Published  22/11/2016

Wael Shawky: ‘When you invert language, you make it even stronger’

Wael Shawky: ‘When you invert language, you make it even stronger’

With two exhibitions of his work opening in Italy this month, Wael Shawky talks about his film-making, connecting literature with myth and history, and why he uses marionettes and children as his protagonists 


Wael Shawky was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1971, but spent much of his childhood in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. His exposure to two places of such great historical, cultural and religious significance permeates his work, enriching and informing the lens through which he views the creation of history and myth.

Shawky studied at the University of Alexandria and also the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, where he is a visiting professor of fine arts. In 2010, he founded MASS Alexandria, a studio space and study programme to encourage young artists in his home country. His early work encompasses video, drawing and performance. But with The Horror Show File (2010), the first in his video trilogy Cabaret Crusades, he launched into serious film-making. For The Horror Show File, he used antique marionettes loaned from Turin’s Lupi Marionette Museum, to tell the story of the Crusades from an Arab perspective. The remaining two films in the series, The Path to Cairo (2012) and The Secrets of Karbala (2014), were also made with marionettes, the former with characterful clay creations he fashioned from scratch with craftsmen in France, and the latter using extraordinary glass puppets made with the help of Murano’s finest glassmakers. The use of puppets rather than people is pivotal to the films’ power: it frees the viewer’s emotions from the sticky terrain of tribal, religious and national allegiances, and reveals the universal metanarratives of human frailty, greed, duplicity and gullibility.

This month marks a major landmark for Shawky, with two shows of his work opening simultaneously in Turin, at the start of Italy’s annual global art fair, Artissima. At Fondazione Merz, he premieres the final instalment of his trilogy Al Araba Al Madfuna, commissioned by Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha. For the first time, audiences can see the trilogy in its entirety, in an immersive setting that takes over the entire Merz building’s basement and first floor. In these films, he uses children rather than puppets to voice the poetry-infused incantations of ancient myths, taken from the novels of Mohamed Mustagab (1938-2005). Each film is placed within its own distinctive landscape, eschewing enactments of the tales in question for a layering of textures – words, ritual and scenography. In this way, the films induce a trance-like meditation on myth and community. While the first two films are black and white, the third is shot in colour but rendered in negative, so that the darkest elements – most notably, the children’s eyes and mouths and the Earth itself - are seemingly suffused with light, while stars and lit torches turn into something dense and impenetrable. This idea of inversion is instrumental in much of Shawky’s work.

This exhibition marks his winning of the first Mario Merz Prize for art and music, in 2015. The Merz prize was created by Mario Merz’s daughter Beatrice, president of the Swiss Fondazione Merz, to recognise significant artists whose work addresses the social, cultural and political challenges of their times.

Simultaneously with the Merz show, the Castello di Rivoli in Turin has dedicated an entire floor to showing the three Cabaret Crusades films, in an equally compelling setting, which includes three fairytale-pink, hand-built enclosures, a marble and bonsai miniature garden for 26 of Shawky’s glass marionettes, plus new huge carved pieces: three European medieval masterpieces about the crusades – but from an Arab perspective - were chosen by Shawky and transformed into huge carved panels by the region’s master carvers.

Shawky has had solo exhibitions at Kunsthaus Bregenz in 2016, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, and MoMA PS1, New York, in 2015, K20, Dusseldorf, in 2014, the Serpentine Gallery, London, in 2013, and Kunst-Werke, Berlin, in 2012. He has also had large-scale group exhibitions, including at the Istanbul Biennial in 2015, the Sharjah Biennial in 2013, and dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012. His work is in the collections of Tate Modern, MoMA, the Barcelona Museum of Modern Art and Qatar Museums.

Shawky spoke to Studio International at the Fondazione Merz in Turin.

Veronica Simpson: Your work is inspired by storytelling – the way narratives are shaped by context and perspectives - and how these stories are transmitted. How do you know when you come across something that this is the story you want to investigate?

Wael Shawky: Usually, I just read a lot of things, but I never really search for a story to become a film. For example, the idea about using glass marionettes in the last film of Cabaret Crusades, this idea about glass and fragility, I had for maybe 20 years, from when I was reading [Portuguese novelist José] Saramago’s The Gospel according to Jesus Christ. Saramago was trying to imagine Jesus was speaking with God. Jesus was asking God why we are so weak. Why are our souls present in such a breakable container that if it breaks, the whole thing ends? Why are we not made of light, for example?

This, for me, is really fascinating: this idea of fragility. From this example came the idea of how to make the last film of Cabaret Crusades.

The novels that inspired these later films, Al Araba Al Madfuna, are by Mohamed Mustagab. I was reading these a long time ago - 15 or so years ago. I went to visit the village in Egypt where the novels were based 12 years ago: a village called Al Araba Al Madfuna. There, I was seeing people digging underground trying to find Pharaonic treasures. In order to find these treasures, they were using, let’s say, magic. They used verses from the Qur’an sometimes, verses from the Bible, alchemy and spiritual powers. They were trying to use these systems to reach this hidden treasure. It was a very powerful experience for me.

At that time, I was thinking, OK, I would like to produce a film, to translate my experience in this village, but how can I translate this experience because it was really heavy. I did not forget it for many years. I was always thinking about translating this experience. I was also thinking about the books I was reading, so the experience is about two different stories happening at the same time. That’s why I decided to make the film like this: you see kids, but at the same time the kids are speaking in adult voices. You see a story in front of you, but the kids are telling a different story. This was my experience there.

The people are living with all the material senses that we have, but are using another system - another sense, a metaphysical approach - in order to reach something materialistic.

I made three films, the last of which I decided to make in the village in which I had this experience; the temple where this whole experience happened. Also, one other thing I experienced there, which was also very intense, was that most of the people really think they can see underground: they believe they can use metaphysics to locate the treasure. They also think they have the ability … to really possess and heal people. One of these experiences I’ve seen in front of me, with a girl [who was possessed]. You know that film, The Exorcist, where the girl speaks in a man’s voice? [This was] exactly the same, exactly. The only difference was that the guy in the film was using the cross to heal. Here, the guy was using the Qur’an. So we know this happens. In Egypt, it is really something that exists. And from this whole experience came this idea of kids speaking in adult voices.

VS: It was especially powerful to watch this last film in its negative version. It feels as if these characters have been transformed into bodies of light.

WS: Exactly, it’s inverted. Because I was always feeling that they are using the higher system to reach the lower; it’s always the opposite.

VS: There is something very striking in the way the children behave. You have spoken before about wanting to use children for these films because, unlike adults, they don’t carry any political, cultural or personal baggage in their transmission of the words. They are almost like marionettes.

WS: Yes, it’s the same. I’m really interested in this idea of creating a visual language: when you invert it, you make it even stronger. Working with kids, the idea is that they don’t know, they don’t have this historical background, and you don’t deal with them as gendered persons. They are society, basically.

VS: However, they take it very seriously. What strikes me, watching the films, is the gravity with which they approach their speaking parts, and how seriously they listen when others have to speak. They don’t look as if they are play-acting.

WS: We made all the recordings first, completely, then the kids do all the mimes. They practice exact miming for one month. I don’t work with professionals, only with kids from villages. We make the workshops. They practice exact lip-synch, and then you put them in the location and you find they have become the man. This inverted element – the negative rendering – in the last film is to erase more the idea of the drama, because you don’t even see the innocence of the kids any more. There is no emotion. There is no historical background.

VS: It’s a transformation of what you expect from storytelling into something beyond. The focus is about the language and the ritual, the act of telling the story, rather than the tale itself.

WS: In Arabic, the language is so rich - I don’t know about the translation; it’s the best translation we could get - but it’s beautiful. And the way he’s putting the words in Arabic for me is unique. For me, it only belongs to this series. Mustagab has another story, actually. But I’m always thinking that I need to make it as a film, but not like these, because here I’m using his language, only his language and not his choreography. You don’t see his story itself, it’s just heard. This other story I would like to see told is about a woman from a village who goes to one of the sheikhs [used in the honorary Arabic sense as elder, lord, wise man], who is dead. They really believe in the blessing that can happen from a very good dead person. In this story, the woman went to ask the sheikh to give her a boy. A year later, she had a son, and when it came to the moment of circumcision, she remembers that she promised the sheikh that if she had a boy she would circumcise him in the sheikh’s village. In Mustagab’s story, he’s dealing with the subject of poor and ignorant and superstitious people. The woman is trying to collect money to go with this kid. She takes him to the sheikh’s village. She arrives and they start to cut, and, in the middle of this, the villagers come upon them and stop them and say: “How can you do this? You have to do this in your village!” Now the son is bleeding, but they take him on a donkey and go back to the woman’s village. And there, they say: “How can you do this? You have to go back.” And so on.

VS: I can see the appeal of that story, and I would love to see what scenography you would create. Tell me about the environments you choose for your films. For example, there are some structures in the second film, Al Araba Al Madfuna II, that are extraordinary: tall, sculptural clay towers filled with holes and spikes. They are clearly real, but they look surreal. What are they?

WS: These are pigeon houses. This is a location of a ruin of pigeon houses, in Egypt. Pigeons are food, so it’s like a farm, but this one is so interesting: it’s a huge ruin. When you speak about ancient, you never know what ancient means – 4,000, 400, 100 years. You feel from Mustagab’s story that ancient means the time before technology, before electricity. This is how that place feels.

VS: How did you choose the other locations for the Al Araba Al Madfuna films?

WS: In the first film, everything happens in one room, the guest room I was staying in during my stay in Al Araba Al Madfuna. All the people exist only in this room. Then the last film is set in the Temple of Seti I, where they think all the treasures are buried. In between, I was feeling it’s good to try to imagine the village they lived in. For me, these pigeon houses are like the village for this ancient city.

The whole experience for me is about how you connect literature with myth and history. Of course it’s poetic, but without being sentimental or dramatic.

VS: Have you enjoyed inhabiting these buildings in Turin where your films are being shown, creating these immersive environments? 

WS: Yes, a lot. Here at Fondazione Merz, it was important for me to have the space more like a drawing. Because [he gestures to the blue walls and sand-drenched floor] this is like a drawing: the background is blue, there is a yellow structure, a tower and the palm tree and the sand. I felt it would be really interesting to be in this as an experience, as if you have entered one of the drawings. It’s a very simple piece.

In Castello di Rivoli [where Cabaret Crusades are showing], I’m not really dealing with it as an exhibition space. It’s more like an experience that the audience walks through. It’s like a historical time zone. It is a delight to show the marionettes in a museum setting. It becomes more real. There’s more involvement in the concept of the architecture. Everything is based on the scenography and on the cast of the Cabaret Crusades. It’s one work. It does not feel like a museum in which I place work.

I find it really interesting to have the two series happening at the same time, because I was making them at the same time. The Cabaret series was built at the same time as Al Arab al Madfuna was built.

It’s alsoimportant for me to have the two exhibitions like this at the same time because they are using two different (artistic) languages. Cabaret Crusades is dealing with the way history is written, and the other one is dealing with the way literature is made. And one of them is more in tune with the idea of the handmade and the craft and the involvement of people and action and the tangible, and  the other is completely dealing with the idea of myth.

VS: There seems to be a special relationship between you and Italy, and Turin in particular.

WS: It all started in Turin in 2010. I was invited by Citadellarte-Fondazione Pistoletto to be an artist in residence. That’s when I spoke to Michelangelo Pistoletto about my dream of making a film about the Crusades. It was the beginning of everything for me, and he helped to make it possible. I found an amazing marionette collection in Turin (in Museum Lupi). With the help of the foundation I was able to use those marionettes.

VS: You have also praised the glassmakers you worked with in Murano to create the puppets, which are extraordinary.

WS: Yes, they are amazing maestros, amazing. My wife and I stayed in Murano for about eight months.

VS: Do you feel your connection with Italy comes from the enduring traditions of craftsmanship and also storytelling both in Egypt and Italy?

WS: I work with many different cultures. I have made big productions in Italy, and also in the South of France and in Germany. Each experience was completely different. But my experience of working with Italians is really connected to the sensibility of handmade craft and the tradition that is really alive. They are open to challenges, and my marionettes brought a lot of challenges. It was not easy to work with glass, but they try it this way and that way until, in the end, they reach perfection.

Wael Shawky: Al Araba Al Madfuna is at Fondazione Merz, Turin, until 5 February 2017.

Cabaret Crusades is at Castello di Rivoli, Turin, until 5 February 2017.

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