LONDON — There’s been quite a buzz around Wael Shawky lately. Since graduating with his MFA in 2001, the Egyptian artist has gone on to rack up an impressive number of accolades, including the Abraaj Capital and Schering Foundation prizes, while his canny contribution to last year’s Sharjah Biennial – a choral performance of a Qawwali song, the lyrics to which were fragments of curatorial text from the Biennial’s previous edition, translated into Urdu — earned him a share of the Biennial’s prize funds.
Solo exhibitions have followed suit: over the last three years, Shawky has showcased his work at major European institutions, among them the forward-thinking Nottingham Contemporary and KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin. Riding on this surge of enthusiasm, London’s Serpentine Gallery has deemed it time that Shawky receive his first major presentation in the capital, and the resulting exhibition is Wael Shawky: Al-Qurban (‘The Offering’).
Drawing on a wide range of media — among them digital animation, music, film and puppetry — Shawky probes a whole host of weighty, pertinent subjects, from Middle Eastern politics and religion to the impact of globalization and the power of storytelling. However, this practice makes his a particularly eloquent contribution to the Serpentine’s program, as an institution that has, under Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s direction, increasingly gone out of its way to encourage discourse on and with the Middle East, even hosting a two-day “learning camp” at Speakers’ Corner in September 2011 that focused on Cairo (and boldly titled ‘I Love Egypt’, Speak out!). Shawky’s current presentation is implicitly connected with this aspect of the Serpentine’s programming, having ostensibly evolved out of relationships cultivated during his 2011 residency with the Gallery’s offsite Centre for Possible Studies, the locus of its Middle Eastern community-oriented activities.
Given its geopolitical leanings, you would be forgiven for suspecting that the Serpentine’s Shawky presentation might feel a little agenda-pushing. Happily the subtlety of Shawky’s work dispels such misgivings. The tone is set on entering the exhibition space: darkened for the purposes of screening the three films that make up the main body of Al-Qurban, the resulting murky light is evocative of the hazy and abstracted truths that Shawky is so interested in exploring.
It’s this exploration that animates Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades (2010–2013): a four-part film series enacted with marionettes and scripts stitched together from various medieval sources, chronicling the Crusades from a non-Western perspective. Though both the first two films from the series are screened as part of the exhibition, it’s the marionettes from the second film, The Path to Cairo, which are first focused on.
Spot-lit in a display case opposite the entrance stand three orderly rows of diminutive figures produced by Shawky with the assistance of professional ceramicists in Aubagne, France. Delightfully creepy, these men, women, and human-animal hybrids are realized in infinitesimal detail, their eyelashes, individual outfits and differing skin textures painstakingly rendered. Despite this verisimilitude, the display also calls attention to the “puppetness” of the figures, their strings stretched taut above their heads in a reminder that each body is just a cipher for the actions of their absent operators.
The curators’ decision to begin the exhibition with these puppets is a shrewd one, since the abstraction that they represent — a stand-in for real people, their movements a copy of the original — serves as a key to Shawky’s work. The gap that is sensed between event and its representation when watching the trapdoor mouths of the Lupi collection marionettes jerkily open and close in deliberately unsynchronized speech in the first of Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades films, The Horror Show File (2010), recurs and widens in the second film of the series: realistic stage-sets give way to two-dimensional cityscapes with the appearance of children’s pop-up book illustrations, spoken idiomatic Arabic is superseded by a more arcane classical Arabic, speech dissolves into song, and the French heroic poem La Chanson de Roland is added to the mix of conflicting medieval source texts. As these self-conscious fissures in the narrative of the Crusades pile up, Shawky’s dissection of story-telling (history, in other words) grows more complete.
This interest reaches an apex in Shawky’s new film, Al Araba Al Madfuna II (2013), which is receiving its world premiere at the Serpentine exhibition. Playfully credited as a “personal true story script based on tales,” the film eschews marionettes in favor of children dressed as adults (an approach Shawky used in his 2007 film Telematch Sadat). These children relate to each other via two stories by the Egyptian author Mohamed Mostagab, both of which are about communities faced with challenging situations. Shot in monochrome against the dramatic ruins of El Araba El Madfuna, an ancient village in modern-day Abydos, the refracted narrative assumes a solemn, ritualistic quality that’s not felt elsewhere in the exhibition.
As the children gather around a pool in still silence to commemorate their victory over a despotic ruler towards the film’s conclusion, it’s hard not to connect the unfolding narrative to current events in the region, and beyond that, the history that will inevitably subsume those events.
Wael Shawky: Al-Qurban (‘The Offering’) continues through February 9 at the Serpentine Gallery (Kensington Gardens, London).