Wael Shawky’s work explores transitional events in society, politics, culture and religion in the Arab World. These concerns have been brought into sharp focus by recent upheavals in Egypt.
Shawky lives in Alexandria, Egypt’s second city. Al–Aqsa Park is a digital animation of the Dome of the Rock, the most recognisable monument in Jerusalem and a masterpiece of Islamic architecture that has great symbolic significance for all Muslims. The Old City in Jerusalem is where Judaism, Christianity and Islam converge.
Built between 689 and 691 AD on the site of a Jewish temple destroyed by the Romans, the Dome of the Rock has been contested throughout history, right up to the present day. The rock platform on which it stands is believed by Jewish scholars to be the probable location of the Holy of Holies, the most propitious place for prayer. It is also on the place where Sunni Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven. The Crusaders turned it into a Church, Israel hoisted its flag over it during the Six Day War in 1967, and the second Intifada was sparked when Ariel Sharon, then leader of the Israeli Likud Party, paid it a provocative visit in 2000. The Dome of the Rock is now a familiar graffiti image of Palestinian resistance to Israeli domination.
In Shawky’s video the Dome rises and rotates like a fairground carousel – an ironic nod towards the endless merry–go–round of Israeli–Palestinian talks and conflicts, perhaps. Here, this ancient monument also looks like a UFO, as if it has arrived from the future or belongs to a spiritual eternity.
Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show Files tells the story of the First Crusade of 1096 – 1099 from the perspectives of Arab historians. Made using an Italian collection of 200 year old puppets in the place of actors, it is a saga of bloody battles, betrayal and gruesome civilian massacre – a genuine horror show, despite the beauty and artifice of the puppets and sets.
The film is accompanied by works that look like abstract paintings and refer to Crusader heraldry that are made of geometric pieces of dark, sparkling tarmac. The focus of Telematch Sadat is on a pivotal event in recent Egyptian political history.The video is a re–staging of the assassination of President Sadat in 1981. Sadat, who fought Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, regained the Sinai Peninsula for Egypt in the US-brokered Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty of 1981 – a move popular in Egypt but controversial in the Arab world. His death ushered in 29 years of dictatorship under Hosni Mubarak, who recently abdicated after mass popular protests. Soldiers and assassins are played by children, armoured vehicles replaced by donkeys and carts, and the desert substituted for the streets of Cairo.
Telematch was a German TV gameshow popular in the Arab World in the 1970s and 1980s. Shawky’s use of puppets, child actors, sci-fi imagery and entertainment formats emphasises how important political events exert a powerful imaginary and mythical hold on the ways we think of ourselves and the world.