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Drawing Chronicles: Wael Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades and the Fall of Teleological History

​​Written by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev​​

Do we as individuals have free will and singular agency? Are we the authors of our actions and can we make choices, or are human actions determined by external causes, conditions, divine intervention or fate?

I will discuss this question by looking at Wael Shawky's trilogy of video films Cabaret Crusades, premiered in 2010, 2012 and 2015. Through the play of marionettes, elaborate scenography, classical Arabic speech, electronic music and traditional chanting, they depict great pain, suffering and acts of violence, including stabbing, beheading, cannibalism and scenes of dogs eating a dead body. There is a sharp contrast between this violence and the magical realism and beauty of the scenography, of the marionettes and their clothing, the crisp photography and the seductive music.

While referring to the Middle Ages (the period between the first crusade in the 11th century up to 1204, when Constantinople, a primarily Christian city, was overrun and pillaged by Crusaders in the fourth crusade), these films cannot but make us think about our own times and about the increasing number of deaths (nearly 200,000 in Syria since the first rebellion uprising in 2011 to today's civil war) and the lives lost in the US-Iraq Gulf wars during the 1990s and 2000s, the Lebanese civil wars in the 1970s and 1980s, the Arab-Israeli wars since 1948, the colonial partitioning of Arab lands of the former Ottoman empire in the 1920s, the Ottoman empire and its internal struggles, and events dating further and further back.

I repeat: do we as individuals have singular agency, or are human actions determined by external causes, conditions or fate?

The works of Wael Shawky seem to intimate that the supreme agency we might achieve is nothing more than the ability to submit to a fundamentally unknown authority within ourselves, through commitment to the task at hand, whatever that task may be, and through precision, whatever that may be focused upon. Primarily a draughtsman, Shawky uses no shading, but is dedicated to the line. In speaking about his drawing, he told me: "It's never really something I know in advance. It can turn into an animal that is really connected to a city, for example. I have no idea at first what it is. What I want from the work is that in the end it has enough precision in its detail to ensure that you cannot criticize its parts anymore, because it looks as if it exists in reality, somewhere. The landscape, the shape is there, an animal with four legs. It's exactly the way I made all the marionettes through precision. The marionettes are made by blowing and shaping glass, but it's not about blowing, it's about how something can become precise enough so that you believe there's something in reality, that it has a purpose, a function."1

Shawky adopts the role of a teacher and educator in his work and his life (in 2010 he transformed his studio into MASS Alexandria, an alternative school for contemporary art). He has admired Joseph Beuys' shamanistic and anticonsumer culture practice for having developed the notion of the social sculpture since 1971 (the shaping of a community as a form of sculpture through dialogue and discussion), while at the same time having an alchemical outlook on materials as carriers of energy in a constant process of transformation, and thus of vitality and life.2 The Cabaret Crusades are educational tools, visual hooks to provoke viewers to study the stories recounted. His vocation is to raise the level of public discourse through educating and inspiring the pursuit of happiness, justice and a contemplative life. Without believing in any one truthful historical account, he does, however use exact quotations from historiographical texts and primary sources: "I don't believe in history; I still try to use the source of written history to analyse this history. I'm criticising history by being very accurate and using exact phrases and sayings."3

Most of the videos and films made by Shawky are also installations, so that visitors are not detached viewers, but characters inside a set. This sense of embodied spectatorship is amplified by the digitally recorded films, which offer sufficient crisp detail to suggest a subjective experience of tactility in viewers through mirror-touch strategies. The contrast of different textures and colours of materials, hard and shiny versus soft and velvety, for example, as well as close-ups and blurred backgrounds trigger a synaesthetic experience.

The development of the film installation by artists such as Chantal Ackerman and Jean-Luc Godard in the 1980s was in part a reaction to the rise of the news media and satellite television. These video-installations often had a documentary style and also a denunciatory tone and content, as if their role were to supplement biased news reports in the official media with alternative information or counterinformation, in the name of world justice and of a more truthful history. Shawky's works, although beginning partly within this genre (as in The Cave, 2005 and Bent Jbeil, 2007) moved towards magical realism with a strong focus on mixed-media installation. Shawky is of a later generation that has an experience of film and moving images also on the internet, as on YouTube, and his concerns therefore shift away from the documentary towards both historical early films and personal home movies. Although maintaining a close connection with historical sources in terms of dates, events and locations, the Cabaret Crusades shifts away from the conceptual documentary film installation of the 1990s and 2000s.

This is due to the fact that in the digital era saturated by information, it seems impossible to produce knowledge through a documentary practice only: there are too many facts, and so 'truth' becomes constructed through the pointing out and documenting of facts meaning that any truth can be validated through selection and editing processes. Therefore, Shawky operates on a declared level of fiction, through set design and the use of marionettes, which are allegorical, human-animal characters. He never looses track of the story, however, due to the faithfulness with which he chronicles history on the basis of primary sources, including the texts of Usama Ibn Munqidh and Ibn Al-Qalanisi.

In a recent essay, Jessica Morgan situates Shawky's work within the legacy of artworks that reenact events of the past. She speaks about "retracing our steps in the hope of discovering another way forward'", adding that "Despite—or because of—the speed of the flow of information and images, our attention is drawn to the past in a continual loop of repetition".4 She points out that the reason why we attempt to reenact has to do with a sense of uncertainty regarding the 'reliability and truth of historical documentation. What has emerged is an entire genre of art making that is concerned with dissecting the role of media imagery and the use of imaging in all aspects of our society, with particular attention paid to its role in war and politics.' That said, she notes that it is difficult to categorise Shawky's work within this line (which I presume would include artists such as Akram Zaatari and Walid Raad), even though his work is based on Amin Maloof's The Crusades through Arab Eyes (1983) and the accounts of Arab historians made closer to the times in question. Using marionettes allows Shawky to speak in more general terms, and on the level of a tale, of characters and types, and of greed and inhumanity. Morgan uses Brecht's theories of Verfremdung (theatrical alienation) to explain Shawky's choice of technique: "The process of alienation from the source material and subject at the heart of the project allows the viewer to approach the loaded subject from an unfamiliar perspective."5

This helps us not only to see the Crusades from an Arab perspective and also from the perspective of historical skepticism—or skepticism towards historical narratives generally, I would add—but it also allows us to see the events as metaphors of historical repetition and thus to see the conflict in the Middle East that we are witnessing today as a repetition of those same forms of competition over resources and other forms of power.

In many of Shawky's works, children appear instead of puppets. In the four-channel video Asphalt Quarter (2003), for example, Bedouin children build a runway in the desert in a day. They speak in a heavily accented English, a language that they do not understand. Telematch Sadat (2007, from the Telematch Series, 2007–09) is the recreation of the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981 during the October Parade, reenacted by Bedouin children, who have no knowledge or understanding of what they are doing. Morgan notes the relation between the use of children and the use of puppets in Cabaret Crusades (2010–15), since, like puppets, 'children do not display an overt awareness or self-consciousness in their actions.'6 She states that this reorientation of a documentary approach suggests the farcical and absurd nature of historical repetition, as if the world never learns from past deeds.

Morgan rightly points out that the Cabaret Crusades are characterised by the use of filmic rather than theatrical techniques: "His videos differ from traditional puppetry in so far as the scenes are choreographed in a manner that employs elaborate set designs, lighting, and special effects from a cinematic rather than a 'marionette' tradition."7

While in agreement with this I would argue the opposite is also true: by using marionettes and a set, Shawky pulls the cinematic back to its earliest stages when it was closest to theatre, by predominantly using frontal or at least limited camera work and a proscenium stage, and shifting away from today's hi-tech digital editing and processing. Thus he sets an apparent contradiction into dynamic play between the use of marionettes and the use of film. While film imitates real life by simulating movement through time using a rapidly changing succession of frames, puppetry is based on the symbolic universe of objects that are fundamentally inanimate unless manipulated by a puppeteer.

The Horror Show File (2010), the first of the Cabaret Crusades trilogy, was made during a residency at Michelangelo Pistoletto's foundation in Biella, Piedmont, through which Shawky was able to borrow the 18th century wooden marionettes of Daniele Lupi's collection in Turin. Thirty-two minutes long, it tells the story of the first crusade, starting from 1095 till 1099, when Jerusalem fell. While the faces of the puppets are inanimate and rigid, the events they perform are extremely violent, animated actions. This recalls the extreme violence in traditional Punch and Judy puppet shows in the Western tradition, but the closest analogy is with the Sicilian Opera dei Pupi, a tradition of telling romance stories through puppets such as Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (The Frenzy of Orlando, 1516). Codified at a time when there was much borrowing from Arabic culture, they were inspired by the Hakawati—the storyteller in Arab lands—whose nested tales have hundreds of episodes, like those of Scheherazade, the legendary Arabic queen and storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights.

The Path to Cairo (2012), the longer, second film in the trilogy, recounts the story of the Middle East between the end of the first crusade in 1099 and the second crusade of 1146–49. Here, Shawky uses puppets specially crafted from ceramic, whose eyelids and mouths open and close, making a high-pitched sound. Sound is important in this second film, combining voices, songs, drums and instruments with lyrics sung by Bahraini pearl-fishers whom Shawky engaged specifically for this artwork, as well as children and religious Shia storytellers.

In The Secrets of Karbala (2015), the third film, the puppets are made of glass—a material even more fragile than ceramic. Inspired by the humanity and frailty of José Saramago's Jesus in his censored novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991), Shawky had begun to think about using glass to indicate the fragility of the body containing the soul8. A very high external pitch causes the glass to shatter—when the glass eyes of the marionettes open and shut, they reverberate longer than those made of ceramic. This suggests a feeling of the sublime. Like bells, it evokes an echoic environment, making space itself perceivable. We hear space.

To return to the initial question posed by this paper, whether we have free will or live in a deterministic universe is not, as it may appear at first, a question of contemporary individualistic Western thought versus a more communitarian Eastern thought, since it is a Shakespearian question, too. In Act V, Scene V of Macbeth, a messenger comes to let Macbeth know that he has seen the forest moving towards the castle, but at first he can only say:"I should report that which I say I saw, But know not how to do it."

His remark concerns the reporting of events, and how such reporting can take place if the author of the story is unable to interpret events causally, according to a sequence of acts of free will. And thus it is a question of historiography, its capacities and its purpose.

Arab historiography is 'annalistic' in structure, based on annals, dates, and ordered by years. Most Arab historians were court chroniclers, thus telling the history that the ruler preferred. But Ibn Khaldun, in his 1377 al-muqaddimah, proposed a sociological reading of history and attempted to understand relations between landscape, agriculture and humans. He spoke of temperate areas, not too far north or south, creating well-proportioned things: "The sciences, the arts, clothing, food, fruits, even animals and every other thing that is produced in the three median zones, are distinguished on the basis of their temperate well-proportioned character."9

In fact, Arabian Mecca is not in the dry, hot Bedouin areas, but in an oasis of Hijaz, near the hills above the Red Sea. In the 500s and 600s many nomadic Bedouins immigrated to the area.

The move from Mecca to Medina saw a society in transition. Immigration changed the society; religion and the building of cities unified and stabilised it. Khaldun states that: "Decadence of society is a consequence of instability."10

This social view of the development of history according to certain repeated patterns of migration, development into sedentary communities with the building of new cities, followed by the inevitable decadence and decline of civilisations, seems to be accepted in Shawky's world view, since he often refers to this thesis. It is interesting to note that this view of migration as a part of transformation in societies also belongs to the Islamic founding parables such as the move from Mecca to Medina as part of a necessary migration for the worthy to develop. Shawky often tells the story of his own migration from Alexandria to Mecca as a child with his family and his witnessing the co-presence of modernity and society. He has suggested that the Bedouin culture of the Gulf region seems to adapt better to the nomadic nature of global financial capital and the structure of society in the age of the Internet.

In the chapter 'The Concept of History' in Between Past and Future (1954), Hannah Arendt reminds usthat in Ancient Greece nature was thought to beimmortal, due to its continuous cyclical repetitionand rebirth.11 That cyclical immortality was contrastedin the Greek view with the mortality of humans,who, striving to achieve some form of immortality aswell, pursued the invention of history: through thehistorical retelling of the deeds and words of previoushuman lives, the muse of memory, Mnemosyne, couldcreate a form of immortality for humans.

Poetry and history writing were placed in the same category by Aristotle, because they were both dedicated to making something last through memory. This occurs through the transformation of the singular event into history by the retelling of it, and thus through a form of imitating action. Thucydides (460– 400 BC), with The History of the Peloponnesian War, created norms for historiography based on the need for documentation and evidence. He tells the story of the war as a grand movement of history.

A great cultural shift occurred when the monotheistic religions, including Islam, introduced the notion that the only lasting thing was the soul and spirit of the human, in contrast with a transient natural world, which included the human body. Today, and ever since Romanticism and the carbon fossil-fuel age, the notion that nature is transient and can perish is considered generally more true than that it is immortal, as the ancients believed.

Modern Western historiography emerged in the late 18th century, with Kant and Hegel, followed by Marx. What was important was a sense of teleology, a movement or progress of mankind through history. Through writing history, it was believed, we could see this process, not as a series of single, outstanding events; we could look beyond single acts with short term goals, to see the higher goals of which individuals are not aware, a sort of universal human spirit. History becomes the identification of this process, and its understanding. For Marx, this was a movement and process towards a classless society, a sort of paradise on Earth.

Furthermore, in the 19th century, an opposition between the sciences of nature, as purely objective, and the historical sciences was posed, which we know today to be fallacious, because both achieve results based on the questions being asked, as well as being observer-dependant. The historian was to be objective and base his study on documents and facts, without judging or blaming. But to choose which documents was always an interference, and thus such a teleological viewpoint was already fragile.

Arendt, writing in the 1950s, with great premonition, stated that the problem in the technological age of modernity is that humans encounter only themselves in such a world. Even in the so-called natural world, all is potentially man-made, so the world is alienated from us through our smothering of it. Arendt suggested in her 1954 essay, that in such an age there is no history, no process to be identified. That was only a few decades before the Internet was invented, and today it seems even more true.

How does that connect to today? Are we puppets or do we have agency?

Heinrich Von Kleist, in On the Marionette Theatre (1810), tells the story of meeting a renowned dancer who often stopped at a marionette theatre to entertain the common folk in the market square and discuss the qualities of the marionettes' dance as opposed to most live dancers: "Each marionette has a focal point in movement, a centre of gravity, and when the centre is moved, the limbs follow without any additional handling… these movements of the centre are very simple. Every time the centre of gravity is guided in a straight line, the limbs describe curves that complement and extend the basically simple movement. Many times when the marionettes are merely shaken arbitrarily, they are transformed into a kind of rhythmic movement that in itself is very similar to the dance… the marionette would never slip into affectation."12

Thus the centre of gravity is the only part of the body of the doll that is moved by the puppeteer, and it moves with an elliptical motion, while the limbs achieve graceful movement as a consequence, which one could not achieve through their intentional control.

Perhaps Von Kleist was in favour of automatic gestures, not intentionality. They achieve more grace, while conscious action brings inauthenticity. They are not weighed down by gravity, but act in a reverse relation with the space above them, where the puppeteers are moving their hands. They are freer, more angelic beings, not forced by the laws of the Earth.

Kleist seems to say that free will inhibits grace of behaviour and spontaneous life. Is it more lively, therefore, not to have free will? He makes it a metaphysical question concerning truth and beauty, the maximum of grace being either in the infinite consciousness (the divine) or in the absolute lack of consciousness (the puppet).

Shawky's story telling is neither one of metaphysical truths, nor of rational teleological truths, but of factual truths. In history, even today, facts seem to occur mechanically, via action and reaction. Thus the puppet is more truthful, he suggests. His puppets are beautiful, and excluding consciousness, they show history on a mechanical level. There is no explanation for history. There are only small descriptive dialogues.

Shawky makes puppets enact history through an omniscient narrator, external to them, who has an observing but detached gaze onto history. Events are not interpreted explicitly, nor ordered within an interpretative structure that highlights some over others. They are either included or not, and once included they are on the same plane as all the others, scene after scene.

Shawky does not create a biographical history, a heroic subject or an individual-based tale wher e he follows one character through different events and locations, like a history of Julius Caesar. Nor does he focus on the underlying economic structur es of exploitation and means of production and their distribution, as a social history. His narrative is event-based, like in traditional history, but also shows the back stage of these ev ents, the intrigues in the palaces, the small events and conversations of daily life. There is no Marxist or teleological perspective, no social history or other history that identifies deep causes and hidden connections.

Shawky uses marionettes because his is a history without conscious protagonists, without external causes or reasons or intentions. He takes no scientific view of history, unlike Marx, who finds deterministic laws. All that occurs are facts and events, where each individual plays one small part, like a marionette in a system that is produced without a puppeteer. His is the opposite of conspiracy theory: the strings are not all held by anyone. It is an automatic history, a cyber history where chronology and geography mark the sequences from one city or centre to the next over time. It is a history that is horizontally structured, and even that is not a straight line, but a winding, curved line, drawn with no shadows.

This same concern about history, and automatisms, lies at the heart of Gerhard Richter's paintings, whose precision Shawky greatly admires.13 In the age of the mechanical reproduction of images, Richter does not paint a painting, does not attempt Wael Shawky: Crusades and Other Stories 38 39 to compete with the mechanical or technological or mediated for authenticity and self-expression in his art, but rather submits to the technically reproduced image. He began after World War II, after emigrating from Eastern to Western Germany, and became a copyist fundamentally. The poetry and power of his works laying in the ability not to be self-expressive but a human translator of a mechanically reproduced image.

Shawky's dedication to the line possesses both precision and a child-like fantasy: drawings are made of at once intentional and automatic lines that move through time. They provide a sense of the temporary, the immediate and the preparatory. They are sketches done without prior planning, and their wavy ondulating irregular line moves around the page or sheet of paper as if it were drawing a line on a map that does not yet exist. Slowly a line can become something more figurative, through associations, an animal or a tower, a character or a hill, and different planes of space and spatial relationships can coexist in the state of the endlessly propositional space of visual projection. The line is traced singularly, precisely and self-consciously, but Shawky—the draughtsman—follows the line until it becomes a universe on a plane.

"I think it has something to do with the Surrealism of Salvador Dalí or Max Ernst. I feel that there's a connection to the way they tried to deal with all the details in a way that's very precise… The point is to make these details really detailed enough to convince people that this massive totality they make up all together exists. So that you don't start to doubt."14

1 In conversation with the author, New York, 1 February 2015.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Morgan, Jessica, Revisitation, in Pfeffer, S. and Mertens. H.C. (eds.), Wael Shawky: Al Araba Al Madfuna (Berlin, London: Ernst Schering Foundation Art Award, König Books, 2014), p.134.

5 Ibid., p. 135.

6 Ibid., p. 136.

7 Ibid., p. 135.

8 In conversation with the author, New York, 1 February 2015.

9 Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, first ed. 1969), book I, chapter I.

10 Ibid.

11 Arendt, Hannah, 'The Concept of History', in Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought (New York: The Viking Press, first ed. 1954).

12 Von Kleist, Heinrich and Thomas G. Neumiller, 'On the Marionette Theatre', The Drama Review: TDR, vol. 16, no. 3,The 'Puppet' Issue (September, 1972, first ed. in German 1810), pp. 22–26.

13 In conversation with the author, New York, 1 February 2015.

14 Ibid.


This essay was originally published in the exhibition catalogue Wael Shawky: Crusades and Other Stories. First published in Italy by SIlvana Editoriale S.p.A, 2016. All rights reserved © Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art and Qatar Museums, Doha, Qatar.

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