Wael Shawky, Al Araba Al Madfuna, 2012, video, black-and-white, sound, 21 minutes.

Wael Shawky, Al Araba Al Madfuna, 2012, video, black-and-white, sound, 21 minutes.

Wael Shawky

Wael Shawky, Al Araba Al Madfuna, 2012, video, black-and-white, sound, 21 minutes.

Wael Shawky’s elaborate filmed marionette piece Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File, 2010, based on the history of the First Crusade at the end of the eleventh century, was one of the most impressive works at Documenta 13. The second part of his planned video trilogy, Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo, 2012, was recently shown as part of the Berlin exhibition “Wael Shawky. Al Araba Al Madfuna,” curated by Susanne Pfeffer.

The battle continues: In this second installment, Aleppo’s ruler agrees to mount a cross on the minaret of the city’s Great Mosque; Jerusalem burns; heads roll on both the Muslim and Christian sides. Relativizing the canonical Western write-up of this history, Shawky closely follows Amin Maalouf’s 1983 study, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, which portrays the Christians as culturally backward and also emphasizes the Crusaders’ economic stakes in religious hegemony.

While the first part of the trilogy used two-hundred-year-old marionettes from an Italian collection, Shawky had new puppets made out of ceramic for his second video. Several were displayed in glass cases, illuminated in an otherwise completely darkened room, like ghosts. Thanks to them, the horrifying occurrences depicted in Shawky’s videos seem suddenly harmless—they’re only puppets, after all. But they speak to a major theme in Shawky’s work: manipulation. The marionettes, whose strings are pulled by unseen hands, imply the ease with which people can be seduced and used by demagogues. Al Araba Al Madfuna, 2012, a large-format video piece developed specifically for the Berlin exhibition, depicts figures controlled by outside hands in a different sense. Inhabitants of the eponymous Egyptian village burrow under their homes to find ancient pharaonic treasure, whose supposed existence has been suggested by a shaman. The residents gather for a kind of séance, during which they hear the tale of a prophet who causes a community to worship first a camel, then a mule, and finally a pig. Each time the message of the prophet triggers a total spiritual excess, Shawky’s device of having children with stick-on mustaches speak with the voices of adults, lifts the portrayal out of its narrative flow, subliminally displacing the political perspective of the work. Today there can be no doubt about the timeliness of this theme of the sinister effects of manipulation on people.

Less effective are the attempts at topicality in the four-part video projection Darb al Aarba’in, 2006–2009, named after the camel caravan route between Darfur in Sudan and the Nile Valley in northern Egypt. Here an old nomad who leads a water buffalo on the long desert journey is juxtaposed with a group of children building huts out of brick clay. The schematic presentation is broken only by the seeming anachronism of the nomad storyteller entertaining the children using a modern recording device and microphone. There is something comical about how Shawky thereby beams the archaic desert way of life into the modern writing of history. He questions the truth of historical events and of contemporaneity with a poetic eye.

Nina Möntmann

Translated from German by Anne Posten.