‘I believe we aren’t a single thing; we aren’t a separate entity. We are part of the other, part of things in the world’ – Sandra Benites, ‘Episode 8: Cris, Sandra, Papa & Yasmine’ (2023)
My hair is still damp from the rain when I settle down in Gallery One to watch ‘Episode 8: Cris, Sandra, Papa & Yasmine’ (2023) at Touchstones Gallery in Rochdale. I am transported from my urban setting amongst rolling, Northern hills and in to the dense and lush Brazilian Atlantic Forest; the gently immersive experience enhanced by our shared clouds of humidity. This premiere is the eighth film in a ten-part cycle by artist and director Shezad Dawood, who has collaborated with fellow artists, researchers, marine biologists, oceanographers, political scientists and neurologists to create this epic and moving new work. His multi-story approach blends together oral story-telling, global mythologies, and scientific evidence to develop a wider picture of the great decline in biodiversity.
The Atlantic Forest is not only the setting of ‘Episode 8’, it is the revered protagonist and driving force of the narrative. The forest has been captured in all its vitality and beauty, however, much of it has been lost to deforestation and development by humans. As the second largest rainforest in Brazil, the need for its restoration and conservation is urgent, and it is the indigenous peoples of Brazil who are leading this movement as land protectors. Based on the cosmologies of the Guarani people, ‘Episode 8’ journeys through the forest whilst reflecting on the interconnectivity between all beings and the earth.
Teko porã is a Guarani word which could be translated simply to mean ‘good living’. It is a philosophical, social, and political concept that represents the balance and harmony that exists in nature. As explored deeply during ‘Episode 8’, these values are a central theme of the wider work, ‘Leviathan Cycle’, which encourages viewers to consider our place in the world, through migration, our own mental health, and the health of the earth. The film begins with provocations about the human search for knowledge and meaning in life; these philosophical musings are told to us by a faceless figure, whose shadow dances over rocks as their voice travels over the sound of crashing waves. The opening shots lull me in, yet there is always movement, allowing me to simmer down and into the narrative.
The direct meaning of a leviathan is a large aquatic monster, and a metaphor for chaos and evil in Christian theology and mythology. The name was also used by seventeenth century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, in his book Leviathan (1651), where he theorises about the state of human nature being inherently chaotic and anarchic. It is the antithesis of the forest, which, in Dawood’s work is a representation of the true balance and harmony that life on earth is currently lacking. This choice of title pulls together ancient symbolism and stories of power struggles, and in Dawood’s case, contrasts the evil of the oceanic leviathan with the good of the forest. We travel down the Guarani path that links the forest to the sea in ‘Episode 8’, on a journey that is both ecological and spiritual. Ancient tales meet with imagined futures to raise questions about where we go next and how we tackle the urgent issues of our time.
‘Episode 8’ offers us an intimate insight into indigenous life and practices. It is a preservation and an honouring of the Guarani knowledge of the forest. We watch as a man thumps a heartbeat onto the base of an ancient tree – the sound is meditative and deeply rhythmic, and it is his connection with the tree that allows him to share its knowledge. Through him, the forest explains that is has been unable to express its own totality and that it can no longer feel its own essence. This concept echoes the recent theory by scientist Suzanne Simard, who suggests that forests, being such complex and intricate networks, could be a single living organism themselves. In Western societies, in so-called developed nations, living through The Information Age, we are constantly bombarded with information in the form of media and content, but how do we reconnect with that which is ancient and true? Modern life has drawn up a border of separation between humanity and nature, leading us to forget that we are an important part of it. In the midst of devastating climate issues, ‘Leviathan Cycle’ invites us to take the time to reflect on the meaning that nature brings to our lives, and that which we bring to nature.
Towards the end of ‘Episode 8’, there are striking shots of the capillary system of streams in the forest braiding together before expanding out into the sea. The audio on top of this is an intimate retelling of a grandmother’s tale of how the world began and how its layers are like that of the human body. We are invited in, whilst waves crash and a camp fire burns, to listen and to consider how we humans might be an intrinsic part of the world we live in, and therefore, a part of its creation. Whilst watching, I became increasingly aware of the importance of connectivity, and how it is through our connection to that which is beyond ourselves that rouses us to make positive change in the world.
Complementing ‘Episode 8’, Gallery Two holds an exhibition of visual works taken from the existing ‘Leviathan’ universe. Varying in scale, texture and form, these works are curated in response to the ancient Guarani path taken between the forest and the sea, exploring further the relationship between the earth and humanity. Some of these artworks are large and looming – reflective of the artist’s fears for the future, a world of chaos and confusion. Regardless of size, each piece is intricate and even delicate through the use of linen, cotton, thread, and ink, bursting with colour and texture.
‘The Trouble with Lichen’ (2019) series is also an exploration of how natural systems interconnect. Inspired by Dawood’s time on the Fogo Island, each piece depicts the rugged landscape as well as the lichen and mosses that inhabit it. It is reflective of the artist’s usual dedication to research that each piece seems to be an in-depth study into such minute organisms. Texture plays a great part in the work, with a mixture of embroidery, flocking, painting and printmaking. The ominous future portrayed in one of the larger landscape pieces, ‘Okpo Shipyard’ (2018), sits in contrast to the lush, green peace of the Atlantic Forest. Electric blue meets sepia in prints of huge vessels that once travelled the ocean, now left to rust.
Throughout ‘Episode 8’, animation from Brazilian artist Anita Ekman is interspersed among the scenes. These hand drawn illustrations guide us through the narrative in a way that feels quite personal. Images of turtles, birds, and human faces feel immediate and engaging, inviting us into her mind musing and probing her way through the huge questions that have been rising in the film.
In line with its sustainability theme, ‘Episode 8’, was specifically developed remotely in collaboration with Guarani scriptwriters, directors and activists Carlos Papá, Cristine Takuá, Sandra Benites, and artist and researcher Anita Ekman. By removing the need for everyone involved to travel through the Atlantic Rainforest (as it currently suffers from exploitation), the film and its creators have reduced some of its environmental impact through an intimate co-authorship. Not only a sustainable and innovative way of filmmaking, but an alternative way for audiences to be immersed in cultures geographically far yet compassionately close.
The voices throughout ‘Episode 8’ offer provocations, personal histories, and ancient wisdom. They are in conversation with each other, but do not reach a definitive conclusion on what the viewer should believe or how they should act. Rather, we are presented with stories from the past, possibilities for the future and the state of the natural world now as we are currently treating it. ‘Levithan Cycle’ takes that which is complex and potentially haunting, and urges us to approach it with care, connectivity, and power.
For me, ‘Leviathan: From the Forest to the Sea’ brings a message of ancestral healing, of looking back before moving forward, and of the profound beauty that we are at risk of destroying if we do not act now in support of our environment. This warning did not seem to me to be posed as an attack, but rather as an offering – in the form of a new (or old) way of understanding ourselves and our place in the world.
Shezad Dawood: Leviathan: From the Forest to the Sea, Touchstones Rochdale, 3 June – 12 August 2023, part of Hybrid Futures.
Ella Otomewo is a poet, performer, and artist based in Manchester.
This review is supported by Hybrid Futures.