ArtintheCity Speaks Wael Shawky, Abraaj Capital Art Prize 2012 Winner
For Wael Shawky, looking to the past and how it is preserved is a source of constant inspiration. Since studying fine art at the University of Alexandria and then receiving his M.F.A. from the University of Pennsylvania in 2000, the Egyptian artist has received international acclaim for his art. Shawky’s work largely explores transitional events in society, politics, culture and religion in the history of the Arab world. He has had numerous solo shows around the world, and is also the founder of MASS Alexandria, the first Independent Studio Programme for young artists in Egypt. ArtintheCity spoke to Shawky ahead of the unveiling of his piece for the Abraaj Capital Art Prize 2012....
ArtintheCity: The Crusades have been a recurring subject in your work, including in the ongoing project ‘Cabaret Crusades’. What is it about this particular period of history that is so interesting to you?
Wael Shawky: I am really fascinated by history in general, specifically by how we write it and the fact that it is documented in a way which mixes together fact, fiction and myth. You can never know where the actual truth lies and you are obliged to trust in a specific point of view. With the Crusades I was interested in ‘The Crusades Through Arab Eyes’ by Amin Maalouf (a historical essay by Lebanese author Amin Maalouf which seeks to provide an Arab perspective of the Crusades). This highlights the fact that there is not only the Western version of the Crusades – there is an alternative way to interpret it.
The Crusades helped to shape the geography of the Middle East today and of course had a lot of impact on how Europe developed over the 200 year period they lasted. At the same time, we can never be completely clear on all the impact of the Crusades. If with all the technology and media that we have now, we still can’t be truly sure about something which happens in front of us, then it becomes very easy to imagine that many things in written histories (like that of the Crusades) are false. Since we can’t know exactly what happened, I think that is why the space for creation and imagination in this history is vast. This is why I am so interested in how we write history and why I am especially fascinated by the Crusades.
AITC: Your choice of player or actor seems integral to your work. You have often used children to act out events, such as ‘Telematch Sadat’, which depicted the assassination of Sadat in 1981, and now for the Cabaret Crusades, you are using 200-year old marionettes, which come with their own rich history of storytelling. How does the choice of player inform the work and visa versa?
WS: I have worked with kids a lot, who are fantastic – they have this innocent energy which you can’t find anywhere else, which I love. At the same time, there is another, more practical reason behind it. When I was making work about ten years ago, I was fascinated by the idea of societies that are in the process of transition or transformation. This could be the transition to modernity, or transforming from a nomadic to an agricultural society, or from agriculture to urbanism. I was really interested in the idea of how to construct a film which captures this moment of transition. I felt that the issues I was exploring at this time, in works like ‘Asphalt Quarter’ (2003) or even in the Telematch series, are already very complicated, with many layers. Because of this, I didn’t really want to add more complexity to showing a society in transition by adding the gender element. Using children was a way to almost escape the complexity of gender; you then just see society as a whole without starting to define men and women, which was very important for many scenes.
Children also do not have a dramatic memory. For example, when I told them I was making a film about the assassination of Sadat, they weren’t really aware who Sadat was and hadn’t seen any filmed footage of the assassination as I have. If I used professional actors, they are already aware of the event and its dramatic nature and would be acting. By using children, who don’t bring their own memories and preconceptions to the re-enactment, then it becomes more about the script rather than the skills of an actor.
This is also why I started working with marionettes; I am trying to purge the work of all the skills of acting, so that the value then depends solely on the script and the evidence of the event.
AITC: You launched your own residency programme, MASS Alexandria, in 2010. What does this entail and what drove you to launch it?
WS: Basically, it was originally my own studio in Alexandria, which I decided to turn into a small academy. This was actually something I have wanted to do since about five years ago but only had the chance to set up last year. We created a pilot programme which was initially supposed to last for five months. However, due to the revolution in Egypt, we had to stop it temporarily and then give the students more time when we were able, so it became about seven months long in total.
The idea is to have a group of students making work in the Alexandria studio space for about six months. We also invite curators, professors, critics and other artists [from around the world] to give talks, lectures and seminars on a weekly basis. So while the group of students remains the same, they have a rotating group of professors and so on to give feedback. I used almost all my contacts in organising these visiting tutors and people have been extremely generous in this project, often covering all their own expenses, and flying to Alexandria just to give one talk. It really was fantastic.
I think that something like this is extremely important as there isn’t really a proper art education system in Alexandria. There is of course the Alexandria Academy of Fine Arts, which is supposedly the best in Egypt and is long established, but this is falling down thanks to the terrible regime which was in place for such a long time. I think it was a necessity to have something to not exactly act as a parallel system to the Academy, but something to enhance and extend on the traditional system. This was needed to teach the students about what is happening in the world of art; most of the students graduating after five years in the Alexandria Academy don’t really know anything about art. They have learned basic craftsmanship skills and painting, but have not been taught the process of thinking and understanding what is going on in their profession, which is so important.
This year we have twenty three students participating, ten of whom will be going to dOCUMENTA (13) for one month during the opening. They will be working directly with the artists there, and of course attending all the talks on offer and so on. Following this, they will return to Alexandria for another month and I am planning a three week workshop for the participants. We then hope to conclude this year’s programme with a large exhibition.
AITC: What are your thoughts on the importance of prizes like the Abraaj Capital Art Prize, which award proposals for art, rather than finished work?
WS: This award is very important to me, partly because it is a prize happening here in the Arab world. On a more personal level, as a child I spent several years in Saudi Arabia and this experience was influential to my work. I have often looked at the idea of nomadism and oil discovery and elements which are a big part of the Gulf’s history. To receive this prize from Abraaj really meant a lot to me.
Wael Shawky’s piece for the Abraaj Capital Art Prize will be unveiled at Art Dubai this March, from 21 – 24 March, 2012.