Wael Shawky in Milan: A cosmopolitan artistic ecumenopolis exists just behind the carnage

Wael Shawky, who has achieved global recognition for his epic video productions, is currently showing at three different galleries across northern Italy. Taken together, the shows at Castello di Rivoli, Fondazione Merz and the Lisson Gallery Milan present something of a mid-career retrospective, displaying the artist’s surreal and meticulously researched re-imaginings of Upper Egyptian storytelling and the history of the Crusades. Given that Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades, his more renowned film trilogy, portrays the Crusades as a monstrous danse macabre between Arab and European cultures, Italy avails itself as an appropriate setting. One imagines the aberrant marionettes that populate the Crusades films as they march through the Alps and foothills outside Milan and Turin, a brigade of murderous toys on its way to commit atrocity in the Holy Land.

The exhibition at the Lisson Gallery presents a selection of drawings Shawky made while preparing his two video trilogies, Cabaret Crusades (2010-2015) and Al Araba Al Madfuna (2012-2016). Those trilogies, which have appeared in various incarnations during the past six years, are often accompanied by immersive installations. The Fondazione Merz shows the Al Araba trilogy in full for the first time, projecting it in a gallery space filled with sand. Viewers watch the films while sitting on miniature sand dunes, the darkened and cool interior of the Fondazione echoing the many subterranean spaces of Al Araba. Nearby, at the Castello di Rivoli, are the three Cabaret films, installed in the cavernous top floor of the converted castle. The space is punctuated by bubblegum-pink medieval fortifications Shawky constructed for the show. Inside, the viewer finds small, cave-like projection theaters where each film plays on loop. Outside the cotton-candy ramparts, a long marble platform, gleaming white in the gallery lights, holds small bonsai trees, flowers, and members of the Murano-glass marionette cast from Secrets of Karbala, the third Cabaret film. Their grotesque, chimerical personas are offset by their fragile, effervescent materiality. Like translucent crustacea and emaciated, masked phantoms, the puppets stand frozen alongside the films they dramatize to such eerie effect.

The least bombastic of the three shows, yet also the most illuminative of Shawky’s practice, the drawing exhibition at the Lisson provides a view onto the preparatory connective tissue that links the Cabaret and Al Araba projects. During my trip across northern Italy to review the three shows, I saw the Lisson exhibition last, and its quiet, self-contained air contrasted markedly with the environmental thrill and macabre theater on display at the two larger exhibitions. There is one room, 13 small drawings and a large mirror with the map of a Crusades-era city sandblasted on its surface (Cabaret Crusades, Map 3, 2016). For what the show lacks in showmanship, it more than makes up for in the gentle sense of mystery that surrounds the drawings, as well as the opportunity to divine some of the connecting strands that bridge and unite the two trilogies. These larger projects have dominated Shawky’s career during the past half-decade, continuing his earlier engagement with the ways historical narrative necessarily alters what it seeks to document, the unfolding of human events in time. These drawings bear witness to an artist playing with ideas and forms as they make the transition from his whimsical handling of graphite, ink and loose pigment to the high drama and disturbing undertones that define his films. They also show Shawky’s interest in transformation and the grotesque, two concepts that permeate his film projects and frame his approach to the practice of history. Finally, most notably in the mirror work, this show helps flesh out what I think of as Shawky’s career-spanning project of artistic ecumenopolis – a city that covers the entire surface of a world – in which he freely borrows from the material and visual culture of the Levant and the Western Mediterranean to give fleeting, barely recognizable form to a cosmopolitan community of artists and artisans indebted to history, even as they give searing representation to its atrocities.

The drawings, all made in 2015, are directly related to the Al Araba trilogy by their names. They show strange, distended creatures that are part man, part animal, and sometimes part inanimate object. In one drawing, two gargantuan turtle-like beings lay asleep, their noses touching in the barest suggestion of a kiss. A city sprawls out on the shell of one of the creatures, the buildings delineated in thin lines of ink. Minarets sprout out of the turtle-thing’s flank, and, further back in the drawing’s landscape, a cyclopean ruin stands, all right angles and straight lines, in stark contrast to the biomorphic, gestural quality of the turtle-cities. In another, an orange and pink longboat glides over a colorfully speckled sea, its front end a parrot’s head. The boat seems to contain a small human settlement, with the suggestion of people brought forth by tiny dots of pigment. A delicate palm tree springs out of the stern. Three more colorful drawings bear the obvious influence of Pharaonic visual culture, their flattened depth of field mimicking wall reliefs in ancient Egyptian tombs. One shows the jackal-headed Anubis, an Egyptian god associated with mummification and the afterlife, tending to a royal sarcophagus, the outline of his rigid body standing out against a solid background of saturated orange gouache. All of the drawings have been sprinkled with shrewd amounts of metallic glitter, their surfaces sparkling gently.

The narratives of the Al Araba films are each adapted from short stories by Egyptian author Mohamed Mustageb. These stories tell tales of small Egyptian villages that undergo watershed changes due to shifts in tradition or mystical intervention. Al Araba Al Madfuna I (2012) is based on the story The J-B-Rs, which recounts how a hamlet takes up a series of animals as their main source of material welfare. As they change from camels to mules to, finally, the forbidden pig, the townspeople find that their bodies undergo bizarre metamorphosis to become more like their animal of choice. Al Araba Al Madfuna III (2016), based on Mustageb’s Sunflowers, tells the story of a village that adopts the sunflower as its principal crop, only to have their fortunes turn when the irrepressible plant overtakes their farms and invades the very heart of the village itself.

Shawky’s drawings show the fanciful results of similar transformations. A building morphs into a monitor lizard. One side of a hill stretches out to become the neck of a sad-eyed brontosaurus. Minarets turn into writhing snakes. Crowds of people gather peacefully under the body of a multi-limbed, faceless monster. The ways communities interact and change one another through war and material culture has been a perennial concern for Shawky throughout his career, and he wields the grotesque as a powerful symbolic mode in his latest films and drawings as a way to represent the transformations wrought through conflict, border-crossing and material exchange. According to the American art historian Frances Connelly, the grotesque is a playful, impure and hybrid mode of expression, one uniquely suited to a globalizing world in which local tradition is always already mingled with alien cultural forces. While ostensibly located in historical or mythical realms, the grotesques of Shawky’s films and drawings have much to say about the globalization and cultural mixing that began, the artist’s work seems to suggest, far before the modern era, during events like the Crusades. In Shawky’s work, the grotesque is a signature of cultural contact and transformation, two unfoldings that are inextricably linked.

Finally, there is the meter-tall mirror, which sits on the Lisson’s floor, leaning against the gallery’s back wall. It presents the round form of a Crusades-era city map, buildings walled in by a circular fortification and bisected by a river. The image of the map is projected on the floor as a shadow by the mirror’s reflection. Appropriations of the historical material and visual cultures of the Levant, the Middle East and the Western Mediterranean is a central part of Shawky’s Cabaret trilogy. The puppets that occupy the films’ roles were made by European artisans using centuries-old techniques. Path to Cairo, the second film, features ceramic marionettes created by French santonniers (Nativity scene sculptors), while the third film has a cast of 300 glass marionettes made by glass-workers in Venice. During a conversation with the artist in 2013, Shawky told me that he referenced Giotto’s frescoes, Renaissance cosmograms, medieval cartography, ballads sung by Sunni pearl fishers from Bahrain and Shia prayer songs called radouds. The final stage of Shawky’s work on the Crusades was another act of cultural appropriation: He reimagined, with woodworkers from Italy’s Veneto region, the Crusades paintings of Eugène Delacroix, Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen, and Alexandre Jean-Baptiste Hesse as large-scale wooden reliefs. Grotesques also populate these reworkings. An aquatic behemoth floats alongside the battleships of van Wieringen’s work, and a long-necked phantasm hovers above the drama of a court scene by Hesse. Sandblasted mirror-making is another Venetian medium.

Shawky’s Crusades-centered works all emerge from these constellations of influence and networks of artistic collaboration. Even while they represent sectarian bitterness and politico-religious massacre, they exist as artworks due to the cooperation of European and Levantine artisans and the intermixing of traditions from the very geographical areas that were once beset by religious conflict. Shawky’s work cuts both ways, presenting an apocalyptic vision of a world thrown into chaos that is nonetheless the product of peaceful artistic exchange. Even as Constantinople burns in Secrets of Karbala, the partnerships that brought this spectacle to fruition shine forth, suggesting a cosmopolitan artistic ecumenopolis that exists just behind the carnage. That the mirror work at Lisson represents a city – one shaped like a world, and that is also twinned by its own shadow version – goes straight to the heart of Shawky’s project. For while there is plenty of barbarity and fearful transformation on display in his films, they also bare the traces of another way, a grotesque intermixing peaceably and reciprocally shot through with the neighbors’ strangeness.

Wael Shawky shows at Lisson Gallery, Milan from November 9, 2016 to January 13, 2017.

Dan Jakubowski 

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