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Shezad Dawood’s conceptual work is gaining increasing attention on the international stage.
Shezad Dawood’s conceptual work is gaining increasing attention on the international stage.

Conceptual attempt to bridge East-West divide

Shezad Dawood's work explores issues of ethnicity and cultural identity. It's also steeped in contemporary politics and the cultural zeitgeist. But is it art?

Shezad Dawood's work explores issues of ethnicity and cultural identity. It's also steeped in contemporary politics and the cultural zeitgeist. But is it art?

The judges of the US$1 million (Dh3.67 million) Abraaj Capital art prize certainly think so, and Dawood is one of five winners of this year's competition, the world's most lucrative art prize, open to artists from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia region and awarded on the basis of proposals rather than finished works.

Dawood, 36, is a British artist of Indo-Pakistani descent. His work is heavily conceptual, giving overriding weight to the ideas involved; the artistry seems to lie both in the birth of those ideas and in the craft or guile involved in their conception.

The work on display at the Traffic Gallery comes from his series of neon-lit Quranic verses.

Dawood commissioned manufacturers to produce a series of blown-glass lights, spelling out in Arabic some of the 99 names of God.

These are set amid bushes of tumbleweed, imported from Kansas in the US Midwest, with the ensemble encased in a glass box.

The tumbleweed works as a metaphor for the Wild West, for the desert wastes of the Deep South.

The series points up the perceived similarities in desert cultures - those of the Bedouin nomadic tribes, and of the colonial settlers of the southern US borderlands. It foregrounds the irony that both cultures came into being amid similarly extreme conditions, given the prevailing enmity so rife today between those regions' political extremes. Their juxtaposition comes as an attempt to negotiate the divide between East and West, reconciling the occasionally diametrically opposed politics of those regions - by finding similarities between the cultures.

"The series was a response to the 'clash of civilisations' rhetoric that came out of world media post-9/11, and became the prevailing attitude," says Dawood. "It was a very dangerous set of soundbites, and very reductive.

"I was attempting to map out those worlds, and to resolve the binaries. The works were an attempt to traverse East and West, finding the similarities rather than differences. The mythology of the Old West, the frontier culture - with posters- like Wanted; Dead or Alive - isn't too different from the Arabian desert, though there's a tension between cultures."

It's certainly a compelling observation. The harsh ecological conditions in which these cultures came into being certainly influenced the ways of life which are to some extent functions of geography. It's also provocative.

"The question was how to visualise these ideas in a more abstract way," he says. "I didn't want to be too literal. In the end, it was an intuitive moment - a lightbulb moment, where intuition takes over and resolves it for you in a formal, aesthetic way."

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