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A solo exhibition by Wael Shawky is currently on view at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, one of Berlin’s most important art institutions. It is part of the art prize awarded every two years by the Schering Foundation, with which the Egyptian artist has now been honored.
Wael Shawky created the new video installation Al Araba Al Madfuna especially for this showing. To this end, the floor of the KW’s largest hall was covered with sand. The viewer can sit on stones that are arranged like the remnants of the foundations of a house in the desert. The black-and-white video shows a dimly illuminated, sparse assembly room. Sitting in it are small boys, clothed like grown men, many of them with glued-on moustaches. With the voices of adults, the children tell a story written by the author Mohamed Mustagab (see the interview). All the while, one of the boys digs an ever-deeper hole in floor of the room.
Binder & Haupt: Your exhibition in Berlin is named after your new video installation Al Araba Al Madfuna. What gave rise to it? What ideas and context are behind it?
Wael Shawky: The idea goes back to an experience I had ten years ago. A friend invited me to accompany him to Al Araba Al Madfuna, a village in Upper Egypt. My friend claimed he could heal people and even find pharaonic treasures under the ground. Upper Egypt has a long tradition of treasure hunting; so-called sheikhs are brought in to help. They are something like shamans who call on "spirits" to find the location of hidden graves of the old Egyptians.
This metaphysical world has always fascinated me, so I accompanied him to Al Araba Al Madfuna. We spent ten days there, almost always in one of the typical assembly rooms reserved for men only, where we also slept and ate and where the villagers constantly came to greet us. Some of them simply sat there silently for hours. That’s why I decided to shoot my film in a single room.
Binder & Haupt: Do people really dig for treasure in such rooms?
Wael Shawky: Indeed, that’s what they do in many houses in this village, sometimes for years. When one of these sheikhs comes and says that he "feels" that there is a treasure there, the family begins at once. Although they find nothing even after digging meters deep, their hope persists. So they get another sheikh, and he then says his predecessor erred and they have to search just a meter to the right. Sometimes a whole generation dies and the next one has the same dream and continues, so that they can definitely dig for twenty years in the same spot.
Binder & Haupt: Do the people occasionally find something valuable?
Wael Shawky: Sometimes. And then the whole village is in an uproar and digs for the next twenty years...
Binder & Haupt: Well, it’s definitely a very important archaeological zone. Al Araba Al Madfuna is on the same hill under which a temple for the ancient Egyptian god Osiris was discovered at the beginning of the 20th century.
Wael Shawky: Yes, it’s really incredible to see this remote area today and remember that this is the same place where, a long time ago in ancient Abydos, one of ancient Egypt’s most important necropolises was.
Binder & Haupt: Far beyond the anecdotal aspect, your film is a powerful metaphor. Why do you have the characters played by children dressed up as men and have their voices spoken by adults?
Wael Shawky: First, because I enjoy working with kids. For me, that’s the best. They are the future of society, they have no dramatic memories, they don’t know Mohamed Mustagab – the author of the story – and they don’t know anything about the ancient Egyptian Osirion or anything that this is about. They don’t have any rigid ideas yet about how things should go. When you work with kids, you don’t have this complexity with gender complexity or the acting skills. Basically, it’s like with marionettes. The meaning of the theme has top priority, which is why it’s tremendously important to have a strong script and concept, and the kids can convey it incredibly well and without any clichés.
But in this case, working with kids was a little different. In this project, I depicted the male society of Upper Egypt, to which women have no entry. I thereby wanted to transport the experiences I myself had there. But there are additional aspects. During my stay, I not only saw how the sheikh instructed people in digging for treasures, but also how he began with his healing. Maybe because they have so intensely to do with a metaphysical world, you often meet people in these villages who are somehow "possessed". For example children who speak with the voices of older men. And "exorcists are supposed to heal such cases; the only difference is that they use the Koran instead of the Cross. I’ve seen it myself.
Binder & Haupt: Do these ancient shamanistic beliefs still have influence in Upper Egypt? Doesn’t it really contradict the Koran?
Wael Shawky: Yes, it’s against the Koran, but that’s how it is with human greed. I think it’s unbelievable how a metaphysical system is used for crude materialism. All these means like the Koran and magic and everything imaginable are employed for a materialistic purpose: to dig up treasure. The people know that if they find something, they can sell it for millions of dollars, and that’s the whole aim. And if a find is made, there are established rules for dividing the windfall. A third goes to the owner of the building, a third to the sheikh using the spirits to lead the search, and the rest for the people who did the digging. And sometimes something even for the police who protected the seekers, because of course this digging for treasure is illegal.
Binder & Haupt: But the story that you have the children tell in Al Araba Al Madfuna doesn’t have anything directly to do with this digging for pharaonic treasures. What is Mohamed Mustagab’s parable about?
Wael Shawky: It’s about how one generation inherits the ideologies of its forebears, how they believe in them, and how such ideas can be taken to extremes. In this simple story, Mohamed Mustagab speaks about a tribe whose leader is dying and from whom the members of the tribe surrounding him ask for a "last word". Before dying, he answers, "I advise you to get a camel." Until that time, there are only donkeys in the whole settlement, and the people are knowledgeable only about donkeys. But now it was time to get a camel, and this idea grows larger and larger for them until they begin to import camels. Mohamed Mustagab describes how the camel begins to determine their entire life and how their houses, their clothing, and at some point even their own appearance adapts to the camels.
Later the new leader is asked on his deathbed for his final instructions, and he says, "I advise you to get a mule." And once again, a fundamental change is made. Suddenly the people feel disgusted by the camels and can no longer understand how they were ever able to live with these weird creatures. So they get mules, and the same adaptation occurs as once when they were obsessed with camels, up to the adaptation of their own bodies. The story ends with the third leader, shortly before his death, telling the members of the tribe, "I advise you to get a pig." This is a light, short, beautiful story, but I think it is extremely important in the context of a society that is built on the legacy of its forebears and that takes that too seriously.
Binder & Haupt: It’s also a striking parable for the absurd degree to which a credulous society permits itself to be manipulated by its spiritual leaders.
Wael Shawky: Yes, definitely.
Wael Shawky (born in Alexandria in 1971) studied fine arts at the University of Alexandria and at the Graduate School of Fine Arts of the University of Pennsylvania (USA). In 2010, he established the studio space and study program MASS Alexandria. His works have been shown at the dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel (2012), among others. Wael Shawky is among the first five artists announced by the 11th Sharjah Biennial, 2013.
Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt
Publishers of Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art and of Nafas Art Magazine. Based in Berlin, Germany.
Wael Shawky. Al Araba Al Madfuna
Ernst Schering Foundation Art Award 2011
26 August - 21 October 2012