Born in Alexandria, the artist became known almost overnight a few years ago. He was working on a trilogy of films called Cabaret Crusades, which he presented for the first time at the Istanbul Biennial 2011. Their subject matter is the medieval crusades of the 11th and 12th centuries, their sets represent the sites of oriental battlefields. In contrast to conventional films, Wael Shawky narrates the crusades from an Arab point of view, remaining faithful to the book The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by the Franco-Lebanese author Amin Maalouf, published in 1983. The work focuses on an analysis of written history, drawing on a variety of historical sources for inspiration in order to re-present and translate the history of the crusades from a fresh perspecti ve. The films Cabaret Crusade: The Horror Show File (2010) and Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo (2012, musical) were exhibited along with accompanying installations of drawings and objects at dOCUMENTA (13) in the summer of 2012.
Shawky uses marionettes as actors and a self-built stage as a set. Some of the elaborately attired wooden figures originate from the 18th century, whilst others are newly fabricated ceramic ones. Recently, as could be witnessed at Art Basel 2015, they have also been cast from glass and presented in illuminated display cases like mute ancestors and eerie ghosts.
Wael Shawky uses a variety of media such as film, drawing, photography, and performance, to investigate and analyze the real and imaginary histories and narratives of the Arab world.
His multi-layered reconstructions and retellings force viewers to engage in questions of truth, myth, and stereotypes. The artist sees himself as a translator of instances of civilizational transition into material form.
The work is about history, about manipulation and ideology, but also about a critique of the media and their representational norms. These plays obtain an explosive power from the religious conflicts of the present day. Cairo, Aleppo, and Damascus were then as now the sites of hostile and bloody clashes. The waves of refugees have made these conflicts directly perceptible in Europe, a development that had not been foreseeable a few months ago when the exhibition was being arranged.
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