Shezad Dawood's Black Sun

Blind spots and gropings for experience: the London radical artist's new book is a blinder

Arts+Culture Q+A
2. TShah, Unfurling I

Black Sun is the title of a new book by artist Shezad Dawood, the London-based artist whose film, painting, and experimental video critiques established notions of identity. It’s a wide-ranging work that’s hinged on the notion of a black sun, a mnemonic tool for the understanding that total light is total darkness, or, the idea that in order to really see the very source of vision, one must simultaneously reckon with crippling blindness. This metaphor is used to describe the production of identity in those groups without a fixed place, including ethnic and racial diasporas, mercenaries of big capital, and – increasingly – everyone that’s plugged into the net.

The tome contains essays and art that deal with the stuff you’d find in the outer-reaches of society: mystical experience, alchemical mysteries, the melancholic and pitiful gropings for meaning and truth. Rather than sticking to art-world and academy jargon, real histories of artists and the dispossessed are explored, as much as the inky abyss of existence. We spoke to him over email about his philosophy and practice. 

Dazed Digital: Black Sun is a philosophical exploration of subaltern identities, diasporas, alternative economics, speculative and science fictions, occult practices, and more. How does the concept of a “black sun” thread these things together?

Shezad Dawood: I was really interested in the symbolism of the Black Sun, and how it translates across various contexts, from representations of Kali worship in India, to alchemical treatises from the Renaissance, and on into Julia Kristeva’s explorations of melancholy.

For me the key idea is somehow tied to our shadow side, i.e. both a personal and collective journey into not just the unconscious of Freudian analysis, but a broader idea of a collective unconscious that permeates ritual behaviors, which might be said to include economics, politics and other speculative fictions that we collectively produce, or perhaps more accurately, ‘externalise’.

The key idea is somehow tied to our shadow side, i.e. both a personal and collective journey into not just the unconscious of Freudian analysis, but a broader idea of a collective unconscious

DD: How did you go about choosing the artists to present and the sp­ecific works that are used?

Shezad Dawood: I was first approached a number of years ago by the Devi Art Foundation in Delhi to curate a project loosely around the theme of diaspora. Overcoming my initial resistance, I became interested in how diaspora, rather than being a specific binary sort of opposition, could be seen as a more nuanced and general condition, one that reflected a lot of the migrations inherent in the various histories of the 20th century that one could trace from any number of geographical starting points.

By this I mean, that if one began in Eastern Europe, the particular trajectories one might follow would be markedly different than if one began in the landmass defined as Greater India. Yet underlying these very different histories, one could propose a set of conditions and economic or religious imperatives that were forcing Jewish people to leave their ancestral homes, or poorer Indians to depart for different horizons. So this movement around (and through) the 20th Century, which only accelerates as we pass into the 21st, became a framework for choosing the artists to present.

Deren suggests a very particular point of departure in Eastern Europe, whereas the rhizomatic installations of Desire Machine Collective take a very European mode of Marxist thinking and apply it to their particular narrative, centred in North-East India – a region that has at best a tense relationship with the centrist ideals of the New Delhi government. So in a sense they are speaking of an internal diaspora, or sense of displacement, rather than an external one like the movement of people across Eastern Europe.

DD: In the first essay, you write that the process of mapping the future inevitably includes stage where we are “cast out into the wilderness, where one’s faith is tested before a final resolution: dystopia, or melancholia, is always a step on the path.” What do you envision as a literal dystopia, and can you tell me about something that has tested (or tests) your own personal faith?

Shezad Dawood: I think to live in the world as it stands at present is a tough call. A particular aspect that I find troubling is the way we all seem concerned with reasserting borders. It is nothing new that economic troubles and injustice are blamed on such ridiculous distractions as immigration, but the fact that it is nothing new is incredibly wearying all the same. And although it is easy to lay the blame with politicians for following an easy route to election victory, it is our choice to respond to such encouragement. As Krishnamurti says:

“Every individual should be free to live fully, completely. As long as one tries to liberate one’s own particular country and not man, there must be racial hatreds, the divisions of people and classes. The problems of man must be solved as a whole, not as confined to countries or peoples.”

A particular aspect that I find troubling is the way we all seem concerned with reasserting borders. It is nothing new that economic troubles and injustice are blamed on such ridiculous distractions as immigration

DD: It seems like dystopian visions dominate the book, including (but not limited to) the failures of language, disarrayed landscapes both real and internal, the wanderings of liminal beings, subjugation of the masses, and existential dread. But there is also attention paid to heterotopias. Can you describe a heterotopia and tell me what are some that exist in the real world?

Shezad Dawood: The concept of heterotopias is one that was beautifully developed by French philosopher Michel Foucault. The basic idea of a heterotopia is that it allows for various opposites or communities to co-exist. By being neither the this of a utopia, nor the that of a dystopia, it helps us think beyond binary frameworks.

I’d go a stage further, and say that a possible prerequisite is to be able to think beyond communities, and to allow various possible approaches to life to exist within the community of which we all form a part. I’d say that London in some aspects, or Auroville in others, fulfills some of the criteria of heterotopias, while I don’t necessarily expect everyone to agree with me on this.

Black Sun: Alchemy, Diaspora and Heterotopia opens at Devi Art Foundation, Delhi on 9 November. Black Sun is published by Ridinghouse and is available to pre-order here.

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