In This Artist's Work, Marionettes Enact the Brutal History of the Crusades

Installation view, Wael Shawky: Al Araba Al Madfuna, Fondazione Merz. Courtesy Fondazione Merz. Photo: Andrea Guermani.

Puppetry, Performance and Play: Wael Shawky's Postmodernist Version of Arab History

"It's pronounced Wa-el," Wael Shawky explained patiently as he was introduced to one of many guests lining up to greet him in Turin earlier this month. The artist was very much present at the openings of two exhibitions, launched to coincide with Artissima Art Fair, where he also gave a talk about his work. Just a week later, he unveiled a solo exhibition on a more modest scale at the Lisson Gallery, Milan, presenting drawings produced during the making of his two film trilogies--on view concurrently at new installations at the Castello di Rivoli and the Fondazione Merz, Turin.

Installation view of Wael Shawky, Castello di Rivoli, November 3, 2016 - February 5, 2017. Photo: Renato Ghiazza.

Wael translates roughly from ancient Arabic as "protector, one who gives refuge." Through his art, Shawky indeed seems to provide shelter, a way to protect and preserve the richness of Arab culture, history and tradition. At his retrospective in Rivoli, he manifested this role as protector very literally, by putting a castle inside the castle that was once the residence of the Royal House of Savoy: the age-old walls were painted a brilliant blue, and Shawky erected a series of turreted pink structures, resembling both a castle and a medina, filling the Manica Lunga. Heavy-looking wooden reliefs, immaculately carved, hung on the walls, seamlessly merging with the architecture of historic Italy. Within the walls of his own castles, Shawky screened the trilogy of films that made his name, Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File (2010) Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo (2012) and the most recent chapter, The Secrets of Karbala (2015). In the middle, a garden filled with 26 marionettes from this last film complete the staging.

Wael Shawky, Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File, 2010, film still. © Wael Shawky. Courtesy Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut & Hamburg and Lisson Gallery, London.

The films recount the stories of the Crusades--narrated in Arabic with English subtitles--the bloody, brutal history that divided Western Christian and Islamic cultures, the repercussions of which are still felt today. For Shawky, history is stories--there are no facts, only different perspectives. The films tell gruesome stories, full of deceit, betrayal, cannibalism and decapitations. Based on intense research, these stories are retold intuitively, using marionettes. "It's never calculated in a way that it will be entertaining or amusing, at all," Shawky explains in an interview. It is perhaps surprising when you watch the films that are not only visually arresting but also full of drama and the tug of human emotion--despite the lack of actual flesh-and-blood characters.

Wael Shawky, Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File, 2010, film still. © Wael Shawky. Courtesy Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut & Hamburg and Lisson Gallery, London.

In the first chapter of the trilogy, Shawky uses 18th century marionettes from the Lupi Collection, Turin; remodeling the clothes and hair of these old European artifacts, he tells the stories of the first crusades from 1096 to 1099, and medieval Antioch. In the second chapter, custom-made ceramic puppets are the storytellers, and for the third, Shawky selected glass marionettes from Murano. The precise, deliberate choice of his materials--the marionettes already inhabited by European stories--adds a further layer of interplay between languages and storytelling customs.

Shawky's Cabaret Crusades--as their title implies--lead us to the question of the problematic nature of storytelling and its relationship to history. Though Shawky might not have produced his films to entertain, his films absorb you in the past--a past that we are distanced from. If, as viewers, we are detached from the action (more so, because the story is told by puppets) how do we interact with the narratives we hear?

Installation view of Wael Shawky, Castello di Rivoli, November 3, 2016 - February 5, 2017. Photo: Renato Ghiazza.

Shawky is also interested in translation--translation from Arabic to other languages, between oral, written and visual media, and from ancient tradition to contemporary culture. Sometimes, of course, things get lost in translation.

"I absolutely hate it," declaimed one guest at a breakfast at Fondazione Merz during Artissima in Turin, where Shawky was presenting his acclaimed film trilogy, Al Araba Al Madfuna. The newly commissioned site-responsive installation had the feeling of Joseph Beuys, who Shawky was inspired by when he encountered his work early on in his career.

"Oh, why is that?" I asked.

"I mean, what is it? What it is about?" came the retort, as we shifted on clods of sand caking the entire gallery floor.

"Well, I find it very relevant to what we see happening around us right now," I replied. The guest remained unimpressed. It struck me that not everyone is receptive to this kind of storytelling, so unfamiliar in its European context. Shawky has shown his work extensively in Europe--where Arab voices are still not commonplace--and his imaginative histories really require openness. 

Wael Shawky, Al Araba Al Madfuna II, 2013, film still, HD video, b/w, sound, 33'. Co-produced by Sharjah Art Foundation & Wiener Festwochen. Courtesy the artist & Sharjah Art Foundation.

While not everyone is receptive to his storytelling, Shawky gives us opportunities to reexamine the history we have received in the West, to unearth new understandings that include metaphysical and spiritual readings. This act of unearthing is again literal in the case of Al Araba Al Madfuna, a film that integrates the artist's accounts of time spent with villagers in Al Araba Al Madfuna, near Abydos--an archeological site in northern Egypt--as they performed a ritual dig, searching for buried treasures underground that might reveal secrets of their ancestors. Shawky's stories are intertwined with parables from Mohamed Mostagrab's Dairout al Sharif, and performed by children dressed as adults, in turbans and moustaches.

Wael Shawky, Al Araba Al Madfuna, Drawings, 2015, graphite, pigments, ink, and oil on paper, 29.7 x 42 cm (11 3/4 x 16 1/2 in). © Wael Shawky; Courtesy Lisson Gallery.

Using puppetry, performance and play is Shawky's way to show us how history is constructed. When you enter Shawky's set in its Italian context at Fondazione Merz, a twisted palm tree planted in the sand spirals upwards, as mellifluous sounds of Arabic resonate through the dark space, you step into a history that you are not part of, but are nonetheless complicit in. Stories, as Shawky suggests, can protect us, but the confluence of voices can also be deeply disorienting--as my gruff acquaintance proved.

Wael Shawky, Pope Urban II with a priest in Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File, 2010, film still. © Wael Shawky. Courtesy Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut & Hamburg and Lisson Gallery, London.

For its very intricate and complex tapestry of tales, Shawky also makes it emphatically clear that we cannot know the truth. This is the prominent postmodern leaning that his work is steeped in, and at a time of deep cultural and religious crisis, it seems to be the perfect time to scrutinize history--and admit to the impossibility of fully understanding it. Shawky finds truths in fiction and fiction in truths. "History and theatre are caught up in each other," he once said, "The cabaret is a stage for history, as a performance."

--Charlotte Jansen