The art of conversation: Faris Badwan's phone call-inspired paintings

A chat with the artist turns into an exploration of the subconscious mind

What does a conversation look like?

My hour-long chat with artist and musician Faris Badwan touches on the creative process, past relationships and perceptions of Dubai. We delve into the inexplicable nature of human connections, the role of the subconscious and how we have both been affected by the pandemic. And all the while, he paints.

Badwan has spent the past year working on a project called Call and Response. The resultant artworks were presented in an exhibition at Dubai’s Masterpiece Fine Art gallery last month, as part of Badwan’s first showcase outside of Europe.

Born in the midst of extended lockdowns in his native UK, the body of work hones in on the freestyle, subconscious expressions of creativity that emerge when the brain is engaged in something else, such as a phone call.

“I’ve always been interested in the looseness and natural feeling of the drawings you make when you’re on the phone – when your mind is completely clear and you are having a conversation, but meanwhile, your hand is engaged in some parallel dialogue,” he explains.

Handout of Faris Badwan of The Horrors. Courtesy of the qode *** Local Caption ***  RoryGSJcolourFaris copy.jpg

Badwan, who is also the lead vocalist of alternative rock band The Horrors, found himself reaching out to friends and acquaintances, but also to people he didn’t really know or had met online. While talking to them on the phone, he would paint, creating abstract works that would map the ebb and flow of each conversation.

“I didn’t want a literal representation of the conversation on paper because that wouldn’t be coming from that hypnotic, completely meditative place. I wanted it to be natural and loose and coming from the subconscious.

"But what I find really interesting is that parts of the conversation would make their way into the pictures, but often in a less literal way than you would expect,” says Badwan, who is half English and half Palestinian.

Each piece is a reflection of the artist – influenced by his thoughts, feelings and even mood on any given day – as well as the person he is speaking to and what is being said. They are intrinsically of their time, since so many of us yearned for human connection during the pandemic and relied so heavily on our phones to interact with others.

The conversations are never stage-managed; Badwan lets them flow naturally and thrives on not really knowing where they might end up. “I value uncertainty,” he says. “I feel like I am at my creative best when I am reacting to something, rather than directing it.”

And once the conversation is finished, the piece is done. Badwan will not disrupt the purity of the work by revisiting or polishing it.

Sometimes the conversations are awkward or stilted, sometimes they are heated, sometimes superficial, but largely not. But does he ever just end up talking about the weather?

“I don’t spend a lot of my life talking about the weather,” he retorts. “The conversations do often end up being quite deep, but obviously it’s a two-way thing and some people just aren’t willing to engage on that level. I have to rein in that part of myself sometimes, because people just don’t want it.”

And is silence good or bad, I ask, when, at one point, our conversation falls into a natural lull. “Silence is just silence,” he responds.

Luckily, he likes talking to people, particularly those he doesn’t know. “I am interested in what motivates people and what excites them and drives them. Even if I don’t identify with them personally.”

He says that if he hadn’t pursued art and music, he would have liked to go into psychotherapy, and it is notable that he has found a way to integrate his fascination with the human brain into his work.

Call and Response has morphed into an exploration of human connections – how people engage and interact and how that experience, coupled with external factors such as location, are processed by the subconscious mind.

“It began as trying to find that loose hypnotic place that I’ve always loved, and then it has all these other aspects to it because of the circumstances,” Badwan says.

To coincide with the Dubai exhibition, Badwan spent a month in the emirate and found that this change of setting also influenced his output.

“Since being in Dubai, the work has changed. It’s becoming so much more structural, probably because I am fascinated by the architecture here. When I look at the work I’ve done in Dubai, it looks like code or networks. I didn’t really foresee that.”

I receive the artwork that Badwan created during our call a couple of weeks later. It is full, colourful and expressive. I try to play back our conversation and track it on the page. Because somewhere in among the vibrant symbols, sweeps and smudges, is me, or at least a version of me, filtered through Badwan’s subconscious mind.

Updated: November 12th 2021, 12:02 PM