View of “Shezad Dawood,” 2021. Works from the series “University of NonDualism,” 2019–20.

View of “Shezad Dawood,” 2021. Works from the series “University of NonDualism,” 2019–20.

Shezad Dawood

On a humid December afternoon, I encountered a group of schoolchildren taking turns wearing a virtual-reality headset. Each of them slowly and distinctly moved their hands in space, attempting to touch what they saw. The phantasmic experience evoked amused laughter from the group of visitors to Shezad Dawood’s exhibition “House in a Garden,” in which VR became a loaded metaphor through which to examine ideas of sovereignty, soft diplomacy, and the politics of space. In his VR piece Encroachments, 2019, references gleaned from his time as a boy in Pakistan—arcade parlors in Karachi and anti-Soviet US propaganda games such as Space Invaders—served to introduce us to the larger politics of US/Pakistan relations, a third-world perspective on the Cold War, and the aspirations and failures of the nonaligned movement.

The work also laments loss and change. Set to a monophonic score, the very first part of Encroachments features a re-creation of the original Ferozsons bookstore in Lahore. Possibly the oldest bookshop in Pakistan and a leading publisher of Urdu books, the iconic branch of the chain closed permanently in 2017. Looking up from the detailed, patched tile work, one sees the shelves sparingly stocked with Urdu books, the earliest from the 1930s. Each was picked by Dawood for its graphic design. In instances such as these, the artist moves away from accuracy in favor of more subjective recollections. At the same time, several elements from virtual reality spill out into the physical gallery space. For instance, on the adjacent wall a group of small paintings in oil and acrylic (Dispossessed, Life Is Elsewhere, and The Crying Book, all 2021, among others) reproduced the covers of Urdu-language books.

Central to the VR experience is Richard Neutra’s only building in South Asia, the ill-fated American Embassy in Karachi. It was conceived as part of an embassy-building program through which the US aimed to initiate friendships and develop allies in the third world in the postwar period. As a child, Dawood visited the embassy (later reclassified as a consulate when the capital city was moved to Islamabad) to read American comics. In Neutral Density, 2018, Dawood has painted the imposing arches of the warehouse section of Neutra’s structure—intended to house relief goods—in acrylic, oil, and textile collage on denim. This fabric—colored with indigo, a natural dye originating in South Asia—is one of the largest exports from the region today, and was considered synonymous with the American spirit during the Cold War, when blue jeans were a symbol of freedom.

Suspended theatrically from the ceiling at varying angles in the adjoining gallery were textiles from the “University of NonDualism” series, 2019–20. In the space between works, one could see through the gallery windows to the monumental arch of the colonial-era Gateway of India in the distance. The works’ imagery is based on architect Muzharul Islam’s plans for a modern Bangladesh—in essence, an architecture of decolonization.

Dawood’s belief that textiles, like architecture, harbor political and cultural histories in their making becomes evident in his use of the textile kantha, or patched cloth, which is produced by stitching scraps of discarded fabric over one another. Circulation, Context, Overhangs, Situated Architecture, and Solid and Voids, all 2020, depict various imposing 1960s buildings from Islam’s Chittagong University—an ensemble intended as architecture for the future—executed in pared-down, geometric forms painted in acrylic. On the flip side, you could see the layered patches of kantha, ubiquitous in eastern India and Bangladesh—its diverse stitched patches capturing other histories of labor, identity, and creation.