Wael Shawky From Tents to Skyscrapers
Wael Shawky’s videos from the Cabaret Crusades series attracted considerable attention at Kassel in 2012. A few months later, Dictums, the performance he gave for the 2013 Sharjah Biennale, was one of the most subtle contributions at what is an event of real quality. For some ten years now, Shawky has been weaving together complex interactions between politics and religion, fundamentalism and capitalism, religious rites and the influence of the media. The Serpentine Gallery and the Lisson Gallery in London recently held solo shows of his work, featuring two new films.
When and how did you know you would be an artist? My family went to Saudi Arabia in 1972 and stayed there for seven years. That is where I grew up. We were coming back to Egypt in the summer. Ever since I was a child, I never expected to have any other career. Then I went to university in Alexandria and graduated in 1994. At that time everything was controlled by the government. Teaching was very academic and very French. Egypt was very active during the age of modernity then the art scene stopped. There was a huge gap between my generation and the generation before. So we had to start from scratch to invent a unique language and make up this missing link. Every summer, as the only sources we had in Egypt were books, I would go to New York to see exhibitions. But it was also very important to me to see America from an academic point of view, so I went to Pennsylvania University, not so much for education, because I was already very active in Egypt, as to open up new directions in my work. In Alexandria I had a big studio and was always thinking of making projects that were open to the public, with other artists. But I never had time to do so and most of my production was being done abroad. So I decided to turn it into an academy. Its education system is based on that of the masters degree I took at the University of Pennsylvania. We had a lot of visiting ar- tists. Actually MASS Alexandria is not open to a broad audience but only to twenty or thirty students. Whenever I am invited to a biennial, I ask the curators to come and give a talk. In 2012, when I showed at Documenta, ten students went to Kassel to help other artists, and the curatorial team of Documenta came to MASS Alexandria for a seminar.
WORKING WITH HISTORY
In your trilogy of puppet animations Cabaret Crusades—The Horror Show Files (2010), The Path to Cairo (2012) and The Secrets of Karbala (2014)—you restaged with puppets the clashes between Muslims and Christians. The first film of Cabaret Crusades was shot before the revolution in Egypt. Then it was interrupted and the second episode was shot in Aubagne. But it is not a reaction to current events. Do you use history as a magnifying glass? Most of my works have to do with societies in transition, because of my childhood