Wael Shawky

In the mid-1970s, the game show Telematch began an eight-year run on West German public television. The show was based on a formula borrowed from other similar shows such as Intervilles in France and It’s a Knockout in the United Kingdom; the idea was to pit residents of two different towns against one another in contests that often involved outrageous costumes. At the end of each season, the winners of Telematch would advance to Jeux Sans Frontiers (Games Without Borders), a show created in the ’60s, allegedly at Charles de Gaulle’s request, to foster pan-European friendship. But the popularity of Telematch waned, and by the ’80s it was gone. The show’s producers dubbed the series into Arabic, Hindi, and Spanish, among other languages, and syndicated it around the globe, at which point it became an unexpected oddball hit in countries as far afield as India and Argentina.

In the long history of popular culture’s global reach, a show like Telematch will probably be just a footnote, but it directly informs the Egyptian artist Wael Shawky’s ongoing “Telematch” series, 2007–. Shawky fell in love with the show as a kid growing up in Saudi Arabia. His father had moved the family from Alexandria to Mecca, part of an early wave of emigration that, after the discovery of oil, brought countless doctors, lawyers, architects, and engineers from the Levant to the Gulf. When that wave of emigration reversed—when those countless doctors, lawyers, architects, and engineers returned home—something of Saudi Arabia (politically conservative, intensely religious) traveled, too, and seeped into the very fabric of Egyptian society, which was relatively liberal and decidedly secular at the time.

Shawky explores this and other examples of cultural exchange by using the Telematch setup as a kind of extended metaphor for the tensions that arise when different states, societies, or civilizations meet. In the video Telematch Sadat, 2007, he enlists a pack of children to reenact the assassination of Anwar Sadat, which occurred during a parade in Cairo in 1981, and to restage the late Egyptian president’s funeral procession and burial. Telematch Shelter, 2008, shows kids crowding in and out of a huge dome built out of mud in Egypt’s Western Desert. The newest addition to the series, Telematch Crusades, 2009, true to its title, revisits the historic military campaigns that pitted Christians against Muslims for hundreds of years. This would seem to suggest that Shawky is taking a rather large leap back in time. But in fact Telematch Crusades, which was shot on a beach in Kenya and draws on The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Lebanese novelist Amin Maalouf, brings the series up to date, albeit indirectly, by invoking the lasting damage wrought by the recent resurgence of clash-of-civilizations rhetoric.

Also shown were Shawky’s brilliant Al-Aqsa Park, 2006, a black-and-white animation of the famed mosque spinning, lifting, and tilting like a carnival ride, and another new work, Larvae Channel 2, 2009, a ten-minute rotoscope animation of a video documentary exploring the recycling of language and the depletion of linguistic meaning among Palestinian refugees in Jordan. Much of his work evokes the period of lurching, uneven modernization from the ’70s through today—and by teasing out these tangled threads of religion and politics along with those of globalization and the circulation of consumer goods and culture, Shawky reveals how spectacles are staged, performed, and enacted anew in disparate locales. But rather than lamenting how those spectacles have hardened into the cruel and unmovable thing we call history, the artist reactivates them, this time doing away with the need for winners and losers.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie