On the Arabian peninsula, stretching past Marina Mall and overlooking the Abu Dhabi Corniche, is a strange, ingenious phenomenon.
An elaborate replica of a species of coral native to the Gulf is rendered in a bright reddish orange. But when Abu Dhabi warms above 30°C, the coral transitions to white, the shade that corals take on when they die – like a warning system for those above ground.
“It’s thermochromic paint, which means it’s heat sensitive,” Shezad Dawood, the artist behind the project, tells The National. “It gives you a personal experience of human impact on the coral itself. Particularly this one is in such a public space, which people often return to, it acts as an accidental barometer.”
Coral Alchemy (Acropora Grove) (2023) is part of the Manar Abu Dhabi public light art exhibition and will remain in situ until January 30. The work is part of a series of collaborations through which Dawood sheds light on the growing ecological catastrophe under the sea.
“My work is really about making the invisible visible,” he says. “Whether it's about certain periods in architecture and the social history that goes behind them, or the ecology under the surface of the sea.
“There’s a lot more empathy for, say, the Amazon rainforest, because it's a physical space above ground. Whereas I'm really passionate about the oceans, because it's what we can easily overlook.”
Dawood has a practice that is often difficult to wrap one’s head around. When he showed at The Third Line’s booth in the first Art Dubai in 2007, then the DIFC Gulf Art Fair, it was with pop-esque works that responded to his Muslim heritage and mixed background – his mother is Pakistani, his father Indian, and he was born and raised in Britain.
He has since moved away from that overt focus on identity, but the idea of crossing over barriers continues to structure his work, as if he perceives the world as a field of silos that he aims to knock down.
The key threads in his practice are collaboration and crossover. For Coral Alchemy (Acropora Grove), he consulted with scientists to understand and represent coral reef blanching.
In Doha, in a commission tied to the Fifa World Cup, he researched modernist buildings from Qatar and rendered these in small-scale as playground elements, with slides attached and passageways for children to climb through. Another work from his interest in Gulf Modernism is Biosphere (1980), a hand-glazed ceramic depiction of Sharjah’s InterContinental Hotel, which is currently on show in Guest Relations at the Jameel Art Centre.
In another area of his practice, he creates beautiful, sumptuous collages, comprising fabric that was mass-produced in 1970s Pakistan. These are restitched by traditional artisans who make use of offcuts to create blankets and furnishings for their homes.
He also experiments in new fields of technology, creating narratives in VR and working with coders to develop algorithms.
But sitting in his East London studio, on the slightly unfashionable outskirts of Stratford, he seems surprised to think that his practice was particularly expansive.
“I'm using the same thought process, but over radically different media, or I'm using the same media in radically different bodies of research,” he says.
“I'm constantly interested in the world and how it's forming before our eyes – it’s a process of eternal becoming. And I think, also, about how emergent technologies can either be used to reinforce or entrench existing binaries, like nature vs culture. Or could they, in my mind, instead think about how things coalesce? Could they allow scope for reconciling things that seem oppositional but are not?”
Dawood’s latest major body of work, Night in the Garden of Love (2023), engaged with coders to develop an AI-generated algorithm that would determine the growth of different plants. These patterns then grew digitally in response to a series of live improvisational music sessions with collaborators of Yusef Lateef, the African-American musician and composer.
The result is seven video panels in which plant stems grow and alter, as if they are snaking their way through a trippy experience. A circular bench in the centre of the room provides a vantage point, like the centre of a Mughal garden.
“If you think about technology in nature, it has a basis in geometry, as do all Islamic art and gardens,” says Dawood. “It’s like there’s a vector of consonance, and that's really, really exciting.”
The project, which involved co-ordination not only with coders but with Lateef’s family, involved more than a few sleepless nights, Dawood says.
He has a particular knack for creating rods for his own back. His largest and most ambitious work is Leviathan, which was also a major turning point in his career, debuting at the Venice Biennale in 2017. The artist collaborated with the Institute of Marine Research in Venice and the Fortuny textiles factory to produce the video installation and series, which shows how climate change, economic instability and migration are interwoven.
At Venice, he hung textiles depicting items that had fallen to the bottom of the Mediterranean during sea crossings to Lampedusa, which human rights agencies used to help relatives identify victims. Three screens in the space showed the first three episodes of the project, each of which centres on a fictional character in a different locale, blending fictional narrative and documentary footage to create a portrait of a world 20 to 50 years in the future that is crippled by a changing climate.
Bravely, he also committed to making 10 episodes of the project, each of them a major investigation into how the sea is affecting a different community. The 10-episode scale has given Leviathan an unexpected force. The cost and logistics of making each video – Dawood has just finished the eighth – means that Leviathan is not only documenting the scale of the tragedy, but the rapidity of change to scientists’ estimates.
“When I started, some of what the scientists said was deemed speculative,” he explains. “They would say, over a 15 to 20 year timescale, these effects will happen, and at the time the government and media called them alarmist. I've been in the uncanny position of seeing those predictions accelerate and happen even in five years.”
He has had to revise his plans multiple times, as the situation in each location changes before he can finish researching or filming the area. But Leviathan, particularly as it winds its way to the end of the series, becomes less about documentation and returns to the idea of speculation where it began.
Dawood says it collects “methods of surviving the future”, and this huge, unwieldy project, with its list of sponsors and collaborators a mile long, has become a repository of new ideas, as people renegotiate how they live by the sea.
Likewise in Abu Dhabi, the coral specimen, part of the Acropora family that is native to Gulf waters, becomes not just a means of telling the temperature but a distress signal. A nearly living being that cries out for people to think about climate change.
For Dawood, the problem is not just that people don’t want to change but that their means of thinking needs to change first.
“It’s too easy to talk sustainability,” he says. “Sustainability is actually sticking with something that's uncomfortable, triggering or problematic. It requires you to think outside of yourself."