There’s an aura of inescapable truth that winds up in Wael Shawky’s works. Yet, there is no lesson in his films and installations, they simply present the viewers with historical facts, which at times may reflect present conditions but even if they do, it I s just the umpteenth piece of proof that we don’t learn from past experiences, and that history is doomed to repeat endlessly.
In a much subtler way, Shawky’s carefully researched and minutely orchestrated fictions face us with the historical precedent, and the idea of end as “cinematic utopia” . His practice is based on extensive periods of research and uses performance, installation, drawing and storytelling to question notions of historical truth, blind faith, evolution and social identity.
Born in Alexandria (Egypt) in 1971, Wael Shawky lived the period of change that followed the discovery of oil. Son of an engineer, he passed almost nine years constantly moving between Egypt and Saudi Arabia as a child, the passage from a nomadic, beduin society to a modernised, more western one. This early experience is clearly reflected in Shawky’s peculiar interest in analysing societies in their moment of transition, be it historical, political, or economical, throughout his oeuvre.
When studying fine art in Alexandria, Shawky became acquainted, thanks to his professor who attended the Dusseldorf Academy, to German art. In particular, he was profoundly struck by Joseph Beuys and his theory that materials are charged with a specific, innate meaning . For Shawky, this is a “religious” approach, which entails using a certain material with the belief that it’s going to give certain conceptual results. The contrast between religious approach and the functional one makes up his system and enhances the value of the subject. For example, asphalt is a material that insistently returns throughout his work, and symbolises oil, change and the advent of western society.
At the academy, Shawky spent most of the time painting and drawing. It’s only in 1996 that he translated his experiences into installation with Frozen Nubia, cement replicas of the typical Nubian homes that spotlighted the controversy of the Aswan High Dam (1970), whose construction flooded an important Nubian region in southern Egypt and northern Sudan, forcing the resettlement of inhabitants in neighbouring countries with consequential loss of their land and identity.
Shawky’s first work with film is Sidi El Asphalt’s Moulid (2001) – the day of birth of god asphalt – which tackles similar issues retelling the story of the many Egyptian families that, in the 70s, emigrated to the gulf area for the oil. A process that resulted in a hybridisation with Saudi Arabia’s culture, impacting negatively on liberalism.
His piece Asphalt Quarter (2003), based on the novel Cities of Salt (1984), narrates the far-reaching effects of the discovery of an oil reserve near a village on the Arabian Peninsula, is again a paradigm of sudden and revolutionary change. In it, some kids are intent in building an asphalt highway in the middle of the desert.
Probably Shawky’s most famous work to date is, however, Cabaret Crusade (2010-15), a series of three films that narrates the history of crusades from the Arabian point of view, for the first time presenting the western conquerors as the monstrous, barbaric invaders. He had already experimented the idea of a single story unwinding in episodes in the Telematch series (2007-09), a format that is congenial to his idea of never ending history and art as a continuous running after our ignorance . One of the main sources used to collect anecdotes fort his work is the book The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (1984), by Amin Maalouf, which exemplifies the underlying theme of the series; there isn’t an absolute historical truth but multiple versions of it.
Compared to the first film (Horror Show File, 2010) in a bare asphalt setting and puppets on loan from the puppetry museum in Turin, the second one (The Path to Cairo, 2012) is much more sophisticated in terms of production; it used purposely created marionettes, miniature scenography of Middle-eastern flavour and traditional music of the gulf area.
The same level of detail characterises in the third and last film of the series, The Secrets of Karbala (2015), where glass-blown marionettes re-stage the dreadful massacre occurred during the Battle of Karbala (680 AD), pointing once again the finger at religious conflicts, and bringing onset the schism between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
This November, Wael Shawky will be given his first Italian retrospective at Castello di Rivoli, Turin, from November 3 to February 5, 2017. In conjunction, the Fondazione Merz will also present Wael Shawky, the winner of the first edition of the Premio Mario Merz, with a site-specific exhibition curated by Abdellah Karroum and, from November 10 to January 7, Lisson Gallery in Milan will exhibit drawings by the artist.
Check the CtC pages regularly to discover the next one.
 Schaustelle. Kino der Kunst. Wael Shawky. Artist talk – moderated by Hans Urlich Obrist, 28 April 2013. Published on 4 May 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQao1_pMD0A
 Interview: Egyptian artist Wael Shawky on faith, oil, politics – and puppetry, by Rachel Spence. Financial Times, November 29, 2013. https://www.ft.com/content/60f24b1a-4dec-11e3-8fa5-00144feabdc0