Egyptian artist Wael Shawky's 'Cabaret Crusades' trilogy travels to Austria

Ahram Online , Tuesday 5 Jul 2016

Shawky's video trilogy inspired by Amin Maalouf's 'The Crusades Through Arab Eyes' will be presented at the Kunsthaus Bregenz, a contemporary art gallery in Austria

Wael Shawky
Marionette from Wael Shawky's art project Cabaret Crusades (Photo: still from a video promoting the work)

Following the many displays of the Cabaret Crusades, between 15 and 22 July, Egyptian artist Wael Shawky will present his art project at the Kunsthaus Bregenz contemporary art gallery in Bregenz, Austria.

The artwork is in the format of a video trilogy in which Shawky filmed the marionettes he created to tell the story of the Crusades. The trilogy segments include The Horror Show Files (2010), The Path to Cairo (2012) and The Secrets of Karbala (2014).

The trilogy is based on a book by the French-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf, titled ‘The Crusades Through Arab Eyes.’

Maalouf's historical essay follows the years of the Crusades as perceived and documented by Arab writers, and offers a different perspective on the wars between the Western and Arab worlds in the 12th and 13th centuries.

By creating and filming the marionettes made of different material, including glass and porcelain, Shawky questions established European narratives on the Crusades. 

He asserts that history has no set facts, which are created through the interpretation of events and the angles and eyes of the chroniclers that document the history.

As follows, the Crusades take a different form when looked at from the Arab viewpoint, a fact that was researched and developed in Maalouf's book.

"Saladin is still considered an Arab hero. He managed to return Jerusalem to the Muslims. The story is a topic in any Muslim nationalist discussion,” Shawky writes in the notes accompanying the artwork, adding that Saladin used “the same language Pope Urban II used in 1095. He said, 'If you go to Jerusalem, you will have more food and a better life, and if you die, you will go to heaven.' You can still hear these words today."

Shawky's artwork underwent a long process of complex creation. He created the marionettes, wrote a script and built dramatically and visually seductive scenes that are intertwined with the history depicted by Maalouf.

He then compiled the scenes and gave the project a final video format. As a result, Shawky's work combines historical influences and a surreal element embedded in the marionettes themselves and their narratives.

"Shawky says the puppets help create a surreal and mythical atmosphere that blends drama and cynicism, telling a story of remote events that could hardly be more topical today,” we read in the notes to Shawky's exhibition that took place in MoMA New York last year.

“The puppets’ strings clearly refer to the idea of control. The work also implies a criticism of the way history has been written and manipulated.”

Born in 1971 in Alexandria, Shawky has a number of exhibitions in Egypt and international works under his belt.

The Cabaret Crusades have been exhibited across the world. As the artwork's consecutive parts have been developed, they visited numerous exhibition halls, among them Nottingham Contemporary (2011), Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut (2010), Cittadellarte, Italy (2010), Serpentine Gallery in London (2013-14), and MoMA in New York (2015), among others.

This will be the first time for the video trilogy to be presented in Austria's Kunsthaus Bregenz art gallery. 

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