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This Week’s Six Pillars Show: Wael Shawky “Dictums”

Dictums Manqia I, 2013 4K Ultra HD video Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery

Dictums Manqia I, 2013
4K Ultra HD video
Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery

Broadcasts Thursday 20th 19.30 GMT. Repeats the following Sunday 06.30 GMT.

This week we speak to an Egyptian artist showing simultaneously at two major London galleries. Wael Shawky (b.1971) had marionettes from his film Cabaret Crusades (2010/2012) at The Serpentine Gallery while opening a major solo show Dictums at the Lisson Gallery, until March 8th 2014.

As Shawky’s work often does, both of his London exhibits explore ideas of faith and history, two themes which by their very nature necessarily touch upon social politics in some way. Cabaret Crusades presents the story of the violent, bloody Christian crusades (1095-1291) to the East from an eastern perspective, based on and inspired by Amin Maalouf’s book The Crusades Through Arab Eyes.

A still from Cabaret Crusades

A still from Cabaret Crusades

Dictums brings together drawings of fantastical camels, folk-art, possibly medieval-style  hand drawn maps, a slow-motion film of black camels walking the desert and a film of Shawky’s Sharjah commission involving qawaaali singers collaborating with Pakistani and Indian staff at the Biennial where the film was made. Also on display were hand-worked ‘everyday’ metal pieces in cabinets on the walls, while the gallery was filled with the Urdu song of the qawaali film. We asked Shawky about these new works, and spoke also to Ossian Ward, Head of Content at Lisson about the gallery’s decision to have Shawky’s exhibition simultaneously with Christians Jankowski’s (b.1968) solo show (Lisson has two venues). Jankowski is an brilliant artist, who has worked in the Middle east and whose speed boat up for  auction at the Frieze one year was the centre of discussion.


The medieval-looking marionettes in Cabaret Crusades

Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades series: The Horror Show File (2010) and The Path to Cairo (2012) uses marionettes to enact key events that occurred during the crusades.

wael et al

Ossian Ward, Christian Jankowski and Wael Shawky in conversation at Lisson 2014


An example of Shawky’s pieces using metal work in Dictums

Expounding the view that “there is no single historical truth”, Shawky uses the puppet theatre as a metaphor for the way we retell the exploits of our predecessors; underplayed or exaggerated to fit our notions of national identity.

While the camels seem incredibly majestic moving around their natural environment, there is a sense of the same institutional critique behind all of the works; the cabinet shelves holding the ‘everyday’ objects of hammered metal are half empty, as if others were stolen or the story is not complete.


The Crusades through Arab Eyes, the book which inspired Shawky

In the interview Wael explains ideas behind the work and aspects of his methodology, illustrating points raised by Ossian Ward in our earlier conversation. Spurred on by Shawky’s pen drawings of the other-wordly, dinosaur-like camels, with citadels on their back and their impossible limbs, and his past works that have dealt with Islam, I quiz him on how Muslims feel about dinosaurs at all. Are they considered fantasy, or fact? It was not that anyone expected Shawky to have the answer, but an idea thrown up by his body of work and stylistic approach, which we have looked into since then:

“Allah Almighty did mention dinosaurs in the Noble Quran.  While the word “dinosaurs” is a modern word that refers to the gigantic animals that existed perhaps millions of years ago, Allah Almighty referred to all created “beasts” as “dabbah”.  A “dabbah” in the Noble Quran consists of all animals, including the dinosaurs.” (websites on the issue of Islam and the question of dinosaurs.)

This aspect of history is still a problematic area much debated, as yet unresolved, but since Shawky’s work deals so frequently with the imagination and the exciting result of imagined possibilities, not so far off a question from the very questions that interest Shawky in his work.

About Dictums he tells us “I like to examine the differences between two worlds“.