Egyptian artist Wael Shawky’s solo show, Horsemen Adore Perfumes and Other Stories,
which presents his works from the past decade, opened Thursday evening at the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) Art Spaces. Curated by Sharjah Art Foundation director Hoor Al-Qasimi, the multi-part exhibition, which features a series of videos, installations, drawings and sculptures, spotlights the artist’s fixation with the rewriting, documentation and interpretation of history.
The hall at the SAF Art Spaces was vast and dim, hospitable to the various projects sprawled across the walls, telling stories to the artists, curators and spectators from across the globe attending the vernissage of Shawky's exhibition. It was drizzling outside.
Two other major solo exhibitions opened on the same night: Susan Hefuna: Another Place, which showcases a selection of work in sculpture, drawing, photography, video and multi-media, created by German-Egyptian artist Susan Hefuna since the 1980s; and Rasheed Araeen: Before and After Minimalism, which presents works that span five devades of the Pakistani-born British artist Rasheed Araeen’s art career.
The openings coincided with the seventh annual March Meeting, held at the Sharjah Art Foundation Art Spaces, from 13 to 16 March. In the shape of a public symposium, featuring discussions among artists, curators and scholars, the March Meeting has been designed by Eungie Joo, curator of the 12th Sharjah Biennial, as a point of departure for the Biennial, which will take place in 2015.
Horsemen Adore Perfumes and Other Stories emerges as a survey of contemporary Alexandria-based artist Wael Shawky’s projects, dating back to 2003. The works on display capture the scope and versatility of Shawky’s practice. They include: a video entitled Al-Araba Al-Madfuna II (2014), the second in a series rooted in short stories by late Egyptian writer Mohamed Mustagab; a video entitled Asphalt Quarter (2003); a silent video titled Dictums: Manqia I (2014); a sound installation dubbed Dictums: 10:120 (2013); a series of drawings (2013-2014); and a video titled The Cave (2004).
Wael Shawky’s work, produced in a multitude of media, deals intensively with history, religion and culture. He does not seek to judge history, nor does he seek to rewrite it. He is “much more interested in transforming this history into a new visual format, a new experience,” Shawky said during a presentation of his work at the March Meeting on Thursday.
In his heavy reliance on the past, Shawky scrutinises the way we believe in written history. Fascinated by the alternative — at times conflicting — narratives that he uncovers through research, the artist decided early on that it was extremely important for him to have a single reference and have that inform a project.
“To be precise about the text is a criticism in itself,” Shawky explains. His work therefore simultaneously presents one version of history, and reprimands that uncontested acceptance of merely one version of history.
Visitors at the opening of Wael Shawky: Horsemen Adore Perfumes and Other Stories, Thursday 13 March. (Photo: Sara Elkamel)
One of the most powerful projects at Shawky’s show is Dictums: 10:120, a multi-part work commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation that yielded the composition and performance of a qawwali song.
The project emerged as a result of “thinking of how to translate the idea of the Sharjah Biennial into an artwork,” explains Shawky.
The artist decided to work with one element of the curatorial discourse surrounding the Sharjah Biennial — the press conference of its 10th edition in 2011, as a reference. Seeking to involve the dominantly Pakistani Sharjah Art Foundation’s production and technical team, Shawky held workshops over a year in which the workers used the press conference text, which had been translated into Urdu, to create a two-page poem.
“I wanted to give them full authority over this project. It was very important for them to lead this conversation,” says Shawky.
Deciding to add music to the lyrics, Shawky consulted the workers on their preferred music. Their verdict led him to Karachi, where he worked with qawwali musicians to transform the words into song.
At the 11th Biennial, a group of 30 men, 15 from Pakistan and 15 from Sharjah, told the story of the previous biennial through this melodious, rapturous song, tearing down boundaries between Sufi music and contemporary art.
Shawky’s exhibition, which tackles historical trajectories and challenges the boundaries of locality and place, serendipitously mirrored the discussions that unfolded during sessions at the March Meeting’s inaugural day. The first panel discussion, entitled “Sustained Engagements,” took place Thursday 13 March, and featured a dynamic panel: Lebanese artist Tarek Atoui, Emirati artist Abdullah Al-Saadi, a Bombay-based collaborative studio dubbed CAMP, Iranian artist Rene Gabri, and Palestinian artist Ayreen Anastas (both based in New York City).
Spinning into existential questions at times, and drawing on ideas by writers and philosophers including Francis Fukuyama, Michel Foucault, Immanuel Kant and Karl Marx, the panel delved into conversations about the value of art, the place of art, the building of an artistic institution with roots in local communities, among others.
CAMP discussed “questions of heritage and modernity when you’re building something new,” while Rene Gabri shared his realisation that the Middle East is “a place where the relationship to history is not fixed.”
Most prominently, though, this question of "sustained engagements" can be detected in Shawky's Dictums: 10:120, which used Sharjah as a starting point, and set out to explore the relationships, engagements, between art institutions and their neighbouring communities.
Wael Shawky took part in the second panel that day, dubbed "Developing a Language of Cultural Production," alongside Ethiopian painter Julie Mehretu, Mexican conceptual artist Abraham Cruzvillegas, and American-Korean multi-media artist Michael Joo.
Cruzvillegas spoke of two principles that guide his work, self-construction and self-destruction, as Joo talked about fragmentation and unification, which inform his body of work.
Mehretu read a text she wrote about the process of painting, which she describes as going deep into "a pressurised state of disfiguration, disembodiment."
Meanwhile, Shawky talked about his three current projects — Al-Araba Al-Madfuna, Dictums 10:120, and Cabaret Crusades — revealing his process of deconstruction and resurrection of history. Here, Shawky seems to fit in with a larger discourse of cultural production in which history, and present, is first broken down before it can be recreated.
The March Meeting runs until 16 March at the Sharjah Art Foundation Art Spaces.
Wael Shawky’s exhibition, Horsemen Adore Perfumes and Other Stories, runs until 13 June 2014.
SAF Art Spaces, Sharjah, UAE