This interview was recorded in Düsseldorf in 2014, in preparation for the exhibition Wael Shawky: Crusades and Other Stories. This was the third meeting with the artist during the preparation of the show at Mathaf, during which the body of the exhibition and scenography was decided. We agreed to create a special atmosphere to transform the museum into a space for narration (makan al-sard) in which visitors encounter a group of characters, playing real and fictional roles. We also discussed the stories of the script and the process of making the films, as well as the status of the characters in the drawings, and the marionettes, as autonomous aesthetic objects. Meeting in the editing studio during the process of production of the third film, Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbala (2015), provided the perfect conditions to provoke the artist on his readings of geographies, histories, and literary sources inspiring his work and his approach to linking these through the physical production of his own narratives.
Abdellah Karroum: The Doha exhibition includes two film series, drawings, and other elements that give the audience keys to look at and understand the objects of your work that refer to history and geography, literature, and mythology. In Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File (2010), the first film of the trilogy, what defines geography and what defines history—is it a timeline, or a space?
Wael Shawky: The geography starts with the location of production. The first film is produced in Italy, the second in France, and the third in Germany. I'm talking about the location of production, not only the financing or commissioning of the films. Having these three locations is extremely important because it links the three main powerful countries behind the history of the Crusades.
This entire narrative and script of the series draws from the work of Arab historians and writers, for example Ibn al-Qalanisi, Ibn Jubayr, and Ibn al-Athir. The first source, or the guide, directing the story from one country to another through the chronology of the Crusades is Amin Maalouf's book, The Crusades through Arab Eyes (1983), but the scripts are written using original sources. An important reference point for these is Suhail Zakkar's series on the Crusades history.
The connection between geography and the films comes from the different materials used in making each film and the type of marionettes we produced. The first film made in Biella, Italy, used European marionettes of historical figures from a museum in Turin. This film begins with the speech of Pope Urbin II at the beginning of the Crusades and looks at the first four years of events only. It is interesting that even the scenography is more European, so it is as though visuals from this geography give the Arab perspective. Even the European marionettes tell the story of Arab historians, in classical Arabic.
The second film was made in the South of France. It connects to the history of this area, which played a big part in the Crusades and is also where the Christian figurines called 'santons' are produced. The marionettes were produced here by craftsmen who specialise in making these small hand-painted ceramic icons. It was a bit of a challenge to make mobile parts in ceramics.
The third film is different and connected to the involvement of Venice in the fourth wave of the Crusades. I made the marionettes out of Murano glass to refer specifically to the Venetian involvement in the Crusades at this time. The idea started more than 15 years ago when I was reading a novel by José Saramago (The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, 1991).
In this novel Saramago tries to imagine Jesus Christ asking God, how did we become so fragile? We have an amazing soul and brain, ideas, and creativity, all of which is contained in this fragile, breakable body that can end in an instant. The film has an entire army of leaders and people running after power, made out of glass marionettes. So this question of fragility present in the methods of production refers to the sentiments of the film.
AK: It is evident that the relationship to the place of production influenced the imagery and texture of the films. What is important for you, is it the topic of power and struggle, or is it also the stories in the literary approach of history, of what they represent? Is it important for artists or an artwork to document, or is it better to work directly with the struggle or tension?
WS: We will never be able to finalise the amount of authenticity of this historical text. I deal with it and with this history as human creation. It is important because it led to the relationship between West and East and to an understanding of our own sources, which again, we don't know to be real or not.
AK: You are interrogating the writing of history, or the notion of culture in the sense of heritage?
WS: Yes, as an artist I believe in transforming an idea into a new form of creation to understand something different, something new. Rather than making a new archive with this historical text, I discover more through working with it and transforming it into a readable form.
This geography leads from Germany, to France, Italy, Damascus, Aleppo and Jerusalem. It is interesting that this final production is in Düsseldorf because according to many sources, including European, the first wave of the Crusades originated here in the Rhine area. What is also interesting are the changing perspectives on what happened in these thousand years of human history.The other enemy for Christians during this time were Jews. Many massacres happened here, especially in the Rhine area, because they thought that by destroying them, God will then help Christians to kill Muslims and win Jerusalem. These sources don't mention any problems between Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem at this time.
AK: What happened in this region even before medieval times, much earlier in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, is still affecting the world. The centres of civilisation on the roads of gold, salt, pearls, spices and silk, connected the Middle East and the Holy Land to the rest of the world. The written histories of the Crusades are similar to those of many other conflicts, with oppositional views and interpretations, following alliances and differences between regions. When you see the movement of the zodiac in the film set for Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbala, and the multiple dialogues of a returning struggle, is Jerusalem central in this?
WS: Jerusalem is central, of course, it is central according to religious books and beliefs, and it has always been like this. It is also interesting that the speech by Pope Urban II delivered in Clermont-Ferrand, France, was only documented afterwards, although it was supposedly the most important speech during this entire 200-year history. It was a long speech, with some writing noting it lasted 10 days. The majority of four different versions of the speech relay the same points to European Christians, "You are fighting together because you don't have enough land, go to this other place"—he is talking about Jerusalem—"and you will find more space and resources." So there was also support from this religious aspect.
AK: Because Europe had a larger demographic?
WS: Yes, because as a Christian and as the Pope, he believed he had the right to the city of Jesus Christ. Of course, it has always been the same.
AK: The show at Mathaf is called Crusades and Other Stories. By 'other stories', do we mean stories that are in your mind? Are they also artistic preoccupations, objects, investigations, forms, and other meanings of what happened in the world?
WS: Deciding this title together clarified the idea that history is part of literature. When I say 'other stories', I'm also talking about the stories by Mohamed Mustagab in our exhibition, which I used for the film series Al Araba Al Madfuna (2012–16). I used three of his stories from his collection Dayrout al Sharif (1983) and connected these to personal stories from my visit to Upper Egypt. Visually you see my experience but you hear Mustagab's stories. So Crusades and Other Stories connects the history of the Crusades to this type of literature. Mustagab's novels connect myth and reality in a way that also speaks about something contemporary, but through very beautiful, classical Arabic language. This is also the connection you can make today with the Crusades; most contemporary political events reference histories that happened thousands of years ago.
AK: So in terms of production, Al Araba Al Madfuna also refers to a specific location and text, talking about mythologies that link ancient history to current communities?
WS: Yes, it is all imagined, created by Mohamed Mustagab, and supposedly based in Upper Egypt.
AK: OK, this place in Upper Egypt where you filmed, was it a location that you selected?
WS: The project is formed of many layers. In 2002 or 2003, I went to Upper Egypt, to a village called Al Araba Al Madfuna, located in an important historical place where the Osirion at the Temple of Seti I in Abydos is located, which they believed was the temple of the God Osiris. For many years the village had a dream to find treasure underground. I spent some time there, in closed rooms with people who have tunnels under their homes, hoping that one day they will find the King's chamber, and so on. This process was interesting because they were using metaphysical systems—magic, art, the Bible—to reach a physical materialistic system, which is in the end, gold. The connection between the metaphysical unseen world and the physical realistic materialistic world was fascinating.
So when I decided to translate this experience of Upper Egypt, I decided to make it with two different elements. In Al Araba Al Madfuna you see a black and white image that is telling my story of when I went to the village, but at the same time the kids are telling the story by Mohamed Mustagab. You look at the kids but at the same time you find that their voices are those of adults. It is always a combination of two different worlds. That is Al Araba Al Madfuna.
AK: Does Al Araba Al Madfuna follow the texts by Mustagab, or did you write the script?
WS: The scripts are the texts by Mohamed Mustagab. The first film, Al Araba Al Madfuna I, takes the script from the story Al Jabarina, the name of a tribe. I tried not to change the story at all for the film, but use it as is.
AK: Al Araba Al Madfuna is played by child actors, and it is more theatrical, whereas Cabaret Crusades is like reading text, and you worked with very elaborate marionette characters. Al Araba Al Madfuna is much more cinematographic for you.
WS: I think Cabaret Crusades is still more complex. It is a way of trying to mix many different languages, including theatre, which doesn't really exist in Al Araba Al Madfuna.
AK: So Al Araba Al Madfuna is more cinema, the characters are imaginary and you made them real. In Cabaret Crusades the marionettes are supposed to represent people from history but they are completely fabricated in terms of their materials and what they represent, including the figuration.
WS: I think something is connected here. Seeing kids but hearing adult voices erases drama. This also happens when using marionettes. Since the marionettes have no acting skills, the expression depends on the topic rather than the skills of the actors.
AK: You are kept at a distance.
WS: You can be connected in a completely different way to the marionettes. What connects the two films, working with kids and working with puppets, is this distance and erasure of the dramatic aspect, so things become very raw and dependent on the value of the topic.
AK: In Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbala, the dimension and movement of the zodiac sign is something that keeps you looking at a scene; it is a stage. During the filming you see this circular movement all the time. The zodiac makes you think about cosmic movement but at the same time it is about the camera movement, or the artist's studio, or your vision, where things circulate around the same idea or the same place. I'd like to know more about where the element of the zodiac came from.
WS: When I started making this film and searching for the scenography, I was thinking about internal conflicts. Most of the stories connected to the third film started from something internal and local that developed into something much much bigger over time. That is also why I called it Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbala, because Karbala started as a very small conflict but split the Islamic world today. It was important to refer to the Orthodox Catholic conflict in the film and many other internal conflicts in the film itself, even between Salah ad-Din and Nur ad-Din, and between Salah ad-Din and al-Saleh (the son of Nur ad-Din). The death of Salah ad-Din led to a conflict between his sons and his uncle, and so on, that escalated small internal problems into bigger issues.
Then I looked into perceptions of our existence as human beings during this time, and I found the zodiac to be very significant in this, because we always think the earth is the centre of the universe. All the zodiacs support the idea that the earth is the centre of the universe, and we are the centre of the universe, and so on. In many of these zodiacs Jerusalem is also the centre of the universe, of course, just as every big city considers itself to be.
In the first and second films the marionettes are the only kinetic element, but in the last, the scenography also plays a role in this. The scenography became a geographical element in the film, and it was interesting to make this alive—rather than always receiving the act, it dominates. The geography becomes the most important character, not just the background. I decided to make the ground of the film set rotate at different speeds and directions through a controlled motorised system. It becomes a way of showing different types of zodiacs, so each city has a particular type of zodiac and they are moving in specific ways at certain times. After Sherico's death, the zodiac stops moving. It begins to move again when Salah ad-Din enters Cairo for the first time. The ground is dead and does not move, but once he enters the centre, the circle is in movement again.
AK: In the first two films you show wide angles but with a lot of detail and you usually see the marionettes from the front, as in the theatre. The viewer moves with the camera. What is the importance of the language of cinema and framing, and the repetition of this for you?
WS: I don't know why, but the third film has more cinematic language than the previous films. I always use cinematic language as a tool, as part of a visual art language, but it is difficult to say it is a film. In the end it is not a story I created from beginning to end, it is a section that is taken from history which starts in 1146 and ends in 1204.
AK: The script can be understood as fragments, frames, or chapters that can be experienced separately or in different successions, re-ordered as we circulate through the exhibition.
WS: Yes, the last Cabaret Crusades film can be separated into almost five chapters. There is certainly a succession and progression in the whole film but even if you start from the 120th minute, that is itself a section of history translated into a visual form. For me it should work. If someone wants to start from the beginning that is also fine. I do not make it with a schedule in mind; it is shown looped so people can enter and leave anytime. I like to leave this freedom to the audience.
AK: Your work talks about the past but at the same time you also respond or communicate with your generation around the world, not only in Egypt, Qatar, Italy or Germany. You are looking at the history of human civilisation and its relationship to the present. How do you see the artist's responsibility to this?
WS: History is extremely important today. It is my intention to understand more by making this work. For example, this series started as an idea in 2009 but the beginning of the first film started in 2010. During this time I studied this history and read a lot because I didn't know anything about it beforehand. Reading a text does not make me understand the situation, but transforming it into this experience allows me to learn something very different. It is not only an artistic approach; I think it has something to do with, let's say, offering an analysis of human history.
AK: Or memory in this case?
WS: Yes, well let's give different examples.
When I lived in Saudi Arabia I was very connected to the Arab Saudi music without even knowing—I was just hearing it. In the second film I decided to find a way to reach part of this culture again and worked with Fjiri music from Bahrain, which is important because it has never been used in something that is connected to the history of this region. I'm not only talking about the region, but about how to connect certain music with certain experiences and with certain work, and how to connect even something like the Murano glass history of kitsch, to something historical that is connected to the way this history is shaped. This makes me understand more about where I came from.
AK: Yes this is one thing, understanding that it is a research work, an investigation, and a reading, that tries to understand our progress within society. Is your work addressing the same issues of the past, through other stories, to talk about the realities of today?
WS: When I started the whole series it was not meant to be a reflection of what was happening today in the region. I started the series before the revolution. But of course because of the revolution, things started to make more sense.
AK: This link is very interesting and it is reflected in the work of an entire generation of artists, 'Generation 00'.1 You have an experience of the artwork and you think of something happening elsewhere, but it sends you back to your historical connections and social realities.
WS: To be honest, I'm not sure if I consider myself a political artist.
AK: But you produce something that talks about politics and about the politics of history and fictional stories.
WS: I'm talking about politics, yes. But I'm not sure I'm a political artist in that sense. I don't want to be a reactionary artist, responding to certain current political events.
AK: Yes, this is why I'm saying it is a projection. Nothing in politics happens before, it happens after. If people in Germany see your work they would better understand the events that happened, but it is not just documenting.
WS: It is not documenting or reacting to what is happening; the idea is not to be with any side at all. As I said, it is an analysis of the way we write history. We write history and call it human creation, but it doesn't mean it is fake; it still has meaning. Documentation for a certain period, for certain people, reflects the way human beings believed in particular rules at specific moments, so even if it is fake, it was needed at the time. For example, even the situation with the media now is important—it is an analysis and a way of understanding. One of my older works, Telematch Sadat (2007) is a good example of this because I collaborated with kids who reenacted the assassination of President Sadat in 1981.
I took the assassination of President Sadat, the military parade, the assassination, and the funeral, and had it all acted by Bedouin kids in Egypt. There were only three cameras filming the political event during which he was assassinated. I used the same angles for filming, not to represent what happened in these locations, but because these are our only documentary sources of the event. Instead of using a real military parade I used donkeys and trucks and I had Bedouin kids instead of the military. The kids don't have the dramatic memory of Sadat. I tell them—jump from this truck here, run here, and you run here—and they follow the instructions. The funeral of Sadat was also acted by the same kids.
When you see an image on the TV—for example the images of the revolution—after a while it loses its meaning, it becomes something completely different. By making this shift, making the work with kids, or marionettes, you refresh the memory and remove the drama, and it becomes something else. The topic itself becomes the most important. But if I'm using professional actors, the meaning is lost because I'm depending on their acting skills. It is a way to understand more about human history, but it doesn't have to be politics. It is human history, human needs, something that changed the world.
AK: Let's go back to the body of the show. What is the status of an object, or a drawing? You have the marionettes that are characters and you have the drawings that are other objects from the location of filming. We are showing drawings from both series. Are they preparatory, or do they follow the production of the films?
WS: The drawings we will show are mainly from the Al Araba Al Madfuna series with seven big drawings from the last Cabaret Crusades film. Most of the time I make drawings very spontaneously. I try not to think while making them because the topic already exists, I live it now. It has really become like talking. I have no idea what they will look like; it is always a discovery.
AK: They are from that universe, of creation.
WS: Yes, they appear from here. I don't know exactly what will happen, but I know they will come from this entire oeuvre of thinking and visualising these histories.
AK: Thank you so much, Wael.
WS: Thank you.