Wael Shawky – Serpentine Gallery
The unusual exhibition by Egyptian artist Wael Shawky currently on show at the Serpentine Gallery is dominated by two puppet films that take war and truth as their dominant themes. The exhibition also features a number of drawings and flags created by Shawky but, in terms of impact, these pale in comparison to his film work.
‘The Horror Show File’ (2010) and ‘The Path to Cairo’ (2012) – films from Shawky’s ‘Cabaret Crusades’ series – are presented in Classical Arabic with subtitles. Both use marionettes to explore religious conflict in the Middle Ages, giving a historical account of the Crusades in excruciating, gruesome detail.
‘The Horror Show File’ is an opportunity to view some unique puppets in action. Shawky has sourced an impressive collection of 200-year-old wooden marionettes from the Lupi family collection in Turin, Italy, to portray key events from the first crusades (the period 1096-1099).
The film is dark and powerful, although quite laborious to watch. Dead puppets pile up in fiery ruins, owing to efforts to return Constantinople to Christian rule. The puppets are stern, with little expression on their faces. But they are beautifully crafted and costumed, many of them in peasant attire and with intricate beards, and they're operated believably and with care.
The sequel ‘The Path to Cairo’ is a mythical interpretation of events between the first and second crusades (1099- 1149), focusing on Christian military action in Jerusalem and the region. The use of puppets is particularly effective in this film. Having designed 110 marionettes especially, Shawky commissioned ceramicists in Aubagne, France, to create the actual puppets. Many of them are on display in a large glass case in the centre of the gallery, lined up in military style, their strings suspended in the air.
Both in film and on display, the puppets are wonderful works of art, with articulated limbs and eyes (in the film, an audible ‘clink’ sound can be heard whenever a puppet blinks). With little cracks on their glazed faces, they have the look of aged China dolls and many have bucked teeth and are squat in proportion.
The puppets have a cuteness and innocence that contrasts with the war zone they inhabit. It's a surreal and unsettling feeling to watch a marionette threaten to behead the opposition should they refuse to convert to Islam – and seeing their little decapitated puppet heads fall to the floor intensifies this.
Some of the marionettes are human-animal hybrids, inspired by a parable from the Egyptian author Mohamed Mustagab that uses animals to explore how ideology can be taken to fundamentalist extremes. This links with Shawky’s desire to show there is no single historical truth, and to the main narrative in ‘The Path to Cairo’ where both Christians and Muslims are displayed in a ruthless light. Both sides are willing to inflict death and destruction to get their desired results.
The artist’s tendency to displace the content of his films from his 'actors' is particularly effective. In the case of his non-puppet film ‘Al Araba Al Madfuna II’ (2013), Shawky uses child actors dressed in adult clothing, with adult voices, for a re-telling of Mohamed Mustagab’s aforementioned parable. Shawky has claimed that children and puppets offer a chance to work with 'actors' free of pre-conceived ideas about the sensitive subject matter at hand, in an effort towards the ‘estrangement’ of narrative.
It’s worth noting that if you want to take in Shawky’s exhibition in its entirety, you will need to dedicate a generous portion of your day to the cause. Watching his puppet films alone takes an hour and a half but they are exceptional pieces of work.