Wael Shawky’s work is, by now, probably better known to international art audiences than to those in Egypt. As soon as an artist’s scale of production and presentation exceeds a certain point, Egypt’s thriving but unsteady institutional framework is rarely able to invest the resources needed to produce and show major works from big-name artists.
It was the resources offered by the German institution Kunstwerke and the prestigious Ernst Schering Prize that supported the development of Shawky’s new work “Al Araba Al Madfuna” (2012), as well as a hefty monograph. Both projects were launched in Egypt at Beirut on Saturday, and a sizeable and eager crowd filled the back garden where the screening was held.
Mercifully short speeches were made before the 20-minute film was screened. It opens with moody shots of the rural Nile, reminiscent of nostalgic sepia postcards, before cutting to a firelit chamber. A number of small boys, clad in galabiyas and moustaches, file solemnly into the room, and begin telling a story that is dubbed over in grown men’s voices. Each one mimes, in classical Arabic, a part in the story “The J-B-Rs” by the late Egyptian author Mohamed Mustagab.
Written in the style of a folk parable, it tells of a community who follow the dying advice of a wise elder: get a camel. Camels become the fad, and the village becomes prosperous as a result of all the animal’s benefits. But at the death of the next village elder, they are told to get a mule, and camels suddenly fall out of favor. Ultimately, just when they’ve become totally accustomed to mules, the next elder tells them to get a pig.
During the telling of the story, one of the boys in the center of this room is digging a trench. This is a reference to the village named in the film’s title, Al-Araba al-Madfuna in the Sohag governorate. Shawky visited this village, where locals dig — mostly fruitlessly — for archaeological riches said to be sited there. This practice, though it is motivated by basic commercial desire, uses immensely spiritual and mystic methods to direct the diggers.
As he puts it in an insightful interview with curator Suzanne Pfeffer in the book, “… there’s also a parallel metaphysical system … So people try to use this metaphysical system to approach this physical world — to get something that is ultimately materialistic — which is really incredible and also ironic.” In the discussion after the film, Shawky explained that he was fascinated with these coexisting realities.
Beyond the story, the only further sound is a deep and cold hum, like an extended vibration. If you didn’t know, you might imagine the digging boy is making a grave. It all feels terribly ominous, and some of the lightness and profanity of the story is lost: I laughed when the J-B-Rs are bluntly told “get a mule” after getting all carried away with camel stuff, but I wasn’t sure I was meant to. But it’s clear that Shawky is not so interested just in making narratives effective; with the mood and the strange boys with men’s voices, he seems to be deliberately estranging you from the story itself. As he also pointed out, this work is usually seen in a particular installation context — much more reminiscent of the chamber seen in the film — but this night Beirut’s mango tree and the moon putting in a boil-washed appearance did their own rather exotic work on the mood of the film.
The boys in the film are good performers. They mime the classical Arabic beautifully, and are convincingly relaxed tellers and listeners, yet they still jiggle their feet and scratch their ears like boys do. This, we were told afterwards, is deliberate: children are the nearest thing to “non-actors” we can find. Following the screening, the question and answer session with Shawky, Kunstwerke curator Suzanne Pfeffer and Beirut co-director Sarah Rifky was translated into both English and Arabic. Tiring as this must be for Rifky and Shawky, I would have appreciated time for further discussion after, as it was limited to a few simple questions from the audience.
The book presented that night, which looks at a wide swathe of Shawky’s practice, is heavy, beautifully designed, and lavishly illustrated. Not enough copies were shipped for general distribution, but you can find donated copies in public libraries including at CIC, Townhouse and Beirut. Two essays deal more directly with “Al Araba Al Madfuna,” by Nina Tabassomi and Sarah Rifky.
Tabassomi spells things out for you. To be honest, this kind of essay seems inescapable in big catalogues: sitting the work ever so comfortably within the writings of (Western) critical theorists as the requisite proof that Shawky is now an Important Artist. It’s not that it’s incorrect — the references to Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida, about how oral culture forms communities, are informative and relevant to the work. But the subtext of institutional value creation is as least as apparent as the actual information offered.
Rifky’s text has much more of herself and her interests in it, and the value of the work is contingent to this, rather than slavishly carving its place in someone else’s canon. She states obscurely that Shawky’s works are “unmistakeably female” and argues this through a considered discussion of the will and the life of the image itself. Frankly the argument is right out on a limb, but that’s also why I’m still thinking about it a week later.
Caroline Christov-Bakargiev’s essay, marked by its honesty and openness, gives an overview of the critical importance of materiality and craftsmanship in Shawky’s work in general. “His almost obsolete commitment to craft, or memory … goes against the grain of the speed of the digital age and brings artistic practice close to a form of meditation and exercise, somewhat akin to study or even prayer.”
These texts, along with others, tend to agree on the ways in which Shawky handles yet undermines classical historiography and narrative in many of his works. That estrangement is apparent in “Al Araba Al Madfuna,” but to what end? “The J-B-Rs” is not a classically ideological narrative: in fact it uses the rhythms and repetitions of folk narrative form to produce satire from its own effects. Shawky’s destabilized rendering, while having a certain moody power, doesn’t necessarily add anything.
Meanwhile, thinking about Shawky’s initial visit to the town of Al-Araba al-Madfuna, the connection to the theme of the magical within the pragmatic is not particularly legible in the film: the digging boy, as a reference to this, signposts a lot of interesting things, but not the things Shawky says he was thinking about. I have no issue with cryptic works, if there’s enough to tantalize a committed viewer; but in this case the references are too internal, and the layers don’t resound with each other. Clearly, though, “Al Araba Al Madfuna” is an attempt to work with interests running consistently through his recent practice — and I only hope more of his work gets exposure in Egypt so this can be seen in context.