At the Serpentine Gallery, the first major London show by renowned Egyptian artist Wael Shawky proved to be a mixed bag of goodies. In the Serpentine's relatively small public gallery space, the presentation of three films dominated the show and left little space for the puppets and drawings that made up the rest of the exhibition. Nevertheless, the artist's gentle spirit and communicative creative eye shone through all the work on display.
Shawky's main creative drive is to produce films that have a political edge to them. In these films he largely uses marionettes, some made by himself and some borrowed. The puppets themselves are the stars of the show at the Serpentine Gallery. The first room is filled with them, lined up in an impressive processional. These are the 24 puppets made by the artist for his film Cabaret Crusades film series. Full of character and humour, they are beautifully lit and presented in a massive glass cabinet. Lined up in three rows, they manage to possess a "Hammer house of horror" feeling of imminent independent movement, while at the same time they are not at all sinister – a touching childlike naivety made them exude a certain warm and humanity. These puppets are used in the film The Path to Cairo (2012), given its first UK outing in the exhibition. It is part of a series of films called Cabaret Crusades that Shawky has been making recently which reinterpret the medieval Crusades from a middle Eastern perspective. The other film in this series being shown is The Horror Show File (2010)
The Path to Cairo is a technically impressive and visually beautiful achievement. Recounting a segment of history in a way we are not accustomed to in the West, the Europeans are the aggressors and the Arabs the oppressed. Some of the marionettes that depict human characters are anthropomorphic in nature, with camel or horses heads and bodies. There is nothing heavy-handed or obvious about how these are deployed in the film, being used to create character rather than to caricature. The effect is to suspend reality and soften the political tone of the piece, implying that the film is not a history lecture, but more subtle and even playful. The set-ups in the film production are very ambitious. At times there are an large numbers of puppets performing under a plethora of strings – operating them must have taken an army of puppeteers. The final effect is moving and intensely beautiful.
In The Horrow Show File, Shawky employs a group of marionettes borrowed from the Lupi Collection, many of which date back 200 years. The use of these classic Italian puppets creates a very different effect. Their more traditional appearance, limited movements and European grotesquerie gave the whole film a more stilted and unsettling atmosphere. The set-ups were generally simpler and characterisation less human and quirky. However, when it came to the central battle scene, despite the relative clunkiness of the puppets' movements, a real sense of violence and brutality was developed, and with only an annoying buzz in the soundtrack, it was a powerful moment indeed.
In his new film Al Araba Al Madfuna II (2013), being premiered in this exhibition, Shawky dispenses with the marionettes and uses a cast of children to narrate the Egyptian novelist Mohamed Mustagab's parables, "Horsemen Adore Perfume" and "The Offering". The artist uses the children in much the same way as he manipulates the puppets. Dressed in adult clothing and moustaches (for the boys) they are mere mouthpieces for the adult voices on the soundtrack. The beautiful dialogue intoned in classical Arabic, has a ritualistic quality. Shot in crystal-clear black-and-white, the film has something of the ambiance of a 1960s French art house movie. Alongside the wonderful set pieces and groups of children were some startling images of unusual buildings and landscapes. The overall effect was ravishing and hypnotic, although the ambiguity of the child actors in adult roles creates an ultimately disturbing mood and raises the piece above the cinematic to become an artwork of substance.
The remaining rooms featured a group of drawings (still waiting to be hung at the time of the preview) and a set of so-called flags, which accompanied the Al Araba Al Madfuna II film. The drawings were delicate depictions of fantastical creatures. They were certainly charming, but it was hard to see how they sat with the rest of the show. The flags likewise seemed out of place, although their spiky mix of tarmac metal and twisted wire was interesting and subtle.