Travelling theories: Shezad Dawood talks paleocontact, Jung and Phoenician traders

By Mark Sheerin | 19 March 2014

British artist Shezad Dawood premieres a startling new film in Marrakech; he talks to Culture24's Mark Sheerin about Blue-skinned Gods, radical anthropology and the history of trade combine

Shezad Dawood. Image courtesy Bureau N
Some 12 years ago, British artist Shezad Dawood visited Legzira Beach in Morocco. The red rocks, golden sands and stunning effects of erosion inspired him at once.

“It started my pulse racing and thinking I'd love to make a film here one day,” he tells me. “And it's so unusual to have a dream fulfilled, when you actually dream of doing that many years ago.”

The resulting 20-minute piece is currently on show at the fifth Marrakech Biennale and is due for a UK premiere at Parasol Unit in April. And it soon becomes apparent that Dawood sees the fabulous beach through the eyes of an avid researcher, rather than a holidaymaker.

“That particular landscape is quite fantastic because Sidi Ifni, where it’s all shot, used to be a Spanish colony and it was a Francoist colony in North Africa,” says Dawood, “So there's all these other back narratives that fit in”.

Shezad Dawood, Towards a Possible Film (2014), installation view© Shezad Dawood
Back narratives are something this artist is very good at fitting in. His new film is the tip of a cultural icerberg which includes theories of paleocontact, Phoenician trade routes, blue-skinned Gods from around the world, the strange case of the coelacanth, quantum mechanics and radical anthropology.

But if that sounds a bit dense, don’t let it put you off. Towards the Possible Film is a dreamlike trip to an alien landscape where cultures collide in a dramatic and none-too-dry fashion. Dawood has made a film first, and an essay second.

Besides, the artist reserves a healthy scepticism about the discoveries he made along the way to this film “There's always a certain chink in the armour of all the theories,” he says, “Or a place where they fall down, but that almost is what interests me”.

“We’re pretty much engaged in the bankruptcy of enlightenment theory,” he adds, “with so many structures falling apart”.

Instead we have the notion that extra-terrestrials made contact with prehistoric man, the idea that Phoenicians sailed from the middle east as far as India and Mexico, an argument that blue skinned Gods represent a Jungian archetype and the hypothesis that different periods of history all co-exist thanks to quantum mechanics.

Dawood also drew inspiration from closer to home. “There's a collection of objects in the British Museum which was assembled by a group of 18th century collectors and, you know, it's a series of statuary from ancient India to Mexico and North Africa.”

And the artist sounds partially convinced that these locations form a “Bermuda Triangle” of world faiths, or a territory that contains “the mythic origins of all human religious belief or aspiration”. What else could connect the blue-skinned pantheon of Osiris in Egypt, Quetzalcoatl in Mexico and Krishna in India?

In Towards the Possible Film, Dawood’s blue-faced visitors come, like Phoenicians, from the sea. The beautiful coastline becomes a site for drama and conflict with indigenous tribespeople. It is a rewriting of world histories in which European explorers have been the ones to bring violence.

“Another reference for me was the quite iconoclastic anthropologist Pierre Clastres,” he says. “Clastres really threw the whole anthropological establishment in the 70s because he came up with this: his major work was called Society against the State.”

Dawood explains that the Frenchman’s book posits that primitive tribes only go to war to resist the formation of nation states and the resulting bureaucracies. So his film is a “replay” and “indigenous people get a second chance to resist the imperialist advance of Columbus' arrival in the new world.”

In Morocco, where our conversation takes place, they are putting colonisation behind them. You can get by with a mixture of French and English, but the government has revived the local Berber dialect and made it an official language.

As a result, Towards the Possible Film plays out with subtitles in Tamazight, along with Arabic and French. “I was quite privileged to work with Dar Al-Ma’mûn. It's an artistic residency, but they also have a literary and translation facility which I worked with more.”

You can see how this erudite visual artist would find himself at home with linguistic details. Forget the blue-skinned gods, for a moment; we should be amazed at the spread of English. Or, since this British work is on show at a Biennale in North Africa, at the spread of our homegrown art.

  • Shezad Dawood, Towards the Possible Film (2014) can be seen at Palais El Badii in Marrakech Biennale 5 until March 31 2014. It premieres in the UK at Parasol Unit, London, on April 4 2014.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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