In 2004, Wael Shawky embarked on an artistic research journey through his homeland in search of historical, religious and philosophical peculiarities that decisively shaped political and social life in Egypt. He traveled from his native town of Alexandria via Cairo and the Nile along to southern Egypt. Inspired by places and encounters of this journey, Shawky created the film trilogy Al Araba Al Madfuna (2012-2016), a moniker that refers to the burial of Arab history.
The village carrying the same name, located near the archaeological site of Ozorion and the ancient city of Abydos, provided the perfect setting for the films. The town has been subject to many archeological and fortune seeking visits all in search of a buried treasure that never has been proven to exist. The artist himself first came upon the village when a shaman prophesized the treasure’s location only, of course, to no avail. Shawky explores this need amongst his countrymen to find, retain, and restore the past glories of Egypt’s rich ancient history as a way to affirm a national identity and pride.
The literary works of the Egyptian author Mahamed Mustagab serve as inspiration for the artist and lend the film a mythical touch through their unique narrative structure. The parables tell stories of ever-shifting zeal towards false idols and of man’s faith in what is fictional and ephemeral rather than what is true and everlasting. Al Araba Al Madfuna III (2016) was filmed in the ruins of the ancient temple of Pharaoh Seti and tells a parable on society’s relationship with nature. The film is projected in a darkened space with glimmering walls providing a dream like setting, inviting the viewer to navigate through the gallery as those in search of ancient myths and relics. The film itself is shot in inverted illumination and color further emphasizing the mystique surrounding Egypt’s Pharaonic past, a past so extraordinary that Egyptians still live under the weight of this immense historical period. Modern day Egypt struggles to embrace yet emancipate itself from its history in order to move forward. We see this further represented in the actors in the film who are all children playing adult roles and dubbed with adult male voices, as if reflecting on the stymied maturity of the nation.
The struggle is also manifested in a series of new sculptures created by the artist for the show. Placed in an imposing vitrine, the figures give the notion of protected grandiosity. At first glance, they are strongly reminiscent of ancient sculptures often seen as representatives of Egypt’s visual identity. However, upon closer inspection, they turn out to be surreal creations with reflective metallic colors and exaggerated forms and expressions. This futuristic approach to an old sculptural tradition raises many questions about how they are to be recalled in terms of content and the role they play in Egypt’s contemporary representation.
Wael Shawky (* 1971) has had major solo exhibitions at MoMA PS1, New York (2015), Mathaf - Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha (2015), K20 - Kunstsammlung NRW, Düsseldorf (2014), Serpentine Gallery, London (2013) and KW - Institut of Contemporary Art, Berlin (2012) as well as recent shows at the Castello di Rivoli and the Fondazione Merz in Turin and at the Kunsthaus Bregenz. In 2017, Kampnagel Theater, Hamburg premiered his first opera, The Song of Roland: The Arabic Version. He has participated in group shows and biennales such as Documenta 13 (2012), Istanbul Biennial (2011 & 2015), the Sharjah Biennial (2013), among others. He received the Mario Merz Prize (2015), the Sharjah Biennale Prize (2013), the Louis Vuitton Prize for Cinematographic Works (2013), and the Schering Foundation Art Prize (2011). His works are part of renowned international collections such as the Metropolitan Museum, NewYork; MoMA, New York; Tate Modern, London; Kunstsammlung NRW, Düsseldorf; Mathaf, Qatar; Macro Museum, Rome; Darat Al Funun, Amman and Luxembourg Museum of Contemporary Art, Luxembourg.