Magazine article Art Monthly

Wael Shawky

Magazine article Art Monthly

Wael Shawky

Article excerpt

Wael Shawky

Nottingham Contemporary 15 April to 26 June

Based in Alexandria, Egypt, Wael Shawky's creative practice seems to be subject to many different forms of interpretation. At an artist talk at Nottingham Contemporary my suspicions were affirmed when audience members repeatedly tugged at Shawky by asking suggestive political questions that fostered an assumption of the artist's work being tethered to a form of socio-political debate. This may have been further perpetuated by the kind of interpretative devices often used by large institutions. For instance, in Shawky's Nottingham exhibition, readers are guided by panel text and brochure copy that make subtle allusions to the recent revolutionary dissent in Egypt and the greater Arab world.

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As a critic, this form of ad hoc curatorial framing leaves me a little uneasy as it alludes to a wider concern about the manner in which artists are represented when they hail from politically unstable localities. Political contexts are undeniably important guises for examining artistic practice but, equally, they can propagate a narrowly defined framework for curators to operate within. This, I would argue, feeds a potentially reductive desire, as has been evidenced by the uneven proliferation of artists of Arab origin, which has occurred in tandem with the confluence of international terror networks and the mass media's interest in unravelling Arabic identity. This is complicated by widespread ignorance of the fact that the contemporary Arabic artistic tradition lacks a clear epistemological history by which it can be critiqued.

The most potent unifying device in Shawky's video works at Nottingham Contemporary is the artist's sublime sense of humour. Whether he is re-presenting the tale of the crusades through the use of porcelain dolls or reimagining the assassination of former Egyptian president Sadat with children replacing soldiers, the sharp wit remains a constant. The first of these works is a large-scale presentation of Shawky's 2006 video animation Al Aqsa Park, 2006. Here, the artist transforms the unmistakeable Jerusalem Dome of the Rock into a fairground carousel. As it swoops, lifts and dips again, the historic monument becomes an awe-inspiring site for potential revelry. Instead of addressing the stark religious conditions by which the Dome functions, Shawky chooses to take it out of context--fetishising Al Aqsa's architecture as a way, perhaps, to question the building's iconic and cultural resonance.

In Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File, 2010, the artist tells the story of the first crusade 1096-99, utilising an adapted text from Arabic historians and eyewitness accounts from the book The Crusade Through Arab Eyes (Saqi Books, 1984). …

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