Wael Shawky at the Polygon Gallery, Vancouver
By Yani Kong
I toured Wael Shawky’s Al Araba Al Madfuna on its final day of exhibition at the Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver and it was a breathtaking success, worthy of the cold and beautiful pilgrimage from East Vancouver on a rare snow day. Al Araba Al Madfuna consists of a trilogy of videos, screening in three parts (Al Araba Al Madfuna III on loop in the main exhibition space, and Al Araba Al Madfuna I and II shown in the adjacent screening room during the last week of the show) alongside a large-scale sand installation and a series of oil and ink drawings and plaster sculptures of more-than-human hybrids.
The cavern-like gallery space enhanced the hyper-saturated blues, purples, and greys of the looping 4k-channel video, sharing space with the massive pile of sand that interred the far corner of the gallery, and the jewel-toned sculptures and drawings, staging a fascinating opposition between grace and scale that maintains a throughline with Shawky’s work in another trilogy, Cabaret Crusades, programmed in tandem with the exhibition. My visit was accompanied by the trilogy’s third installment Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbala, which dramatizes the final years of the Crusades through exquisite hand-blown Murano glass marionettes who commit extreme violence and betrayal. My entire review could centre on this film alone, where fragile glass figures wield the power of empire. In one particularly difficult scene, a towering pile of dying prisoners are stabbed repeatedly by their captors and small strings elicit minor agonized movements as life slips away. The smooth faces of the aggressors are beautiful and still, their faintest expressions revealed only by their moving glass eyelids, provoking beauty and wonder where horror would otherwise be.
Juxtapositions abound throughout Shawky’s work. Al Araba Al Madfuna explores oral myths from the village of the same name. Each video tells a parable from the storyteller Mohamed Mustagab’s Tales of Dayrut, stories situated from the Temple at Osirion, now Abydos, Egypt. These videos ponder the tradition of storytelling through the slow reinvention that comes through repetition. The looping Al Araba Al Madfuna III tells Mustagab’s short tale Sunflower, a story of village obsession that creates a treasure of the sunflower seed in the form of a miraculous cure that takes on a significance eclipsing all else. Children perform in the roles of adults, cloaked in traditional garb, turbans, and facial hair. The densely saturated colours makes this hard to see at first, but their smallness is revealed in their bodies’ movements when they clumsily travel the desert as a group. As in The Secrets of Karbala, the inclusion of children lends a lighthearted contradiction, pressing viewers to explore these fresh but inelegant performances as the richer story unfolds.
The drawings and sculptures that accompany these films extend Mustagab’s myths by translating the stories into imaginary hybrid characters. Mixed human-non-humans are rendered in rich jewel tones and light graphite line, pointing again to Shawky’s deft use of contradiction and fantasy, where puppets, children, and creatures tell the stories of history. It is a technique that begins, as with most histories, with a large event, but creates space for small things to emerge through close, fascinated observation. The fantastic lends a far more factual version of history, where, as Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev writes, “the puppet is more truthful,” unfolding history as a series of small but meaningful dialogues, alight with both beauty and tragedy.
Yani Kong is a SSHRC Doctoral Fellow of Contemporary Art at The School for the Contemporary Arts at SFU. She is the managing editor of the Comparative Media Arts Journal, a freelance writer and critic, and an instructor and TA in Art History and Communication.