The puppeteer: Wael Shawky’s ‘Cabaret Crusades’ and other stories at the Mathaf and MoMA PS1

Egyptian artist Wael Shawky opens up a dialogue on religious and historical interpretation with two major exhibitions this summer.

Wael Shawky’s epic oeuvre explores the interconnected histories of East and West, and offers a renewed insight of the past from an Arab perspective.

Wael Shawky, 'Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo', 2012, (video still) HD video, colour, sound, 60min:00sec:53. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut and Hamburg.

Wael Shawky, ‘Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo’, 2012, (video still) HD video, colour, sound, 60:53 min. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut and Hamburg.

An animated world of marionettes made of wood, ceramics and Murano glass inacts the bloody and violent history of the Crusades – a merciless war waged on the Holy Land in the near East by the Catholic Church in Medieval times. Meanwhile, children take the role of adults in a film series that follows the adventures and fables recounted in the parables of Mohamed Mustagab and expriences of life in Upper Egypt.

The Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar, is holding a major exhibition of works by Egyptian artist Wael Shawky (b. 1971, Alexandria) entitled “Wael Shawky: Crusades and Other Stories” until 16 August 2015. Two of his acclaimed series Cabaret Crusades (2010-2014) and Al Araba Al Madfuna (2012-2015) are being shown. Simultaneously and thousands of miles east in New York, MoMA PS1 reveals the solo show “Wael Shawky: Cabaret Crusades”, until 31 August 2015.

Wael Shawky, 'Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo', 2012, (video still) HD video, colour, sound, 60min00sec53. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut and Hamburg.

Wael Shawky, ‘Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo’, 2012, (video still) HD video, colour, sound, 60:53 min. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut and Hamburg.

Views of a shared humanity

At a time when mutual misconceptions, prejudice, religious and ideological extremism are rendering dialogue between the Western and Arab worlds heated and uncertain, Shawky’s work is being displayed from East to West as if to foster solidarity and understanding between the two regions. Shawky’s powerful oeuvre offers us a view of a shared humanity – one that leaves no-one guilty or innocent, where all of us are ruled by the same tendencies, the same nature. Ultimately he suggests, we all are ‘guilty’ of being human while history endlessly repeats itself.

Abdellah Karroum, Director of Mathaf and chief curator in Doha, explains in the press release of the exhibition:

Wael Shawky touches on subjects of history and political and social change, while rethinking models of artistic practice to invent new visual languages. His films, installations, and performances explore histories of culture and literature in the contemporary moment by recreating written and oral testaments of societal, economic, and political change.

Wael Shawky, 'Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo', 2012, (video still) HD video, colour, sound, 60min:00sec:53. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut and Hamburg.

Wael Shawky, ‘Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo’, 2012, (video still) HD video, colour, sound, 60:53 min. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut and Hamburg.

The Crusades from an Arab perspective

The ‘anti-epic’ trilogy Cabaret Crusades offers an animated world of marionettes made of wood, ceramic and Murano glass, inacting the bloody and violent history of the Crusades – a merciless war waged on the Holy Land by the Catholic Church in Medieval times. Shawky’s project was inspired by the historical essay The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (1984), written by French-Lebanese historian Amin Maalouf.

In a recent interview with Abdellah Karroum, Shawky said:

Rather than dealing with this historical written text as something archival, I am trying to discover more through transforming this into a new form of creation.

Shawky’s intention was to address the paradoxical ways in which humanity arrives at and is blinded by faith. Most importantly, Maalouf’s text provided a new perspective on the Medieval carnage, as Shawky revealed while talking to the Financial Times:

It shows you that history can be told from a different angle … from the Arab side.

Wael Shawky, 'Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show Files', 2010, (video still) HD video, colour, sound, 31min:49sec. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut and Hamburg.

Wael Shawky, ‘Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show Files’, 2010, (video still) HD video, colour, sound, 31:49 min. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut and Hamburg.

The same moment from the other side

Throughout the series, the history of the Crusades takes unexpected twists and turns, where the enemy in fact is not only the franj – the Christian crusaders – but also a string of ruthless local plots and intrigues by the people in power. The dialogue is in Classical Arabic, which is difficult to understand by most Arabic speaking people, with English subtitles. At various points during the film, the marionette ‘actors’ break into song that almost sounds like weeping.

Click here to watch Blouin ArtInfo’s video of MoMA PS1 and Wael Shawky on “Cabaret Crusades” on YouTube

In the series, three different groups of hand-crafted marionettes take on the roles of historical figures and characters. In a video interview with Blouin ArtInfo about his MoMA PS1 exhibition, Shawky explains how the idea of using puppets to recount history from a more surreal point of view came about:

It came first, the idea of using marionettes in this series, from reading about the speech from Pope Urban II. There are two things [that are] really interesting in this speech: first, as I said many times, that it was not really documented [and] that led to the fact that today we have four different versions of the same speech. And that tells me a lot about the idea of re-written history, which is really interesting. Connecting this idea to the book by Amin Maalouf […] who says the fact that the same history has no facts, actually, because it can be told by different points of view. […] It [the work] has this layer of surrealism, for sure, [which] is part of my language. Most of the time, the object itself calls for its identity, its character.

Wael Shawky, 'Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File', 2010, (video still) HD video, colour, sound, 31min:49sec. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut and Hamburg.

Wael Shawky, ‘Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File’, 2010, (video still) HD video, colour, sound, 31:49 min. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut and Hamburg.

The first film, Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show Files (2010), depicts the early Crusades from 1096-1099 AD in the Holy Land around Jerusalem. For this work, Shawky used 200-year-old wooden marionettes from the Lupi collection in Turin, Italy. In a 2013 interview with Art in America, he reveals how he managed to borrow such antiques:

For the first “Cabaret Crusades” [The Horror Show File], I was invited by Michelangelo Pistoletto to Cittadellarte, his place in Biella, Italy. He was fascinated by my idea [to create a film about the Crusades using marionettes], so I had support from his institution from the start. I went to see various marionette collections, and found a 200-year-old group belonging to a family called Lupi. […] it was the most beautiful collection I’d seen. I went to the Pistoletto Foundation, and they managed to convince the Lupi Collection to lend us over 120 marionettes.

Wael Shawky, 'Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show Files', 2010, (video still) HD video, colour, sound, 31min:49sec. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut and Hamburg.

Wael Shawky, ‘Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show Files’, 2010, (video still) HD video, colour, sound, 31:49 min. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut and Hamburg.

The second part of the series, Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo (2012), recounts the First and Second Crusades from 1099-1145 AD, employing ceramic marionettes custom-made in Aubagne, Provence, home of the École de Céramique, where Shawky had a residency from October 2011 to April 2012. After the first film, Shawky decided to “do something different” and that he needed to make his own design and figures. As he shared with Art in America:

I found that the only way to make the characters exactly as I wanted them was in clay. […] Aubagne is a center that produces santons, the small statues that show the Christian Holy Family – the Nativity figures – with little houses. When I went there I decided it was a great way to work, because in addition to a ceramics school, the town has a museum for ceramics and a film school. And I needed a lot of people to complete this project – I could not do it alone.

Wael Shawky, 'Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo', 2012, (video still) HD video, colour, sound, 60min:00sec:53. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut and Hamburg.

Wael Shawky, ‘Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo’, 2012, (video still) HD video, colour, sound, 60:53 min. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut and Hamburg.

Creating the ceramic marionettes allowed Shawky to give his characters the exact appearance he had in mind. The faces of the puppets all feature a combination of animal and human features, like the long neck and sharp teeth of a camel, or the pointy ears and muzzle of a cat.

Wael Shawky, a marionette from 'Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbala', 2014. Image courtesy the artist and Galerie Sfeir-Semler, Beirut and Hamburg.

Wael Shawky, a marionette from ‘Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbala’, 2014. Image courtesy the artist and Galerie Sfeir-Semler, Beirut and Hamburg.

The third and final instalment, Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbala (2014), debuted earlier this year in the exhibition at MoMA PS1. Shawky commissioned his marionettes from Murano glass artists in Venice, Italy. The handblown glass puppets are clothed in finely elaborate fabrics sewn by an Italian tailor. The designs for his final characters are inspired by traditional African sculpture.

Wael Shawky, a marionette from 'Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbala', 2014. Image courtesy the artist and Galerie Sfeir-Semler, Beirut and Hamburg.

Wael Shawky, a marionette from ‘Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbala’, 2014. Image courtesy the artist and Galerie Sfeir-Semler, Beirut and Hamburg.

Quoted in the press release of his MoMA PS1 exhibition, Shawky says that the marionettes help to create a “surreal and mythical atmosphere that blends drama and cynicism, telling a story of remote events that could hardly be more topical today. [The work] also implies a criticism of the way history has been written and manipulated.”

Wael Shawky, 'Al Araba Al Madfuna I', 2012, (video still), HD video, black and white, sound, 21min:21sec. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg and Beirut.

Wael Shawky, ‘Al Araba Al Madfuna I’, 2012, (video still), HD video, black and white, sound, 21:21 min. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg and Beirut.

Penetrating the true meaning

Another film trilogy by Shawky is being shown in the Mathaf exhibition in Qatar. Al Araba Al Madfuna (2012 – 2015) retells the stories of Egyptian novelist Mohamed Mustagab, interwoven with the artist’s personal experiences in Upper Egypt.

In this series, children take the place of marionettes, lip-synching adult voices and recounting the stories in Classical Arabic. Using puppets and children is a device that Shawky uses to penetrate the real meaning behind his films. As the artist explains in his interview with Ben East,

The reason I Iike to use puppets and why children speak adult parts […] is that I like to remove the drama. Not concentrating on an actor makes you think about the real value of the text. Even if I don’t believe everything that is said, in a way that’s the point, too, in terms of how I think history has been written. My work is always about people making their own judgements.

Wael Shawky, 'Al Araba Al Madfuna I', 2012, (video still), HD video, black and white, sound, 21min:21sec. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg and Beirut.

Wael Shawky, ‘Al Araba Al Madfuna I’, 2012, (video still), HD video, black and white, sound, 21:21 min. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg and Beirut.

The first film in the series was shown at Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art in 2012 when Shawky told the art magazine Nafas how the idea for the work came about:

The idea goes back to an experience I had ten years ago. A friend invited me to accompany him to Al Araba Al Madfuna, a village in Upper Egypt. My friend claimed he could heal people and even find pharaonic treasures under the ground. Upper Egypt has a long tradition of treasure hunting; so-called sheikhs are brought in to help. They are something like shamans who call on “spirits” to find the location of hidden graves of the old Egyptians. This metaphysical world has always fascinated me, so I accompanied him to Al Araba Al Madfuna.

Wael Shawky, 'Al Araba Al Madfuna II', 2013, (video still), HD video, black and white, sound, 33m:00s. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg and Beirut.

Wael Shawky, ‘Al Araba Al Madfuna II’, 2013, (video still), HD video, black and white, sound, 33 min. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg and Beirut.

The film’s main story is shot entirely in a single room, referencing the typical assembly room reserved for men only where he had spent the three days of his visit to Al Araba Al Madfuna (‘The Buried Vehicle’ in English). The village is set on the hill where, in the early 20th century, a temple of the god Osiris was unearthed. The story recited in the film is, as Shawky explains to Nafas, “about how one generation inherits the ideologies of its forebears, how they believe in them, and how such ideas can be taken to extremes”.

Wael Shawky, 'Al Araba Al Madfuna II', 2013, (video still), HD video, black and white, sound, 33m:00s. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg and Beirut.

Wael Shawky, ‘Al Araba Al Madfuna II’, 2013, (video still), HD video, black and white, sound, 33 min. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg and Beirut.

For the second instalment, Al Araba Al Madfuna II (2013), Shawky used two different stories by Egyptian writer Mohamed Mostagab (1938–2005) for the script – The Offering and Horsemen Adore Perfumes. In The Offering, an entire village loses its ability to speak and, after an initial struggle to find a cure, adapts to survive and prosper by other means. Horsemen Adore Perfumes describes the failed attempts of successive horsemen to overthrow a society’s despotic ruler. Shawky charts these communities’ impulse to use magic, or to rely on a single individual, to achieve new levels of comfort or prosperity. The third film of the series, produced in 2015, was commissioned by and is premiering at Mathaf’s exhibition.

Wael Shawky, 'Al Araba Al Madfuna II', 2013, (video still), HD video, black and white, sound, 33m:00s. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg and Beirut.

Wael Shawky, ‘Al Araba Al Madfuna II’, 2013, (video still), HD video, black and white, sound, 33 min. Image courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg and Beirut.

A vision of duality

Shawky explains to Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, President of the Sharjah Art Foundation, why the scenes that the children are acting out are in fact different from the stories being recited:

[…] you hear a tale by Mustagab but you’re seeing another story. I’m trying to say you have two systems, working parallel to each other in this series, or you have kids with the voice of adults, you’re hearing a story and seeing another story in front of you. Like narrating history- you’re hearing, the way Mustagab writes, I think we still have this inkling that it’s not true, it’s not real, there is something we don’t believe, and that’s always the outcome from mixing these two systems.

This duality of vision – or these two systems recording stories and histories from differing points of view – resulting in a blurring of reality and fiction, is typical of Shawky. As he explains the Crusades trilogy in the interview with Ben East, the artist concludes:

I wanted to look at little sections of Arab history, because most of it is told by the West. It’s not about telling you who is wrong or right, it’s thinking about how you see the same moment in history from the other side.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related Topics: Egyptian artists, film, sculpture, video, museum shows, events in Doha, events in New York

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