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Wael Shawky: Contemporary Myths

Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File. His new film project using 200-year-old Italian marionettes.
By Judith Wielander | Jul 2010

Contemporary Myths, an exhibition by Wael Shawky at Cittadellarte - Gallery in Biella, Italy, focuses on his latest work: Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File. On this occasion Cittadellarte - Gallery is the venue not only for the film, but also for a display that illustrates some aspects of the complex production process that took place in Cittadellarte and Egypt during the months leading up to the show. Wael Shawky, who lives and works in Alexandria, was Artist in Residence at Cittadellarte from 11 April to 4 July 2010.

Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File 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.

The film is a translation of causes and effects of the religiously sanctioned military campaigns in the form of images based on a reconstruction of events seen through the eyes of those who had to confront the invasion. Shawky provides a precise description of the places in the Middle East and Europe that formed the backdrop for the early Crusades. To bring these episodes alive, he uses highly expressive 200-year-old marionettes from the Lupi collection in Turin. This gem of local Piedmontese tradition is perfectly suited for a contemporary and international reinterpretation of events. The marionettes are moved by clearly visible strings and don the costumes of the characters who were present in the Christian armies of Europe and in the Muslim armies during the conflicts. Though the subject is based on historical documents and facts, what emerges is a surreal and mythical atmosphere that blends drama and cynicism, telling a story of remote events that could hardly be more topical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 by Amin Maalouf, written in 1986, and thus long before today’s recrudescence of hatred. The book by Maalouf, a Lebanese who lives in France, re-examines the history of the Crusades by going back to Arab historians and their writings, most of which have never been taken into consideration in the West, though he does also turn to some of the most acknowledged Western sources and studies. The historical picture that emerges is at once powerful and level-headed, political and unbiased. The essay gives some insight into the historical cruelties perpetrated in the name of a vague feeling of religious humiliation, but more objectively one that was carried out for complex socio-economic reasons, the most important of which was a reaction against the misery and desperation caused by the plague that struck the lands of the Byzantine Empire between 541 and 543 AC.

Shawky’s film starts with the scene of the plague, one of the main reasons for the fall of urban civilization in the territories ruled by Constantinople. These lands were still under the control of Constantinople and had already been considerably weakened by war and economic decline. Such a tragic view of human misery subsequently leads to massacres, battles, betrayals, and sieges, which were to be the story of the Crusades.

Accustomed as we are to seeing the Crusades as a glorious race to free Jerusalem in the name of God, we may well be astonished by the events that actually took place. The aim was not the liberation of the Holy Sepulchre, but conquest of the lands that had formerly been part of the Roman Empire, where for centuries the Catholic Church attempted to exert its control. This was to be the conquest of peoples and economic resources for a Europe that was barely managing to survive.

The strings that are used to move people in history have always been a visible form of manipulation. In this context, the string puppets proved to be the ideal means for the Egyptian artist to narrate the story of some of the most terrible years in human history. Calm and collected reflections on these matters might help us meditate on past errors, which crop up again and again in a never-ending cycle.


Judith Wielander

Curator of contemporary art projects focusing on public art and cultural activation. She currently works at the Art Office of Cittadellarte - Fondazione Pistoletto.

Wael Shawky:
Contemporary Myths

25 June 2010 -
1 March 2011


Via Serralunga 27

Judith Wielander

The marionette animation film "Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File" was produced by Cittadellarte together with the Festival Theater der Welt of Essen, Germany, where it was presented from 30 June to 17 July 2010.

The project was possible thanks to the Daniele Lupi and the Lupi Family Collection of precious 200-year-old marionettes, Turin, Piedmont, Italy.

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