Wael Shawky’s epic marionette animation film Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File, 2010, offers a view on the history of the Crusades, retracing events that unfolded over a period of four years (1096-1099) and played a key role in subsequent historical developments, shaking to the core the Arab world and its relations with the West. This horror film of sorts provides a precise description of the places in the Middle East and Europe that formed the backdrop for the early Crusades, following the course of events after a Papal mandate sent half-a-million Franks on a military campaign to ‘reclaim’ Jerusalem from the Muslim armies. To bring these episodes alive, the production uses highly expressive 200-year-old marionettes from the Lupi collection in Turin, dressed in costumes of the Christian and Muslim armies of the time, allowing viewers to momentarily suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in a tragic history, distant in time but not effect. Though the subject is based on historical documents and facts, what emerges is a surreal and mythical atmosphere that blends drama and cynicism, telling a story of remote events that could hardly be more topical today. The main source of inspiration for this work is The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, written in 1986 by the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf, offering a basis for Shawky’s reconstruction of events through the eyes of those who had to confront the invasion. The book by Maalouf re-examines the history of the Crusades using Arab historical writings, most of which have never been taken into consideration in the Western narrative. Considering religion in the modern world as a driving force of history, Shawky sheds light on this crucial historical moment and its profound resonance, constructing a ‘safe’ space in which to examine and discuss the causes and effects of religious wars and their impact on European and Arab relations to this day. Shawky equally endeavors to lay bare who (literally) ‘pulls the strings’ of history and the often biased and theatrical nature of the (re-)writing of history, stating “My interest in the Crusades is partly based on this idea of entertainment… a theatrical show…the writing of history is related to entertainment. I personally don’t believe in history, but I believe in our translation of it. For example, my Crusades series is an adaptation of Amin Maalouf’s [book], which he based on his readings of historical sources. He then selected aspects of this history to reflect a particular perspective. It is clear in his text that he doesn’t take the accounts at face value; he is not faithful to a given truth. But I deal with his text as if it is the truth. And I think that my treatment of Maalouf’s text as fact is itself a criticism of history. It’s an analysis of how we write history. Yet it is not only a critique of historiography; it’s more about my faith in the language of art. Historical analysis gives me space to transform those extremely important historical elements into tools, and not final results. Everything transforms into mediums. The value of the artwork is based on a language, and not the importance of the event or its authenticity”.
Wael Shawky was born in 1971 in Alexandria, Egypt, where he lives and works today. He studied fine art at the University of Alexandria before receiving his MFA from the University of Pennsylvania in 2000. His work has been included in major international exhibitions, including the 2013 Sharjah Biennial; Documenta 13, Kassel, Germany (2012); the ninth Gwangju Biennial, Gwangju, South Korea (2012); the SITE Santa Fe Biennial (2008); the ninth International Istanbul Biennial (2005); and the fiftieth Venice Biennale (2003). Shawky has had solo exhibitions at the KW Contemporary Art Institute, Berlin (2012); Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham, England (2011); the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2011); the Delfina Foundation, London (2011); Cittadellarte-Fondazione Pistoletto, Biella, Italy (2010); Townhouse Gallery, Cairo (2005, 2003); and other venues. He has received various awards, including the Award for the Filmic Oeuvre created by Louis Vuitton and Kino der Kunst (2013); Abraaj Capital Art Prize (2012); Kunstpreis der Schering Stiftung (2011); and the Grand Prize, 25th Alexandria Biennale, Alexandria, Egypt (2009). In 2011 he was an artist-in-residence at the Center for Possible Studies, Serpentine Gallery, London. Shawky is the founder of MASS Alexandria, a studio program for young artists.