challenge, given that not just film but contemporary politics too is at the present moment too binary and lacking in any substance.

In both the New Dream Machine and the film, light as well as colour seem to have played a significant role? Please comment. I love the functioning of light, practically, mystically and metaphorically. Whether from Plato to Ibn Arabi, the understanding of light as part of our intellectual and mystical trajectory is a key factor.

And instead of a theatre setting, you made us sit in a circle, white continuous seat, in a room that is white? Does it mean something? I’m very interested in how an audience interacts with the work, and therefore spend a lot of time considering that audience, and how I add to and enrich their experience. The seating was designed to give a sense of weightlessness, and communal experience – perhaps something like riding in a spaceship…

When was the last time you were in Pakistan? Was it for work?   A year ago, to visit my grandmother, and to catch up with one or two artist and curator friends and some of my aunts, uncles and cousins.

Being half Pakistani, what impact has had on your work other than using desi images and rally and appliqué techniques? I like to think of myself as having a few faces onto the world, and therefore not being a prisoner of any of them. My Pakistani side definitely comes with a certain passion and vitality, both in terms of my friendships and in terms of finding ways to make things happen.

What is your take on multiculturalism in the UK? Better than in the rest of Europe. And mercifully much better, at least in London, than it was 20 years ago, when I was growing up and was often attacked by racist thugs.

Belonging to the ethnic minority, how does it affect you and your work? Do people ever let you forget your roots? Do you want to? It’s a silly man who either wholeheartedly accepts or rejects anything, without considering it and transforming it into their own prize.

When does the film finish and where are you exhibiting next? We hope to have the feature film finished in the next few months, in order to get it out to international festivals. And as far as exhibitions, I have a solo show across two public galleries in Cornwall, in the UK this summer: Newlyn Art Gallery and The Exchange. And then a solo show at KINO KINO, Centre for Artists’ Film, in Sandnes, in Norway this November.

Any work that is going to take you to Pakistan? Hopefully the second film in that series will involve shooting in Karachi, all depends on funders and a willingness by different institutions to get behind a project.

The author is a freelance journalist.