Culture at crossroads

Daily News Egypt
5 Min Read

Standing at the “crossroads of the four-channel video projection titled “Darb El-Arbaeen (Forty Days Road) can be overpowering; the simultaneous projection on the four large screens is overwhelming and engages the viewer completely.

Part of Wael Shawky’s first solo exhibition in Cairo since 2006, “Darb El-Arbaeen juxtaposes nomadic and agricultural ways of life. The installation centers on a man who leaves his dry village with his water buffalo in search of a well. The use of the four dimensional medium to show the meeting of the “dry culture and “wet culture is unique; it creates a physical space for the audiences, situated inside the artist’s work.

It also functions as an effective medium for conveying the complexities, nuances and the contrasts in a culture that Shawky seeks to explore.

The simultaneous projection on the four screens may be difficult to fully grasp in one go but the installation provides an opportunity for viewing the work from different vantage points. This, in turn, inspires different interpretations and understanding of the milieu of the work.

The exhibition at the Townhouse Gallery and Factory is titled “Clean History and also showcases the video “Telematch Suburb and a set of drawings inspired by Shawky’s visit to the Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art.

Explaining the title, “Clean History, Sarah Rifky, curator of the Townhouse Gallery told Daily News Egypt that it comes from the idea of “purging history.

“The inspiration behind this project was Wael’s visit to Santa Fe, where he encountered objectification of South American traditions particularly within the ethnographic tradition of museums, she added.

“Telematch Suburb features a heavy metal band playing to an audience of rural residents in Egypt’s Nile Delta. The video opens with the villagers being invited to watch the performance and out of curiosity, they gravitate towards the venue.

But as the band continues to perform, the audience start losing interest – the children among the audience resume their play and the adults their small talk. All the head banging and foot thumping leaves the rural residents distinctly unimpressed.

Normally, the ethnic communities are “objectified and used as a sort of “entertainment. In this video, Shawky has reversed roles and there is the modern trying to entertain the traditional.

This video is the fourth in a series and the title “Telematch has been inspired by a German television show that was popular in Egypt in the early 1990s, in which residents of different German towns compete against each other. Expounding further on this, Rifky explains that when Shawky watched the Telematch broadcast during his childhood in Saudi Arabia, he was intrigued by the idea of this engagement of cultures – “a culture that is Bedouin, mostly nomadic and extremely affluent but completely entertained by a culture that is absolutely unrelated, by two towns in Germany competing against each other.

This idea of “performativity of culture; of one culture performing for and entertaining another is what informs the platform of Shawky’s Telematch series.

“There is an element of abstraction in staging these Telematch encounters but then it is this abstraction that becomes a source of entertainment for the viewer, says Rifky.

The audience are a very important component of Shawky’s work and are drawn in or implicated in his work. “The Forty Days’ Road installation is designed to accommodate the viewer as a body within the physical space of the work. Even, the “Telematch Suburb shows the rural audience listening to the heavy metal band. The dimension of the relationship between the work and the audience comes across as being crucial to Shawky’s work.

What is interesting too is that the videos are not documentaries but “staged encounters. Shawky has used his personal experiences, his observations, impressions and the intensity of these experiences to tell stories about the contrasts and the intermixing of cultures, through the medium of arresting images and narratives.

Though at times cynical, his works are imbued with an acute understanding of the uncomfortable socio-economic issues, primarily relating to religion and culture.

The exhibition is on display at the Townhouse Gallery and Factory until Oct. 24. Wael Shawky will also be talking about his current exhibition at the Townhouse Gallery library on Oct. 13.

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