Wael Shawky, one of Egypt's and the Arab world's most internationally acclaimed contemporary artists, made a quick appearance in Cairo on Saturday 8 February to present his video Al-Araba Al-Madfuna at Beirut art space.
One of the 43-year-old artist's most important achievements so far is MASS, the studio space and study programme he established in his hometown Alexandria in 2010.
Growing up in Saudi Arabia, Shawki returned as a young adult to study fine arts at the University of Alexandria, from whence he graduated in 1994 to pursue graduate studies, also in fine arts, at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
His oeuvre is bedecked with exceptionally well-developed projects tackling historical, religious and cultural themes. He uses photography, installation, video and performance art to re-construct historical accounts and literary texts, forcing viewers to deconstruct their own perceptions of what is true and what is mythical.
Producing works that critically engage with the global art discourse, Wael Shawky is part of a group of contemporary Egyptian artists – including Hassan Khan, Bassim Magdy, and Yousef Nabil – who have garnered significant interest abroad. His works have been displayed at the Biennale di Venezia (2003), the 12th Istanbul Biennale (2011), Documenta 13 in Kassel (2012) and the 11th Sharjah Biennale (2013) among other international venues.
Shawky's last solo show in Egypt, where he infrequently exhibits, was held in 2009 at the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo under the title "Clean History".
Al-Araba Al-Madfuna, 2011, film still
Beirut, an art space located in Cairo's Agouza district, on Saturday hosted a screening of Shawky's film Al-Araba Al-Madfuna, produced using an award he received from the German Ernst Schering Foundation in 2011. The 20-minute black and white film zooms in on a village in Upper Egypt -- which lends the film its title -- where a group of local children retell folk tales in grown men's voices, with text appropriated from a short story by the late Egyptian writer Mohamed Mustagab. The video installation debuted in a solo exhibit at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin in August 2012.
As Mustagab’s fable has it, on his deathbed, the Al-Araba Al-Madfuna village leader leaves the younger generation with the following words of advice: "Buy a camel." The tale reveals how, after following his advice, the village men then start bearing physical resemblance to camels. The village's next leader has a different idea. When he is asked to impart his last words to them, he advises the young to buy a mule this time. Obedient, the young then start taking after the new animal. The film ends abruptly when another elderly leader advises the village to procure a pig.
Like enchantments, the lyrical words we hear pull us into a trance, as the parable warns of the hazards of blindly taking advice from elders. The film is an absorbing experience in many ways. The monochromatic picture and the sophisticated, slightly obscure narration lend the film a mythical, dream-like effect. Watching men's voices emerging out of young boys' lips does not cease to confuse, and hence possibly amuse, throughout the film. Although dizzying, the repetition of the same tale with different animals, and the reiteration of the same lines over and over, succeeds in reflecting the inevitability of history repeating itself.
In conversation with German curator Susanne Pfeffer, Wael Shawky spoke before an audience of about 50 people on a particularly chilly Saturday night in Cairo about Al-Araba Al-Madfuna and how the project falls into his larger oeuvre.
Shawky explained that he had always been fascinated by the writings of Egyptian novelist and short story writer Mohamed Mustagab, who was incidentally born in Upper Egypt.
The artist said he was particularly intrigued by Mustagab's ability to blend two worlds together, the metaphysical and the mundane. In appropriating a literary text that in fact weaves together elements of the mystical and the routine, the artist managed to create two stories in one.
"This idea of two worlds running in parallel to each other is the chief idea I wanted to present here," Shawky said.
Moreover, the contrasts and juxtapositions Shawky succeeded to bring into the film, such as black and white, young bodies with old voices, a closed muggy room and the flowing Nile River, helped create this impression of a binary world.
Al-Araba Al-Madfuna would not have materialised without a visit the artist paid over a decade ago to the Upper Egyptian village. After receiving the Ernst Schering Foundation Award in 2011, he decided to translate his experience in the tiny village – which he claims was once the capital of Egypt.
As echoed in the setting of a scene Shawky recreated in this film, he reminisces about his visit to Al-Araba Al-Madfuna 10 years ago, when he had sat in a closed room while people dug in search of buried artefacts and Ancient Egyptian treasures. On screen, the room is now inhabited by children taking turns to tell an extraordinary story.
"My reason for using kids in this film is to avoid relying on acting skills…I don't like to depend on the actor, I like to use the text itself to represent the topic,” Shawky said.
Al-Araba Al-Madfuna, 2011, film still
The artist has worked with unskilled child actors before. In 2003, he participated in the 50th Venice Biennale with a project dubbed Asphalt Quarter. The project was based on a 1984 novel by Jordanian-born Saudi novelist Abdul-Rahman Munif called Cities of Salt, which discusses the ramifications on an anonymous Gulf country's Bedouin community when Americans find oil in an oasis named Wadi Al-Uyoun. The Asphalt Quarter film installation saw Shawky direct a group of children in the Western desert to construct an asphalt runway for a plane in the desert. The artist said he is keen on working with children with no previous acting experience because they lack the layers of cultural discourse that constrain the lives of adults.
What is intriguing about this particular video by Shawky is that it is fundamentally about how communities inherit the ideologies of their predecessors, and how change is therefore, ironically, dictated by the past. The artist, who often uses film and installation art to tackle social and political transformations in modern Arab history, revealed his deep interest in working with the concept of cities in transition.
The second film in this series, Al-Araba Al-Madfuna II which premiered at London's Serpentine Gallery in November 2013, Shawky again uses children with adult voices to re-tell Mustagab's parables.
A storyteller himself, Shawky employs culturally traditional storytelling techniques such as puppetry and video, yet brings them into the modern art-world context by presenting them as installations. He brings the past to the fore in installations such as Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File (2010) and Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo (2012) or Telematch Sadat (2007). In doing so, the artist spotlights and challenges the nature of telling stories, fiction and non-fiction alike, in contemporary society.