We speak to London-based artist Shezad Dawood, who recently showed his playful, multimedia work at Lahore’s historic Pak Tea House as part of the Lahore Biennale.
Dawood works across film, painting and sculpture to juxtapose discrete systems of image, language, site and narrative, using the editing process as a method to explore meanings and forms between film and painting. His practice often involves collaboration, working with groups and individuals across different territories to physically and conceptually map far-reaching lines of enquiry.
Tell us about Lahore. How did you fare in our city?
Shezad Dawood: I know Lahore reasonably well, but I think I was surprised by the engagement and enthusiasm around the Biennale amongst more general audiences. Then there was the warmth and generosity of so many friends. I always feel so welcomed and looked after, and really enjoy the many conversations I share with other artists in Lahore.
On this trip, I stayed at the State Guesthouse, which was a very special experience. Colonial ghosts and having my breakfast brought to me! I also really enjoyed the conversations and support of my team installing with me at Pak Tea House, led by an amazing young artist called Mahzaib Baloch.
Highlight of the Lahore Biennale for you? (Assuming you got a chance to see other works!)
SD: It was pretty busy getting everything finished and up and running, but I really enjoyed Barbara Walker’s site-specific large-scale charcoal drawings at the old Tollinton Market, that depict Commonwealth soldiers in the First World War. And Khalil Rabah’s ‘Common Geographies’ – embroidered patchwork maps that explore reconciliation and territory, as part of his ongoing project ‘The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind’, at Punjab University.
They say that art can change the world. What are your views on activist art?
SD: I don’t think you’re an artist unless you get out of bed in the morning wanting to change the world. It’s about seeing the world differently and all the possibilities that brings with it.
Tell us a bit about your work that was displayed at the Pak Tea House as part of the Biennale. Does the artist get to choose the place of display?
SD: Yes, when Pak Tea House was initially discussed as a possible venue, I jumped on it. I really wanted to create an installation that co-existed with the daily operations of the tea house! And for that to work the installation really had to merge with the Tea House. If you go upstairs, there is a thin strip of terrazzo wallpaper around the walls (my own reinterpretation of the ‘chips’ flooring that has been popular in Pakistan since the 50s, but transposed to the wall rather than the floor).
On this strip as you walk around the upper floor at Pak Tea House, you will see 10 small paintings in oil and acrylic that rework my 10 favourite Urdu book covers of the 20th Century, which is a nod to Pak Tea House being the literary salon of Lahore for so many years. And it also makes a connection to the old Ferozsons book store which used to be nearby on Mall Road.
The old Ferozsons is the first scene in a virtual reality experience at the end of the top floor, that takes you on a journey of key environments in Pakistan’s history during the Cold War and beyond, and there are guides there who have been trained to take visitors through the experience and its attendant histories. In a final touch, on a screen in the middle of the floor, regular customers of the Tea House can see what the person in VR is seeing…
Do you have a favourite medium to work with?
SD: I like working between media, as my favourite medium is my dialogue with the audience. So it is really about creating a constellation of objects, so they can start to tell their own stories within that constellation. I like working in that more democratic way, where each medium is a way of sparking a conversation. I guess I love painting, but I also like the adrenaline of working on film, with the tight deadlines and large carnivals of people set in motion.
How does satirical work get taken seriously?
SD: Good satire is always deadly serious. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 play, ‘The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui’, in light of the rise of right-wing populism and strongmen leaders in the world, despite all the lessons we should have learnt from the last century.
What are your top three favourite works of art?
SD: Uccelo’s ‘Battle of San Romano’. I’m lucky to be based in London where one of the panels lives, so I make a regular pilgrimage to see it, and its vertiginous geometry.
Eileen Gray’s ‘E-1027’, the house she conceived for herself and her lover Jean Badovici at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin is for me the pinnacle of living space as art. And finally the collected tales of ‘The Arabian Nights’, which for me is a guidebook to how narrative itself works and makes the world.
You just got back from Dhaka. How does an artist manage the global nature of his work nowadays?
SD: You have to be continually open-minded, and actively engaged in learning from new contexts and audiences. Obviously the travel is problematic, so while trying to limit this you are also pushed to actively work towards new methodologies for collaboration and hybridity, and common languages to make it all worthwhile.
Traditional masters or contemporary conmen?
SD: There are contemporary masters and historical conmen too. It has to be taken on a case by case basis on the substance, depth and mastery of any particular work.
Your familial history is quite a blend. What do you have to say about the themes of amalgamation and cultural jumble in your work?
SD: I’m quite a proud mongrel, based not only on my origins but also the contexts in which I work and research. I think in that way I’m quite an optimist, often looking for new ways of thinking through contact and discussions in different contexts and geographies.
Do you have any advice for artists with similar multi-cultural parentage?
SD: Yes, it’s a unique position to be able to speak between languages and cultures, and in this more nationalistic time our voices become more important than ever in providing a counter-narrative to the easy and a territorial language we’re seeing proliferate in multiple countries. So there is a responsibility that goes with that.