The Art Newspaper: If you could live with just one work of art, what would it be?
Gilane Tawadros: I’ve lived with Sonia Boyce’s Talking Presence (1987) for over 30 years; it was one of the first works of art I bought. Two naked Black figures, a woman and a man, are set against a London cityscape, their interior domestic world blending with the urban exterior. It speaks to my own experience as a migrant, one of so many who have made London our home. London has always been a city of migrants and successive waves of migration have made it into the rich and generative space it is today.
Which cultural experience changed the way you see the world?
Doris Salcedo’s installation, Shibboleth, in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2008. It refers to the dangers of crossing borders. The artist cut a deep chasm into the floor of the Turbine Hall. After the exhibition, the piece was sealed but a permanent scar remains. As Salcedo said, “it remains like a commemoration of all these lives that we don’t recognise, that for us are like ghosts anyway”. Shibboleth is a monumental work that is barely visible and yet has changed Tate Modern irrevocably.
Which writer or poet do you return to?
James Baldwin. As a novelist and essayist, Baldwin was never afraid to articulate uncomfortable questions about race, politics and sexuality. He does so with devastating impact through his precise and incisive use of the English language. Years after his death, his writings still resonate powerfully.
What music or other audio do you listen to as you work?
I love listening to music but I find it too distracting when I’m working. I would end up singing or dancing, or both, and no work would get done!
What are you watching, listening to or following?
I’ve just seen a wonderful Spanish film called Alcarràs at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, directed by Carla Simón. It is set and shot in Alcarràs, Catalonia, in the western dialect of the Catalan language, featuring a cast of non-professional actors. It tells the story of a family of peach farmers whose livelihood is suddenly threatened when the landowner decides to sell their land.
What is art for?
To quote James Baldwin, “Life is more important than art; that’s what makes art important.” He meant that we have the bare necessities of life —a roof over our head, food to eat and so on—but life should be more than the bare necessities. That’s where art comes in.
• Moving Bodies, Moving Images, Whitechapel Gallery, London, until 8 January 2023