Wael Shawky, Al Araba Al Madfuna III, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 27 minutes 2 seconds. From the trilogy “Al Araba Al Madfuna,” 2012–16.

Wael Shawky, Al Araba Al Madfuna III, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 27 minutes 2 seconds. From the trilogy “Al Araba Al Madfuna,” 2012–16.

Wael Shawky

Wael Shawky, Al Araba Al Madfuna III, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 27 minutes 2 seconds. From the trilogy “Al Araba Al Madfuna,” 2012–16.

The final installment of Wael Shawky’s video trilogy “Al Araba Al Madfuna,” 2012–16, proposes a kind of resolution to the first two parts. In Hamburg, the gravity of its purpose was evident the moment the visitor entered the gallery: The room was bathed in a deep-blue shimmering metallic deep-blue light, anticipating the mystical palette of a video projected floor to ceiling. Blue, silvery, and washed-out magenta hues predominate in the film, which is set in and around the temple of Pharaoh Seti I in Upper Egypt, thanks to a peculiar technique the artist has employed, of subjecting the digital footage to a pixel-by-pixel inversion, effectively producing a color negative. The principle of inversion runs through the film on the level of motifs as well: The grown-up characters are played by children with fake beards; adult voices are added in postproduction, with the result that only the images are loosely linked to the dialogue. The scenes shown were inspired by what Shawky experienced when he visited the village of Al Araba Al Madfuna near the archaeological site of Abydos. The script, by contrast, is drawn from the story “Sunflowers” in the collection Dayrout-al-Shareif (Tales from Dayrut, 1983) by the Egyptian writer Mohamed Mustagab.

In the trilogy’s first film (2012), the residents of Al Araba Al Madfuna conduct nocturnal excavations beneath their houses, hoping to unearth the buried treasures of their distant ancestors now that shamans have told them where to dig. The second installment (2013) is set in the rural area around the village and shows the numerous weddings of an enchantress, as well as, inevitably, the deaths of her husbands. Al Araba Al Madfuna III, 2016, now foregrounds the theme of communication between the metaphysical realm and the world of tangible objects. A mysterious temple—whose wall reliefs feature inexplicable depictions of what seem to be helicopters and airplanes—serves as the backdrop for a narrative about shamanism and the magical forces of nature. The structure stands as an enormous emblem of that which defies human understanding: death and the imagined realm beyond. Their efforts to make sense of mortality and prepare themselves for the great voyage mix ideology with religious ceremony, and metaphysics and supernaturalism with shamanic ritual.

The child-adults roaming the temple’s oversize architecture, with its stairs, hypostyle halls, and corridors, and the animation-like quality lent to the film by the color inversion recall the aesthetic of video games—arguably the most prominent contemporary format in which virtual and physical worlds blend into each other. And like the people who wander the temple’s halls, players are motivated in part by the desire to grasp the connecting link between these two planes of reality. If the temple memorializing a dead pharaoh is a kind of transitional zone between this world and the one beyond, the imposing two-shelf display case that took up the rear section of the gallery may be described as another attempt to represent the interrelation between the two. For his new painted-plaster sculptures (all Untitled, 2018), set out on lustrous metal dust that coated the glass shelving, Shawky drew on the symbolism of almost four millennia of ancient Egyptian culture. He combines objects, postures, and constellations of figures associated with specific dynasties and then paints his creations in bold colors or coats them with metallic pigments that echo the palette of the film. His work pinpoints the admixture of fiction in any representation of a historical tradition, a fiction constructed via the contextual elements and technologies of exhibition making.

Nina Möntmann

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.