Shaun Stamp refers to himself as the product of colonial ghosts - a multiracial being of African, European, Indian and Indigenous Caribbean descent. His cross-disciplinary artistic output disentangles the complexities of the human condition and crosses philosophy, psychology, engineering, science, nature. Having exhibited extensively in international institutions from Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg to the Turner Contemporary Shaun recently decided to make the UAE, the global crossroads, his base. We enter his Tashkeel studio to discuss the creative allure of the MENA region, his inspirations and aspirations.
Shaun: I’ve been visiting the UAE at regular intervals since 2019 when I was first commissioned to produce a work by Praxis IFM at Al Maryah Island, Abu Dhabi. This engagement sparked my long-standing fascination with the Emirates. The creative spirit is always palpable and the contemporary art scene thrives. I’ve had the pleasure of engaging with many artists in the UAE and found their explorations of identities and convention-breaking approaches to be both stimulating and challenging of the status quo. There’s an openness and fearlessness here that I appreciate.
Shaun: I’ve found friends and creative fuel in cultural hubs, programmes and centres. Bait 15 established by Afra Al Dhaheri, Hashel Al Lamki, and Maitha Abdalla left an imprint as did interactions with groundbreaking curators like Munira Al Sayegh and Aleksei Afanasiev. The juxtaposition between tradition and modernity that recalls countries like South Korea and Japan is present in cultural centres such as Sharjah. The way that these seemly oppositional forces co-exist is so intriguing.
Shaun: In 2020 I took the decision to make the UAE my base. I established my connection with the creative community through Tashkeel with the support of deputy director, Lisa Ball-Lechgar, and founder and director, Lateefa bint Maktoum. Beyond my growing interest in what the country has to offer visually, culturally and socially this location, at the meeting point between east and west, makes sense for me professionally.
Shaun: I was never exposed to contemporary art in my youth. I believed that art was something of the past, assigned to dusty museums. My aunty, a psychologist, flipped my perspectives and shifted my course. One day she placed four thick books onto the table in front of me and said: "look!". I think she knew what she was doing! The texts detailed visionaries: Robert Mapplethorpe, Hans Ruedi Giger, Louise Bourgeois and Francis Bacon. This introduction during my teenage years was a turning point. I realised that art was indeed alive and deeply connected to the human experience. I wanted to know more.
Shaun: My BA focused on painting, time-based media, and sculpture. I often describe myself as a failed painter - I could never resist experimenting with different media, one flows into another. My ideas always inform the medium and might manifest through painting, performance, text, ceramics, film, or beyond. Due to my multi-media approach some aspects of my work look visually disparate but conceptually they connect - it’s an ongoing dialogue.
What comes through from my work is my voice, I'm trying to channel a message: "What does it mean to be human in this moment that we are all experiencing".
Shaun: Nature and human relationships to it have preoccupied me for some time. Through the lens of this bond, I expand upon ideas relating to the self and narratives surrounding identity. I want to understand the complex ways in which humans co-exist between the natural and manmade worlds, we all come from nature with a shared consciousness and imagination. Shared imaginations feed into the world we created around us, we craft technologies, build high rise towers, formulate virtual worlds and on a basic level, we produce fabrics to cover our bodies. We’ve manipulated nature and created a world around us without considering how much we depend upon nature to thrive.
Shaun: My journey in art has helped me to navigate many life experiences. It’s a meditative and therapeutic process. What comes through from my work is my voice, I’m trying to channel a message: “What does it mean to be human in this moment that we are all experiencing”.
Shaun: People are like planets, bumbling around the universe trying to feel their way through the darkness. We don’t know why we're here, we don’t always want to question it but we are all faced with philosophical questions about our existence. You grow older and you try to figure out what you’re trying to say in the world and what life expects of you. Darkness is part of the process - stars shine most brightly in the dark. I like to think that we are the light that travels through time, as Beings, we’re energy sources and hopefully, we emit some of our light to others. Art for me is an attempt to reflect upon things that might give others hope, a point of calmness or reflection. Most of us are looking for guidance. I hope that one day there might be someone out there that encounters my art and if they’re going through something it might help them. I want to make art that gives people something in their time of need, which reassures them that 'there’s always light in the darkness'.
I want to make art that gives people something in their time of need, which reassures them that 'there's always light in the darkness'.
Shaun: My belief in the light in life manifests in the Celestial series, a body of work produced using illumination photography. When I was in Finland on an artistic residency I soon realised that the days were short and dark, the lack of daylight felt oppressive. In the darkness, there’s no exposure to the healing qualities of plants. I came across a project by MIT where phosphorescence has been engineered into plants to light up the streets at night which inspired my artistic solution. Through my art, I wanted to bring light indoors with an illuminated garden. This was a happy accident, the project originally began as an installation and evolved into a photo series that grew to incorporate symbolism based on zodiac birth sign flowers. I’ve been expanding upon these explorations since 2015.
Shaun: My compositions are always layered with symbolism. In one series, Self Portraits and Portraits of Others flowers obstruct the face. This refers to my habit of masking emotions and issues. Flowers form a mask but also a connection to nature and its power to heal. I now understand that masking emotion is a hindrance and weakness, I feel that as humans we need to let others in.
Shaun: Another work entitled REM between Jung and Lacan is a bronze sculpture, a cast of my sleeping head, informed by the research of neuroscientist Matthew Walker into the human need to sleep. My sculptural works are very visceral, often re-envisioning the human form. The cast has been coated in hi-vis spray in a shade called: “Lucifer Yellow” and my mouth is open so that the viewer can stare into the abyss. It’s a work that connects internal and external worlds: the self and the science of sleeping. Lacan and his explorations of essential identity and innate individuality have been of great influence and continue to navigate my own artistic explorations into what the self might be.
Shaun: Certain themes circulate throughout my practice. Crude oil, for example, is a material that reoccurs in many pieces from oil paintings to sculptures. With the inclusion of this material, I’m commenting on the human disruption of the natural environment. Oil is used for almost everything we construct from plastic bags to mobile phones. On a personal level, there’s an intimate connection to oil. My father was a mechanic and I didn’t know him during my youth. I knew he was a mechanic so I would frequent garages to establish a sense of closeness. Much like the burst of memories released by a bite into a cookie in Marcel Proust's seminal text 'Remembrance of Things Past', the smell of oil triggers a deep emotional response from me, one rooted in the trauma of separation. I try to let the viewer into my world so that they feel inspired to open up theirs and not be closed off.
Shaun: This October I’m heading out to Aspen, Colorado for a 10-week artist residency at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center with a selection of international artists. It’s an amazing programme with guest lecturers, cultural thinkers and curators. The support has come at the right time after a period of stagnancy during covid. There’s internalised things that I’ve repressed - trauma, childhood memories and heartbreak - and now, through the framework of this residency, I feel it’s good to explore them. I’m keen to build upon the dialogue I’ve already established and to consider where the conversation is going. I’m also participating in a group show at the Turner Contemporary in Margate, UK and preparing for another residency, NY20+, in Chengdu, China in 2022 where I’ll focus upon Chinese symbolism and Chinese birth sign flowers.