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18 minute read

Shezad Dawood - Encroachments, Exhibition Guide

Shezad Dawood works across creative disciplines to deconstruct image, language, site and narrative. He is strongly influenced by his background — growing up in the UK and Pakistan, his work appropriates ideas from both European and South Asian Modernism.

In Encroachments, Dawood takes a pragmatic and oblique look at the relations between Pakistan and the US since partition in 1947 through a Virtual Reality (VR) environment, contained within an installation comprising neon, textile paintings, wallpaper, sculpture and print. The narrative behind Encroachments is a meditation on ideas of sovereignty, private property and the politics of space in the two largest cities in Pakistan: Lahore and Karachi.

Here, Dawood discusses the exhibition themes with NAE curators, Melanie Kidd and Ritika Biswas.

NAE: The show revolves around the notion of encroachment — be that physical, psychological, political or cultural encroachment. Tell us more about this starting point.

Encroachments , 2019 VR environment, duration variable Co-commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation – SB14, 2019 and New Art Exchange, Nottingham. Generously supported by the Bagri Foundation.

SD: From my experiences in Pakistan and South Asia, I became interested in urban encroachments — the ad-hoc structures and encampments built illegally by lower classes on private and public land. In suburban Karachi, I’ve seen a whole street go up in a week, with tea shops, mobile phone shops, sometimes even people living above. There’s something about that space which I find very creative. I like the sense of acceleration, where non-space becomes space and then can return to non-space again very quickly. That became a nice metaphor to really expand outwards, to think about: if those are encroachments into our conscious mind, what other encroachments — considering the history of Pakistan since partition — can we think of in parallel to this very specific case study of encroachments?

NAE: Which brings us to the Neutra building — a US embassy built in Karachi, downgraded to a consulate due to security concerns, but operating as a US space from the 1960s.

Encroachments , 2019 VR environment, duration variable Co-commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation – SB14, 2019 and New Art Exchange, Nottingham. Generously supported by the Bagri Foundation.

SD: The proposed Neutra embassy in Karachi for me exemplifies the use of encroachments in the contemporary space. When we think about Neutra’s building, there’s a parallel with what were thought to be conspiracy theories around the CIA sponsorship of abstract expressionism. Something we now know to be true through the release of documents as they’ve become declassified. In exactly the same period, the US state department was doing with architecture what the CIA was doing with art, through the Embassy Building Programme. It was a soft power programme particularly directed towards new or emerging third world allies in the post-war period, to step into the vacuum left by a diminished Europe.

NAE: So the US state department sent various architects to diferent places with a message of openness and modernity, veiling the building’s function as propaganda machine?

SD: Yes, and I love this idea of reconsidering the cold war period through a third world prism, because that’s still not analysed enough. We still interpret the cold war as purely a US/Soviet engagement with its extended theatre being largely western and eastern Europe. And I think actually, no, it’s the spectres of the non-aligned movement 1 , the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. All these things play so much into the construct of the present, even in terms of militant Islamist politics. These are really a US politics.

NAE: What opportunity does the medium of VR present to you as an artist as a means of exploring these complex histories and narratives?

Encroachments , 2019 VR environment, duration variable Co-commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation – SB14, 2019 and New Art Exchange, Nottingham. Generously supported by the Bagri Foundation.

SD: I hate being didactic, I like to just open up spaces. There should be a sense of openness for the audience to step into these cross-currents and narratives that you’re presenting without feeling like they have to align with your thinking. This was always a subject of my exhibition design before I even started working with VR and VR’s only extended it. It enhances the ability to step into a notional space, a notional architecture. I’m also interested in how we conserve or archive a space in VR; and how do we make people look again? Because often, a space becomes neutral.

NAE: The first scene in the VR which you chose to archive is the Ferozsons bookstore in Lahore.

SD: Ferozsons had been there since the Raj and it was, before it closed a few years ago, the longest serving Urdu book shop and publishing house in the world. For me it was about creating a memory box of that space, archiving it down to the floor which had been fixed so many times in patches. This amazing patchwork narrative will have become overlooked by its day-to-day users, but I went to great pains to try and recreate it in the VR, as for me, that was the visceral quality of that space.

In the bookshop in my VR, the shelves are not stocked as they would have been in real life. I chose my own subjective archive of my favourite 120 Urdu book covers for their graphic design, from the 1930s to the present. So it’s an entirely subjective choice, pretending to a degree of objectivity. But at the same time, it’s at least framing these books and holding them somewhere. I like this idea of an archive of an archive of an archive; and that although the archive might be what it purports to be, it’s also always something else.

NAE: The VR user exits the bookshop through a secret passageway, and the shop collapses around them into a new space. What was the idea behind this motif?

SD: I wanted to emphasise the sense of ‘the set’. The exhibition itself is already a set, within the gallery, which is a set, which is within NAE — again another set. It’s not real; the minute you’ve stepped into NAE or whichever institution, you are in fantasy land. And what’s the agenda? By questioning the agenda, you actually up your own agency, and for me that’s where art is empowering.

NAE: And can make you think critically? As long as you’re thinking critically, you activate agency?

SD: I think even if you’re thinking playfully. If you think of a trickster methodology, it flips the way you see the world.

NAE: So the VR is partially a constructed space, but one which also activates the audience’s agency to explore and interpret at will.

SD: Exactly, so you can step into the bookshop and you can follow the ghost of a father and daughter, who might lead you round one way, or you can just examine the shelves in detail. And both possibilities are latent. In that way, it’s like a ‘choose your own adventure’; but a kind of more meta ‘choose your own adventure’.

NAE: Once in the 1980s video game arcade the VR user can even play a computer game, and there are also references to gaming through the sculptures, prints and paintings in the show. Tell us more about your arcade experience.

Spacewar! , 2019 Tapestry in teak artist’s frame, 159 x 116 cm Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation – SB14, 2019

SD: In the 1980s living in Karachi, I used to raid my grandmother’s handbag for change and spend it in the arcade. We were all totally addicted to arcade gaming. It was only later I that I realised that as young people, we were being subjected to the same sort of propaganda as the state department were trying to do with the embassy building programme.

A lot has been written about 1950s US sci-fi films as anti- Soviet propaganda and belatedly people started to analyse the video games of the 80s in the same way. Like Defender, Space Invaders — these games are fundamentally about territorial integrity. When you look at similarities in the timeline — in 1977 the CIA back the Zia-ul-Haq coup 2 , in 1979 the Soviets

Folk Tunes of Pakistan on Electric Sitar and Western Instruments , 2019 Screenprint on paper in artist’s frame, 71.8 x 97 cm Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation – SB14, 2019

invade neighbouring Afghanistan, and from here we enter the Reagan years. At the same time these video games are flooding Pakistan. It makes me think of the Gil Scott-Heron song about Ronald the Ray gun, and about the Star Wars moment and the space race. I realised that all us kids in Pakistan back in the day were involved in the space race; we were a US ally. It’s interesting how Pakistan shifts out of the non-aligned movement firmly into the US orbit at that moment, and how the empowering south-south politics of the non-aligned movement start to break down.

NAE: After the arcade, the VR user arrives at the outskirts of the proposed embassy building. There is quite a ghostly and abstract quality to the imagery here.

SD: The proposed embassy was central to me, because I used to go there to read free comic books as a kid; as I’ve mentioned, I was totally instrumentalised by US propaganda. For me the building is quite ephemeral for two reasons. Firstly, it never became what is was intended to be — an embassy. Halfway through construction, the Pakistanis move the capital to Islamabad so the building was downgraded to a consulate before it was even completed.

Secondly, it took me years to get access to the building. When I was eventually shown around, I discovered sections of the building that didn’t ofcially exist. Half of one of the floors didn’t exist on the building plans because it housed the CIA super-computer that was a sending and receiving post during the Soviet invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan. I love that ephemerality. The Neutra Vbuilding slips into the sort of fiction of Sherlock Holmes’s 221B Baker Street or Harry Potter’s hidden 9 3/4 platform at King’s Cross station. The building evokes the space of the liminal fantasy, of the ghost of space and of spectrality. Interestingly, there’s Valso a whole series of ghost stories related to the embassy site.

NAE: The notion of the sacred place, mysticism and the spiritual have featured in your artwork in the past, and whilst less evident in Encroachments, it’s coming into play here?

SD: I’m always wary to overly rely on the spiritual, the esoteric or the occult in my work, but in any consideration of VR it’s already there because VR explores embodiment and disembodiment. My VR work allows you to jump through diferent decades since the founding of Pakistan, through diferent scenes, and through the memory of diferent architectures and places. The VR experience triggers the question: ‘am I here’?

NAE: Tell us about the terrazzo — it features in the VR, but the pattern also engulfs the gallery walls and even the plinth of the One Step Beyond sculpture.

SD: Terrazzo was very prevalent in Pakistan in the period I’m exploring. Considered a new and highend product in the mid-century, it was used on the floors of the consulate, and after Pakistan started producing their own version, it appeared everywhere. In the 80s when I’m playing Defender and Galaxian in a small, tatty, pop-up arcade, I look down at my feet in despair as my spaceship gets blown up, and it’s always this cheap, generic terrazzo that I see in my

Encroachments , 2019 VR environment, duration variable Co-commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation – SB14, 2019 and New Art Exchange, Nottingham. Generously supported by the Bagri Foundation.

mind’s eye. That memory led to the visceral almost uber-presence of terrazzo in the whole exhibition.

I designed the terrazzo you see throughout the exhibition. The designs are hybrids of the fluorescent colour palette of video games and my memories of Pakistani terrazzo. The terrazzo encroaches upon the gallery walls and even emerges as stalagmite-like plinth from the ground in the middle of the space. I wanted to reference the way joining up the dots between personal experience and the larger arcs of history sometimes just erupts in your mind! And then to have a cookie jar-sized ceramic Space Invader daintily stepping of the plinth, was a way to evoke the crazy paranoid humour studying this kind of material too long can unleash.

NAE: Let’s talk more about the notion of VR as a medium that both embodies and disembodies the spectator.

SD: I really sat on the fence about whether I felt VR was something I wanted to engage with for a few years. I’ve worked with immersive film and video for years and a coder friend of mine suggested I needed to work with VR to expand upon the questions I was already asking myself. He got me a VR headset about three years before they went public, so I was really privileged to have the time and space to incubate

Clifton Beach (Digital terrazzo), [black] , 2019 Fabric wallpaper, size variable Co-commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation – SB14, 2019 and New Art Exchange, Nottingham.

and experiment, and to try and break the technology before I decided if VR was for me. I was trying to see if it could be more than a novelty piece of hardware.

It was the ability through VR to juxtapose time points which interested me; that you can slip from the 1980s to the 1950s, to the present, and be ‘in it’. VR has also given me a way to jolt people free of our skins, because actually, what we inhabit is ephemeral and temporary. And that becomes fascinating; it starts to get to the existential heart of why we do anything, or make anything, or say anything. Then I was like, ‘OK, there’s a potential power in here that maybe no other medium can do.’

NAE: And speaking more to the musical or sonic aspect of your work, there’s an incredible soundtrack which changes as the user navigates the VR.

SD: Music is always a really important part of any of my film or VR works. I’m a huge lover of diferent musical histories, particularly experimental and improv. For Encroachments, I was really interested in the very brief beat-band period in Pakistan, from the late 60s to the early 70s. The bands were a sort of Muslim/Christian mix which fascinated me and reflected a much more mixed-up culture in an earlier phase in Pakistan’s history. This was a time when people were hanging out, playing music

Encroachments I (Jinnah) , 2018 Acrylic and mixed media on canvas 139 x 119 cm

Encroachments II (Peace Air Drop) , 2018 Acrylic and mixed media on canvas 139 x 119 cm

together — a very diferent idea of Pakistan to its current media image. This was a decade of war, but it was supposedly wild — a swinging Karachi. You had bands like the Fore Thoughts, the Panthers, the Ayjays and they were mixing Indian raga scores with psychedelic west coast sounds with the production values of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson. They would typically play at the Metropole Hotel, which had a club night where girls would dance in hotpants.

Interestingly, in VR, you can spatially locate music, so working in VR made me aware of the limitations of film. VR enables the user to trigger sound depending on where they step and I can use sound to pull them in a diferent direction — users will traverse the digital and physical space to hear the sound more clearly. VR enables you to almost choreograph the viewer in a way that they might remain unconscious of.

NAE: The inclusion of painting in the show is an interesting contrast to the high-tech nature of the VR.

SD: Generally, when I work on a body of work, it’s around a theme and it just sort of expands into whichever media feels right. These four paintings are called Encroachments l—IV, based on the order I did them.

Each has a terrazzo backdrop set against other graphic motifs. I’m interested in the picture plane and the push-pull of elements. In painting I there is a refence to contemporary waxed fabric that I

Encroachments III (Defender) , 2018 Acrylic and mixed media on canvas 139 x 119 cm

Encroachments IV (Terrazzo) , 2018 Acrylic and mixed media on canvas 139 x 119 cm

got in a market in Lahore and the classic Defender box video game console. The ubiquitous Jinnah 3 portrait hangs above it — every video game arcade I ever played in had a portrait of Jinnah on the wall. Painting II reveals a section of the Neutra consulate including the cantilevered storage areas, which are quite iconic. The subtitle is Peace Drop. During the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan was bombarded with propaganda airdrops by both the US and the Soviet Union, promoting peace and brotherhood — obviously one from a more communist ideal and one from a more capitalist ideal.

NAE: The paintings appear to become more abstract as the series progresses.

SD: Yes, in painting III the Defender console boxes are there, but starting to disappear. There is an image of the Afghan Mujahideen 4 fighting against the Soviets, which is warped and becoming harder to read. I’m playfully depicting the staging ground for the cold war — fighting the Soviets literally on the ground, or metaphorically in the safety of a video game arcade. All against a crumbling terrazzo backdrop. In painting IV the figurative elements disappear almost completely. There is the barest hint of a video game console and various fabric elements, all falling into the terrazzo and into abstraction.

NAE: Finally, the show also includes a brightly painted sculpture of the American Center — part of Neutra’s proposed embassy building — and a Space

Invading monster has apparently emerged from the arcade into the gallery and taken the form of a ceramic and a neon sculpture.

The American Center , 2019 Resin and polychromatic paint, 40.5 x 48 x 44.5

SD: The American Center was the cultural outreach section of the Consulate, functioning something like The British Council or the Goethe Institut, to promote US culture and dialogue. It was the American Center where I would go to access free American comic books as a kid, so that ‘section’ of the building, and its separate side entrance loom large in my memory. From an architectural standpoint it is also one of my favourite sections of the building, because of its grid-like windows, and the pool in front of it, which Neutra designed in deference to Islamic culture and architecture. Where the building functions for me both as a physical structure and a allegorical construct, the design of the a character is more replete with Cold War fear of the other, and therefore exists almost entirely as a shadow archetype — a kind of ‘boogeyman’. I like this idea of it morphing into physical form, via the spectral medium of neon, and then into the more diminutive and artisanal re-edit in ceramic. This play of scales across the sculptures and neon, is quite important for me, again in opening

up the agency of both the artist and the viewer to reorder and reframe the narrative both in the gallery and once they have left, it’s about both a space of empowerment and of play.

To expand on my use of neon, I like neon as a way of addressing that space that exists at the corner of your eyes — where things hover between reality and fiction, between the earthly and the more metaphysical. It’s where a lot of my best work comes from.

1. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) began in 1961 as an international organisation (group of countries) who did not want to be ofcially aligned with or against any major power bloc countries. NAM believed that developing countries should not help the Western or Eastern blocs in the Cold War, should not be capitalist or communist, and should govern their countries independently without influence from the main capitalist powers nor the major socialist states.

2. In 1977, through a military coup, Pakistan Chief of Army Staf, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, overthrew the government of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The period following the coup saw the “Islamisation of Pakistan” and Pakistan’s involvement with the Afghan Mujahideen (funded by US and Saudi Arabia) in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

3. Muhammad Ali Jinnah was the founder and first GovernorGeneral of Pakistan. He died aged 71 in September 1948, just over a year after Pakistan gained independence from the United Kingdom, leaving a legacy of deep-felt respect.

4. Insurgent groups known collectively as the Mujahideen fought a guerrilla war against the Soviet Army and the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan government, during the Soviet-Afghan War (1979—1989). The Mujahideen were backed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.

Encroachments is co-commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation for SB14, 2019 and New Art Exchange, Nottingham. Generously supported by the Bagri Foundation. Special thanks to Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai, Timothy Taylor, London, EMI Pakistan, Umeed Ansari, Ahsan Sajjad, Fasahat Syed, Iftikhar Dadi, Dion Neutra, Barbara Lamprecht, Sonya Rehman and Arif Belgaumi.

NAE is supported by:

ISBN 978-1-9993651-6-5

Produced by New Art Exchange on the occasion of the exhibition, Encroachments by Shezad Dawood, 18 January — 15 March 2020

Text developed from interviews conducted at NAE and Dawood’s studios between July and November 2019.

www.nae.org.uk info@nae.org.uk 0115 9248630

16 Clifton Beach (Digital terrazzo), [white] 2019 Fabric wallpaper Size variable Co-commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation — SB14, 2019 and New Art Exchange, Nottingham.