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In his first major exhibition in the United States, Egyptian artist Wael Shawky (b. 1971) presented three elaborate films featuring fantastical marionettes performing Amin Maalouf’s The Crusades through Arab Eyes (1983), a book originally written in French but here translated into classical Arabic. Following the exhibition layout at MoMA PS1, viewers first encountered the production materials—sketches, sets, and the marvelous puppets—before entering the darkened screening rooms. The films were not simply synthetic narrative entertainment, but highly constructed performances, and viewers possessed an intimate knowledge of how they were made. Part of the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) wider push to globalize its exhibition schedule, Shawky’s show presented an aesthetically appealing, easily accessible, and politically pertinent series of works for the New York public. While the films and the exhibition traced a network of political and cultural exchanges across borders in their subject matter, it was the transnational process of producing the artworks that emerged as the focal point.
Shawky belongs to a young generation of Egyptian artists who came of age in the Hosni Mubarak era and maintain strong ties beyond the borders of Egypt. Economic policies, especially President Anwar Sadat’s infitah (opening) to foreign investment in the 1970s, caused the weakening of state institutions and the strengthening of ties elsewhere, especially to the United States and the Gulf region. Shawky’s generation saw the art world turn toward international financing, while the state-sponsored institutions that helped produce the vibrant art and artists of the 1950s and 1960s began to break down. Born in Alexandria, Shawky received his undergraduate art degree there, but traveled abroad for graduate school, receiving his MFA from the University of Pennsylvania in 2001. Like many peripatetic artists of his generation, he works globally in exhibitions, projects, and residencies while maintaining a home base in Alexandria. The subject matter and production of Cabaret Crusades align smoothly with Shawky’s own artistic trajectory. Created at European film studios with French- and Italian-made marionettes, the films narrate centuries of crusader history in Arabic, traveling from French to Byzantine to Arab kingdoms, battles, and sacred spaces. This transnational flow is mirrored between the work, its circulation, and its maker.
Shawky’s earlier works similarly document cross-cultural interaction, especially between Egypt and Europe. In The Cave (2006), which was exhibited in the 2014 New Museum exhibition Here and Elsewhere (click here for review), Shawky filmed himself dressed in a black suit and white button-down shirt pacing slowly through a German supermarket while reciting “Surah al-Kahf” (The Cave) from the Qur’an. As he strolls through the aisles, regular customers examine produce and canned food in the background, occasionally glancing at the tall Egyptian man reciting classical Arabic. Shawky stares intensely at the camera, precisely enunciating the complicated grammar, as German text on price tags passes by. The work highlights the assumed threat of Muslim religious practice in European public space, but the Surah Shawky chose emphasizes connections not difference. “The Cave” appears in Christian texts such as “The Seven Sleepers,” the story in which seven youths hide in a cave to escape religious persecution, waking up two hundred years later to find their faith fully embraced. Shawky’s selection of this story emphasizes a shared Islamo-Christian culture. In contrast, in Al Araba Al Madfuna II (2013), Shawky reenacts an important Arabic text with a cast of children dressed in traditional Egyptian clothing and set in premodern rural Egypt. As in his previous works, Shawky forefronts Arabic language and the recitation of text, but he chooses unlikely vessels to convey that speech. Instead of contemporary public space, he retreats into the historical past. In Cabaret Crusades, he combines these two veins through a performance of Arabic text by European-made objects.
Due to Cabaret Crusades’s transnational exhibition schedule, the marionettes traveled widely both fictionally in the films and physically in the exhibits. First organized at the K20 exhibition space at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf, Germany, where the last film was produced, the exhibition then traveled to Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar, before arriving in New York. Each iteration presented a selection of the custom-made marionettes in cases that evoked nineteenth-century museum cabinets, harkening to Wunderkammern as well as the original glass display cabinets still on view at the national Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The arrangement of these cabinets at PS1, however, was particularly striking. The visitor entered through a set of double doors into a wide, high-ceilinged room painted dark blue. On each side, a long cabinet presented two rows of marionettes, lit with small interior lights. To the left, a turquoise cabinet showcased twenty-eight of the ceramic marionettes produced with the help of santonnier craftsman in Aubange, France, for the second film, The Path to Cairo (2012). On the right, a dark wooden cabinet presented thirty-four of the glass marionettes commissioned from Murano glass blowers for the third film, The Secrets of Karbala (2015). While the ceramic puppets caricatured medieval characters and a few camels, the fantastical glass marionettes, inspired by African sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, resembled otherworldly, magical creations. Each marionette wore a delicately sewn garment of lace, velvet, brocade, or fur. The arrangement of the cabinets at PS1 was particularly successful because the vastness of the gallery and the uncluttered presentation encouraged close observation of the puppets before, after, and between seeing the films. Visitors felt that they knew the actors before entering the screening room. The two glass cabinets and their marching puppets were also highly Instagram-able (just search #waelshawky to see hundreds of photos), surely a newly significant aspect on the minds of curators.
Compared to the grandiose exhibition space for the marionettes and the three hours of film, the four other rooms of the exhibition had less impact. Two long, thin spaces off the central gallery featured hastily made cityscapes that looked like set pieces, but the smell of fresh tar revealed their recent production. Just beyond the main gallery and en route to the screening rooms, a small, dimly lit room displayed crusader banners in dark metallic colors and glitter. Due to the lack of lighting, most visitors walked right past them. Some compelling sketches were displayed in another small, brightly lit room across the hall; in the absence of a wall text, however, it was challenging to follow the connective tissue between the drawings and the films. Thirteen Drawings, sparkling with metallic paint and pencil on paper, appeared similar to the automatic drawings of the prominent Egyptian post-Surrealist Abdel Hadi el-Gazzar. Whether this was an intended reference remained unclear. On the opposite wall, Dictums took influence from early modern European and Islamic maps. While the artworks in these smaller rooms evidenced a cross-cultural subject matter, they did not adhere strongly to the larger work. Rather than simply presenting transnational material, the puppets and the films performed and indexed a Mediterranean network of art making.
The three films of Cabaret Crusades—The Horror Show Files (2010), The Path to Cairo, and The Secrets of Karbala—borrow from traditional filmmaking techniques but diverge in specific, significant ways. Like commercial feature-length films, they star numerous actors, are shot in a variety of detailed locations, include musical interludes, adhere to a chronological progression, and showcase the blood and gore of warfare. The basic framework of the films is familiar, so the glaring divergences stand out. Mainly, the actors are three sets of Arabic-speaking puppets. Since the viewer became intimately acquainted with the marionettes in the cases outside, she or he enters the screening room with a heightened sensitivity to these “actors.” Instead of focusing solely on the complicated and, let’s face it, dry accounts of the crusader invasions and resulting Muslim victory over the Europeans under the sword of Saladin, the viewer spends more time noticing how the puppets move, recognizing a familiar ceramic face from the gallery, and discovering new actors. The complexity of the films and the structure of the exhibition refocus the viewer’s attention on the intricacies of the modes of production. The most striking small detail is the delicate “clink, clink” sound made when the marionettes blink their glass eyelids. Shawky ensures that viewers hear these small details by repeatedly including them in the breaks between dialogue in The Secrets of Karbala. Through emphasizing this and other details, the artwork focuses our attention on the transnational process of its making.
The MoMA PS1 exhibition of Cabaret Crusades presented a rich complexity of references to a wide array of geographic and temporal locales. From African sculpture, to French santons, to classical Arabic recitation, the films and the exhibition repeatedly reminded the viewer of a network of artistic, cultural, and political connections represented not only in the history of the Crusades but also in the artwork and artist’s own path. The expansive space of the primary gallery and the complexity of the films refocused attention on the tiny details of the marionettes—a tuft of lace trimmed in fur or the gentle clinking of a glass eyelid. In doing so, Shawky and the curators emphasized the purposeful transnational network that produced the objects, sets, music, dialogue, and connections that ultimately brought viewers to see Cabaret Crusades in Queens.
Alex Dika Seggerman
Five College Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Islamic Art, Art Department,
Smith College and Hampshire College
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