9 min read

Finding the human amid the wreckage of migration

Personal objects recovered from ocean depths tell a story of modern and ancient migrations. Jonathan Evens reviews Shezad Dawood’s multimedia Leviathan exhibition at Salisbury Cathedral

Jonathan Evens is Team Rector for Wickford and Runwell and Area Dean of Basildon. He is co-author of The Secret Chord, and writes regularly on the visual arts and The Arts more generally.

A bronze sculpture of a small boat and sea monster tossed in the waves.
Where do we go now?, Shezad Dawood.
Photo: Finnbarr Webster.

Hung in the central aisle of Salisbury Cathedral and reflected in the still water of William Pye’s cruciform font are a series of textile paintings by Shezad Dawood depicting objects recovered from the seabed of the Mediterranean.  

Led by Professor Cristina Cattaneo, a team of forensic anthropologists from the Laboratory of Anthropological Forensics (LABANOF at the University of Milan go out with UN rescue teams when ships have sunk or capsized on the journey to Lampedusa and recover the objects and artifacts (as well as human remains). They do so, to create an archive whereby relatives can track missing family members. Unlike wars and natural disasters, there is no established protocol to deal with immigration deaths but, by its interventions, LABANOF is helping to potentially bring a protocol into being. 

As seen at Salisbury, Dawood’s Labanof Cycle ranges from a pinch of earth wrapped in a twist of cling film to a passport and a faded photograph. Each of these textile paintings document a life and a journey in tribute both to lives lost and those that were saved. 

Dawood became aware of the work of LABANOF through an article in the New York Times and reached out to them while preparing for an exhibition to coincide with the 57th Venice Biennale. As a result, he met with Cattaneo in Milan and she generously gave access to the archive. Dawood recalls:  

“It was a shock to actually be confronted with those objects and be in the room with them. I really wrestled with whether it was appropriate to make work in response to those materials. One of the things that decided it for me, when I went away and sat with it, those objects made all of those lives so apparent to me and that was the shock. It transformed refugees and migrants from a statistical basis to something very human. The fact that I was crying looking at the material was what was important in bringing the humanity back to our fellow humans. There’s something very sad, and almost industrial, about viewing our fellows through the prism of statistics and othering them or demonising them as somehow threatening.” 

Kenneth Padley, Canon Treasurer and Chair of the Cathedral’s Arts Advisory makes connections between these works and the themes and stories of Advent and Christmas, saying:  

“This exhibition is a timely reminder, amid the anticipation and excitement of Advent and Christmas, that Jesus and his family were refugees and were being persecuted.” In these seasons, we recall the vulnerability of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, forced by political order to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem and then by fear of King Herod from Bethlehem to Egypt."

“None of us straightforwardly belong anywhere, however long our forebears have sojourned there, and none of us abide long on this earth”.

Sam Wells

Sam Wells, Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, has noted that we are all “strangers and pilgrims on earth”, and that “God is the one who comes to us like one unknown” being “in the world, but the world received him not”. He suggests that it is by the way we receive this challenge, that “the Christian community demonstrates who we realise we are and who we believe God is”. 

More than this, he argues that the Bible itself is founded on six journeys, all of which have a bearing on themes of migration: “Jacob and his entourage migrate to Egypt in the midst of famine. This is an economic migration, but really it’s a journey of survival. Moses and the children of Israel migrate from Egypt to the Promised Land. They leave as refugees to flee slavery. They take 40 years to reach their destination, and, when they get there, they face a very hostile environment indeed. Judah loses a battle and is displaced 500 miles to Babylon. There, as Daniel shows, exiles play a vibrant role in public life, and bring unique qualities, represented by the ability to interpret dreams. Jesus travels from Galilee to Jerusalem. He’s living during the occupation by an invading power, Rome. Finally, Paul migrates from Jerusalem to Rome. He’s searching for legal protection in an empire where citizenship transcends geography.” 

His conclusion is that “most of what we’d today call migration is in the Bible, and it’s through migration, not in spite of it, that revelation occurs”. As a result, we don’t get Judaism or Christianity without migration. He adds that “the greatest migration of all is of Christ from heaven to earth and back” and the statement that “Here we have no abiding city” “is an announcement that we should consider our whole lives as a season of migration, because we are transiting through earth to find our true home elsewhere”. As a result, “None of us straightforwardly belong anywhere, however long our forebears have sojourned there, and none of us abide long on this earth”. 

The exhibition at Salisbury Cathedral is a small part of a large body of work begun when Dawood was working on two separate projects; one which involved research about democracy, the other about the oceans. The title of the exhibition refers to Leviathan, a 1651 text by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes which takes the sea monster described in the Book of Job as a metaphor for the state.  

“What’s been quite shocking has been that things people told me we might witness in 10-15 years, I’ve seen happen in five”. 

Dawood’s Where do we go now? is a polychromatic painted sculpture, depicting sailors in a small boat encountering a whale, that is inspired by engravings and illustrations from Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub, a 1704 pamphlet on the nature of legitimate government that was written in response to Hobbes. The whale represents the State, which threatens to destroy the vessel, prompting the sailors to throw a barrel (or ‘tub’) representing their labour (or ‘capital’) overboard to distract it. With figures representing refugees and a UN rescue worker in Dawood’s sculpture being placed within the Cathedral’s 1215 Magna Carta exhibition space, this work prompts visitors to consider the legacy of Magna Carta and the rights and freedoms of refugees.    

Dawood has said that the exhibition is “an exciting opportunity to bring some of the key questions I’ve been asking of climate, migration and our shared humanity … at a time when a renewed sense of sharing and purpose is urgently needed.” In the light of such thinking, Beth Hughes, Salisbury Cathedral’s Visual Arts Curator, suggests that,  

“Shezad’s exhibition is a powerful reminder of how we are all connected to each other, and to the natural world … [focusing] the mind to help us think about how we might be part of the solution, to make a better world for ourselves, our loved ones and all of humanity.”  

Much of Dawood’s work is concerned with “world-building” and “imagineering”, something that developed from a “youthful love of science fiction, speculative fiction” which he found to be “a really useful space for philosophical dialogue and imagination”. Then, as “confidence and practice grew, I found through conversations with other artists, writers, academics, that we could have these conversations and start to imagine possible or plausible futures as a way to reflect on some of the issues of our time”. 

One result has been the Leviathan Cycle, a ten-part film series exploring unexpected narratives that connect the most urgent issues of our times: climate change, migration, and mental health. When he began, he experienced surprise or disbelief at what he was trying to do “which was to imagine the world in 20-50 years’ time” in order to highlight the urgency, “because it felt like we didn’t have much time in which to change course”. He was primarily “thinking about what the immediate fault lines were and how they could deepen and darken in our lifetimes or just beyond”. As he started going out talking to scientists, particularly those working around climate, “there was something quite interesting about this 20-50 year’ timeframe, because their predictions were in that range”. However, “what’s been quite shocking has been that things people told me we might witness in 10-15 years, I’ve seen happen in five”.  

How can we find new reserves of empathy and understanding for the difficult circumstances we are going through in our world?” 

The Cycle follows the journeys of a cast of characters who are the survivors of a cataclysmic solar event in order to reflect on the systemic crises within our biosphere and imagine where we might end up if we fail to gain a deeper understanding of the intersections between fields of knowledge and ways of living, across and between human and more-than-human ecologies. The first five films imagine a dystopian future while the latter five - of which the latest, Seven and Eight, are on show here – explore “ways to navigate and negotiate this future with each other, with our government; ideally, a new social compact that’s not just human but extends beyond the human”.       

Episode 7: Africana, Ken Bugul & Nemo, in the North Transept, takes the viewer on a journey through the Mangroves of Senegal which speaks of our interconnectedness where both science and the imaginary dovetail into a possible, collective future. Episode 8: Cris, Sandra, Papa & Yasmine, in Trinity Chapel, charts an embodied, spiritual, and ecological journey along an age-old Guarani path linking the Brazilian Atlantic Forest to the sea. 

The wider Leviathan project from which the work on show in the Cathedral is taken, is the culmination of conversations Dawood has had with a wide range of marine biologists, oceanographers, political scientists, neurologists, and trauma specialists. This approach is typical of his practice, which often involves collaborations with groups and individuals from different disciplines that are transformed into expressive artworks. 

The Leviathan Cycle itself has become a large community of scientists and collaborators around the world. The collaborative experience has broadened Dawood’s horizons in terms of how he thinks of the subjects of his work: “It’s not just a protagonist in a film or an artefact, it’s each of these scientists’ individual area of study that they’ve devoted a huge part of life and time to, and so it creates this huge web of obligation. It’s part of empathy and reciprocity, it’s how we work with others and try to do our best.”  

As a result, he says: “There’s a debt to generations beyond us. They only stretch us just a little but we become better human beings by doing so. I think it’s also important to go beyond the human as well and stretch our empathy to include the non-human – animals, plants, algae – they’re all systems of which we are part and which we interconnect with in surprising ways. It’s something that I’ve become more actively aware of through this body of work. It just feels pivotal.”   

His hope “is that the exhibition encourages visitors to think about ourselves as one humanity”: “My engagement with the topics of climate change and migration are driven by wanting to see a new set of ethical standards established for the world. How can we find new reserves of empathy and understanding for the difficult circumstances we are going through in our world?”  

As we come to the end of 2023 and think about the coming new year and further into the future, the beauty of this exhibition and of Dawood’s work is that, as Beth Hughes notes, it “draws you in to explore some of the big questions facing humanity today”. World events in 2023 “have shown us how important it is to care for displaced people and the importance of looking after our natural world”. Kenneth Padley says, “The overriding message is a call to action before it is too late”, which is why the exhibition is prefaced with a verse from St Paul’s letter to the Romans that simply states, “Live in harmony with one another”. 


Leviathan, An exhibition by Shezad Dawood at Salisbury Cathedral, 28 November 2023 – 3 February 2024.

1 min read

St Kilda: sketching sanctuary and struggle

A remote Scottish island’s many meanings catch an artist’s eye.

Alastair Gordon is co-founder of Morphē Arts, a painter and art tutor at Leith School of Art. He works from his studio in London and exhibits across the UK, Europe and the US. 

An artist holds a sketchbook while standing overlooking a deserted village by a bay, sided by jagged cliffs.
Sketching on St Kilda.

Nestled amidst the tempestuous waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, the islands of St Kilda stand as a testament to isolation unparalleled in the British Isles. Located miles out from the Scottish mainland, the islands form an archipelago that rises defiantly, resembling a fortress of solitude amidst the tumultuous waves. 

In 1930, the islanders made a heartfelt plea to be evacuated from their beloved home, as the challenges of survival had become insurmountable. This marked the poignant conclusion of a remarkable two thousand years of human existence on the islands and no permanent community has been established since. Presently, St Kilda stands as a wild and desolate terrain, teeming with a diverse array of wildlife. Amongst the rugged slopes, one can witness the unexpected presence of wild sheep, descendants of the original livestock once cared for by the community. Following the evacuation, the sheep were left to roam freely, adapting to their newfound freedom. Isolated from the outside world for countless centuries, the islands have even given rise to their own unique subspecies of mouse and wren, a testament to the extraordinary resilience of life in this remote haven. 

It took me three arduous attempts, spread across consecutive years, to finally set foot on the elusive Hirta, the main island in a cluster of islets and sea stacks known collectively as St Kilda. Access to this remote wilderness is only granted during the warmer months, and my previous endeavours had been thwarted by relentless bouts of stormy weather. However, these failed attempts only served to intensify my determination, turning the eventual arrival into a pilgrimage of sorts, where the sweet taste of success was amplified by the challenges overcome. 

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. 

As St Kilda emerged on the horizon, it appeared like a jagged tooth or a mystical axis mundi, a place where the earthly and spiritual realms intersect. Despite its wild and untamed nature, the island is paradoxically dominated by the imposing presence of the Ministry of Defence. Strange listening devices and radars loom over the cliff tops, as if engaged in a silent conversation with the world beyond. Stories of St Kilda often carry an air of romanticism, but the reality of island life was harsh and unforgiving. 

As our boat ventured into the circular embrace of St Kilda, a sudden stillness descended upon the waters, transforming the surroundings into an idyllic oasis of tranquillity. The island, formed from the remnants of a volcanic eruption, boasts a natural harbour in the shape of a perfect circle, its walls rising like a majestic amphitheatre to a towering height of 426 metres, equivalent to the Empire State Building, before plunging abruptly into a sheer drop.  

The village, consisting of a single street lined with stone cottages known as Black Houses, was the epicentre of island life. Daily existence revolved around the rhythms of fishing, agriculture, and church. Each morning, the island parliament convened to allocate the day's tasks, which often involved harvesting birds, tending to livestock, and repairing nets. Every year, the men of the island would scale the treacherous cliffs with nothing more than homemade ropes to gather the young birds from their precarious nests, while their protective parents swooped and dived in an attempt to thwart such pillaging. Winters were harsh, and the traditions of the church were strict. Missionaries were sent to the island to minister to the faithful, imposing a rigid routine of spiritual disciplines that seemed to serve as both law and religion.  

Upon reaching the shore, we were greeted by the island steward, one of only two current inhabitants of the island and resident only in the warmer months. Unless, of course, one counts the Ministry of Defence, whose enigmatic presence permeates every corner of the island. Their satellite dishes and listening posts loom ominously, as if engaged in some clandestine communication with an unseen realm, shattering the illusion of complete wilderness.  

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. It brought to mind the image of Superman in his fortress of solitude or Edmond Dantès, a victim of misfortune, imprisoned and abandoned until the idea of the Count allowed for a rebirth. 

But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world 

As a child, I often sought solace on islands during family holidays. There was something about the encircling presence of land surrounded by water that evoked a sense of tranquillity, a sanctuary away from the worries of the world. A sacred space where a weary soul could commune with the divine.  

As I ascended the steep walls of Hirta, my camera in hand and sketchbook tucked under my arm, I couldn't help but feel a sense of purpose. I felt like one of those Romantic painters of the previous century who attempted to bring a taste of the natural sublime to the city dwellers, trapped in their concrete jungles and smog-filled air. In that moment, I released mine is not the task of modern-day Romantic painter, venturing into the wilderness to capture moments of awe-inspiring beauty but to chronicle the mundane moments of domestic sublime as witnessed by this landscape through centuries of human inhabitation. The images I captured and the sketches I made now form the basis of new paintings to feature in an upcoming exhibition at An Lanntair gallery in Stornoway.  

But as I continued my climb, I couldn't help but question the romantic notions that had fuelled my journey. The landscape itself remained indifferent to my perception of it. It cared not for the grand narratives I projected onto its rugged terrain. It simply existed, unyielding and unapologetic. 

And what of St Kilda? Was it truly an idyllic haven, shielded from the political and ecological pollutants of the outside world? Or was it a fortress of solitude, where harsh regimes and a cruel climate ruled? Perhaps it was an oxymoron, embodying both extremes simultaneously. 

As our boat sailed away from the island, I found myself pondering the reality of life on St Kilda. What was it truly like to inhabit such a remote place? At times, I allowed my imagination to wander, envisioning a utopia where crime was unheard of, where the absence of policing was a testament to the inherent goodness of humanity. But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world. Life on St Kilda must have been a constant struggle, a battle against the elements, made bearable only by the flickering hope of a better future. 

As I packed away my camera and sketchbook, I couldn't help but feel a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to glimpse into the past, to touch the remnants of a forgotten world. The exhibition I will present in Stornoway will be more than just a collection of art; it will be a tribute to the resilience of the islanders, not just in St Kilda but across the Outer Hebrides in times of hardship, to their ability to find beauty and hope in the harshest of circumstances. And as I prepare to share their story again through painting, I hope that it will serve as a reminder of the fragility and strength of the human spirit, even in the face of isolation and adversity. 


Alastair Gordon is an artist based in Edinburgh and London. His new exhibition of paintings opens at An Lanntair in Stornoway, Isle of Harris 31 May 2024. The exhibition coincides with a parallel two-person exhibition with Elaine Woo MacGregor opening the same night at Cynthia Corbett Gallery, London.