texts by: Abdellah Karroum, Beatrice Merz, Mohamed Mustagab
This catalogue is published on the occasion of the exhibition Wael Shawky: Al Araba Al Madfuna curated by Abdellah Karroum and held at Fondazione Merz from 2nd November 2016 to 5th February 2017.
“Shawky is an artist who embraces the exhibition space in a gesture of giving and sharing fragments of a world that is impossible to translate into controlled physical forms. […] Wael Shawky: Al Araba Al Madfuna invites the viewer to walk through elements of the films and their processes of production – architectural artefacts, sculptures, and drawings on animal skins – placed inside a built landscape of sand. The viewer moves in temporal reverse, beginning with the last film, Al Araba Al Madfuna III, in colour, followed by three-dimensional elements taken from the storyboard, and then, finally, Shawky’s older films in black and white. Al Araba Al Madfuna II is second and then, in the last, and most claustrophobic room, Al Araba Al Madfuna I. This film is accessible only after descending twenty metres of stairs at a steep forty-five degree angle, as if entering a mastaba installed in the underground rooms of the museum. This path refers to a conceptual approach of inverted route, from the surface to the underground, from the evident to the mysterious. The inverted narrative was inspired by the inverse and all-too-human process of digging up that which is underground in the hopes of discovering ancient treasures or our own memories. The last film – Al Araba Al Madfuna III – emphasises the fundamental relationship between the artwork’s place of production and the site of its display: a landscape of sand and stones is created in the exhibition space to recreate the ‘temple’ architecture housing the reenacted story. The viewer is confronted in this last film, the most complex of the series, with a technical montage and conceptual visual vocabulary. The scale of the projection renders the characters – human figures – larger than life, and the inversion of the image creates disorientation. […] Al Araba Al Madfuna continues Shawky’s interest in using existing stories and histories that are part of our culture as points of departure for exploring the production of historical narratives and their far-reaching effects, reading official histories and myths through and against one another. […] Wael Shawky’s work is based on historical narratives, sociological interpretations, and fictional writing, from which he constructs his way of looking at past myths alongside the present. The artist’s films interpret political and historical narratives using an original artistic vocabulary and storyboards that scenically convey the subjectivity of all supposedly objective media or official propaganda. The particular storyboards that prefigured Shawky’s Al Araba Al Madfuna films were inspired by a journey taken in the early 2000s, an exploration of Upper Egypt’s history and contemporary context, where myths live among daily encounters, through ethnographic immersion and scientific lens. […] Mohamed Mustagab’s parables from Dayrut al-Sharif (1983) are a main source for Wael Shawky’s Al Araba Al Madfuna. Each of the films retell his short stories, The J-B-R’s, The Offering, Horsemen Adore Perfumes, and Sunflowers respectively. […] Connecting mythological perspectives of metaphysical visions with realities of the physical, material world, the film series ruminates on the ritual of oral communal storytelling which, through repetition and re-telling, transforms tales into mythical histories that themselves become new readings of progress and change in society. The entire Al Araba Al Madfuna project was inspired by a journey, a place within history, and a personal experience of that place. The storyboards, drawings, sculptures, and films that emerged were made between Abydos, the place of the artist’s site of expedition, and the exhibition spaces and museums where the artwork is later made visible. His journey to Upper Egypt is marked and made of places and encounters, of archaeological sites, of the people who care for the memory of the past, the people who wait, the people who dig, and finally, of those who write. It is this latter category, embodied by the work of the Egyptian novelist Mustagab, that is the most influential for Shawky in this project. In a way, the artist looks at humankind’s experience of history as his own experience, of both accountability for some pressing issues in the world and watching as older values die or mutate into other forms of life.” (Abdellah Karroum)