Egyptian artist Wael Shawky is justifiably renowned for film trilogies Cabaret Crusades and Al-Araba Al-Madfuna, two works that explore the savage tide of history as it engulfs small villages and grand nations, transforming communities — that is, if it doesn’t leave them in ruins.
With a production process that draws on cultural traditions from across the Mediterranean, each body of his work demonstrates, in a somewhat ominous fashion, how the gravitational force of the past can exert its influence on the present, prompting continuous and reciprocal waves of unreasonable violence.
Shawky rarely exhibits his films in isolation, but often provides sculptural accompaniments or installations that help enable the viewer to grapple with them within the context of their own lived experiences. These three-dimensional works connect Crusades and Al-Araba, film projects that otherwise vary wildly in their style, tone, content and casting. Three recent solo exhibitions of Shawky’s work at the Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Hamburg, ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum in Denmark, and Lia Rumma in Naples demonstrate the central role that sculptural practice plays in Shawky’s wider artistic endeavor, a practice that consciously excavates historical artistic materials and methods from multiple cultures in a career-spanning interrogation of history-making.
I first began exploring this aspect of Shawky’s work when I reviewed his 2016 show of drawings at the Lisson Gallery in Milan. Viewing the drawings alongside two other solo exhibitions of Shawky’s art unfolding at the same time at Fondazione Merz and the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, I became convinced that the artist’s reliance on numerous traditional modes of art-making from the Levant and Europe held the key to a deeper current of meaning running through his oeuvre; a meaning I perceived to be more about the present than the past. This dynamic is particularly clear in Shawky’s sculptural work, as he uses the same forms of traditional artistic production that inspire and shape his films to bring elements of them into our current moment.
The macabre historical soap opera of the Crusades films is pieced together using older cultural methods of production, including Italian marionette construction, Sunni pearl-fisher ballads known as fidjeri, Shia prayer-songs (radouds), French ceramic production, Venetian glassmaking, Ottoman miniature paintings, Renaissance cosmography and Giotto’s late gothic pictorial revolution. These disparate cultural threads have been interwoven to depict a ghastly vision of the medieval Crusades.
Al-Araba’s vision of history and tradition is much more focused on Egypt, drawing on Pharaonic visual culture and its later excavation at the hands of upper Egyptian fellaheen, the country’s rural peasantry. With their hypnagogic tone, velvety black-and-white imagery and ominously rumbling musical score, the Al-Araba films mimic in style the supernatural and mythical rituals told by their young cast. The child actors, wearing fake mustaches and the bleached white robes of the fellaheen, unearth strange artifacts while relaying stories of necromantic witchcraft, bodily transformations and apocalyptic events.
In Sfeir-Semler, the Al-Araba films were exhibited alongside several small plaster sculptures enclosed in a double-level, well-lit vitrine. Displayed much like the innumerable Pharaonic artifacts found in Cairo’s Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, the diminutive objects are placed side-by-side in a perfunctory fashion, mimicking the classificatory and categorical exhibition methods historically developed for archaeological and natural history museums in the west.
While the viewer never catches a clear view of the artifacts excavated in the films, the sculptural component of the Sfeir-Semler show completes this particular aspect of the narrative. These are the archaeological finds of Shawky’s child actors, their stereotypically Pharaonic appearance complicated by his fanciful additions and alterations. A hot pink Anubis is doubled, the mirror-imaged jackal doppelgangers joined together by shared limbs. Thoth’s characteristic ibis head is intact in one figure, but its legs have been replaced with the winding tail of snake. A swollen tortoise’s long neck reaches out of its shell, crowning the falcon-head of Horus. Two crouching human figures meet at the knees in a quirky Pharaonic redux of Constantin Brancusi’s The Kiss. It is ancient Egyptian history as seen through a phantasmagoric lens, its well-known characteristics warped and reformed through liberal doses of the fantastical.
At ARoS, where Shawky is showing the Cabaret films and temporary, site-specific installation work, chimerical flights are prominent. A medieval battlement, crowned with embrasures, meanders through multiple rooms in the gallery, eventually morphing into a dinosaur tail. The artist began exhibiting Cabaret with miniature castles at 2012’s documenta 13 and a 2015 solo show at MoMA PS1, but it was not until his 2016 exhibition at Castello di Rivoli that these diminutive fortresses grew in size and took on their now-characteristic pink color. The ARoS version has undergone a further transformation through the fusion of historical architecture and primordial beast. Like the pseudo-Pharaonic artifacts at Sfeir-Semler, here, the Venetian marionettes used in the third film of the trilogy are also exhibited as sculptural objects, lined up like tiny glass regiments in a glass vitrine. Like the Al-Araba sculptures, the marionettes seem to be sealed safely in the past in their museum-style display cases, although the snaking, candy-colored battlement suggests that their world of bizarre conflict has infused our own reality.
Perhaps most striking at the ARoS show are the wooden relief re-imaginings of older Crusade-related paintings. These magnificent works take century-old compositions by Jean Colombe, Eugene Delacroix and Alexandre Jean Baptiste Hesse, and carve them painstakingly into the surface of massive pieces of wood, only to add monstrous interlopers like kissing amoebas with giraffe-like necks, an awkward cane-brandishing goliath and a hulking, mountain-like form built from bird and reptile parts. These odd intruders reiterate Shawky’s career-spanning skepticism of historical accounts, stories that the artist views as malleable, constructed fantasies that can be reshaped to support any ideological perspective.
In Shawky’s most playful new sculptures, these creatures burst into full, three-dimensional space at the Lia Rumma, where five painted bronze beasts line up, surrounded by brilliantly-hued ink-and-watercolor versions of themselves. The prow of a medieval frigate explodes from the shoulders of a golden, tortoise-like monster, as oars sprout forth from its sides like spindly insect legs. An equally gleaming lizard-like creature with cartoonish eyelashes lies sleeping, a tower-tipped mountain peak growing from its back. Two camel-dinosaur hybrids, one bright red and the other deep blue, rest and stand respectively, cities resting on their humps as their tiny, elegant heads float gracefully on sinuous necks. One appears to bear the weight of Salah al-Din’s Crusade-era citadel, which still sits on Cairo’s horizon like a multi-domed, minaret-encrusted turtle. In their mixture of human architecture and bestial biomorphism, these new bronze beasts are close cousins of the strange denizens of medieval bestiaries and grimoires; anti-classical grotesque figures rendered in a classical artistic medium.
The ancient Greeks famously used cast bronze to produce idealized human figures, harmoniously proportioned in their anatomical beauty to reflect the ordered and perfect cosmos that they believed surrounded them. Shawky’s sculptural grotesques mirror a much more complex and messy reality that he distorts out of proportion. His sculptural work represents an attempt to come to terms with a globalized world in which cultures and people mix freely, where historical sources from one geopolitical region can easily impregnate the cultural productions of another.
The heedless movement of globalization is still informed by age-old prejudices. Xenophobias and wars are born and revived, from Syria to an increasingly hostile Western Europe and a United States that seems to be tail-spinning into full-on nationalist and white supremacist autocracy. Shawky’s Crusades take a medieval conflict as inspiration, but they are very much of a later time, one in which new walls and regiments of control are sprouting up to police the imagined threats that come with globalization’s current form.
I once took the mixture of Shawky’s historical and material grotesques as utopian in nature, and I still think they hold this potential. After all, Shawky still relies on a global community of artisans to produce his films and sculptures, and this collaboration suggests a transnationalism based on art rather than conflict and exploitation. His new works, however, suggest a more sober reading of our global present, the turbulent reality of which is much closer to the universe of Cabaret Crusades than any other interpretation.