Al Araba Al Madfuna
Wael Shawky at KW

Issue no2
April - May 2020
Fluïde monumenten

The Berlin Art Week is in full swing, with the ABC fair, gallery openings and events all over town. KW shows Wael Shawky's exhibition Al Araba Al Madfuna, re-performing political and historical Egyptian events.

Once my eyes get used to the darkness, a desert landscape appears. In the middle lies a rectangular constellation of large stones, a ruin of some sort. A few people have taken place on one side of it, facing the large movie screen on the back wall of the room. The screen shows Wael Shawky's black and white film Al Araba Al Madfuna (2012) . In the film, a group of children restage the story of a local shaman in Al Araba Al Madfuna in Upper Egypt that tells the anecdote of a man entering the assembly room of the borough of Al Araba Al Madfuna, carrying a lantern and revealing a secret that is to be found under the carpet in the center of the room. In the film, the children surround the carpet and act out the story, though their speech is dubbed by adult voices. In this piece, history, memory and myth collide and placed in a binary relationship in which memory can be seen as a less legitimate means of establishing the past, or conversely, history can be seen, as the destroyer of a more authentic, existentially rich, living memory.

The second space features <em>Carabet Crusades: The Path to Cairo </em>(2012). Here, Shawky uses 200-year-old Italian marionettes to revisit central episodes in the Crusades (in the period 1096–99) from the Arab perspective. The video, even more so then others, engages strongly in cinematographic effects and traditions in its set designs, lighting, and special effects. The mezzanine above this space displays the protagonists, the dolls, in one large vitrine, standing behind one another as if marching to a new destination. Seeing the puppets in real life as lifeless props to the story that is unfolding on screen, this display however re-emphasizes the lovingly and meticulously made stage sets and costumes, the puppet's haunting expressions and the range of references to literary and historical sources that Shawky is making in his films. 

Being two of four films that are on display at Kunstwerke, <em>Al Araba Al Madfuna</em>  and <em>Carabet Crusades: The Path to Cairo </em>(2012) both insert an element that create distance to the stories being told, which seems to be the red thread throughout the entire show. Using children (<em>Al Araba Al Madfuna</em>) and puppets (<em>Carabet Crusades</em>) further emphasizes the alienation that is experienced as a viewer towards the worlds his films portray. Where adult actors would consciously orate the historical load of the script, taking into account the consequences of its interpretation, the children enjoyingly converse their lines while simultaneously copying each other's body language, resulting in a monochrome but endearing entity. The puppets’ limited expression surprisingly produces a vast range of imagination and communication. It is the dismantling of narrative - historical and otherwise - by blurring the boundaries between documentation and animation, that packs these pieces with power. However, distinguishing the real from the unreal is also not the point of the work, as most of Shawky's pieces hew to the notion that fact and fiction, memory and projection, do not just commingle but are indivisible in the productions of history.

Wael Shawky - Al Araba Al Madfuna
26 August – 21 October 2012
KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 2 — 2020