Wael Shawky @ Serpentine

Egyptian artist Wael Shawky is enjoying his first major London show at the Serpentine Gallery. The gallery hosts drawings, puppets and political film

Upon entering the gallery, the visitor is greeted by a procession of puppets standing statically and in a dimly lit room, all facing the same direction. The figures seemed to me, somewhat sinister. Their faces are like caricatures and have not been idealised at all. Certainly not the kind of puppets one might like to play with as a child.

These puppets are the characters in two of the three films on display. The Path to Cairo and Horror Show File are both films from a series called the Cabaret Crusades. The two films give an oral look at egyptian history that we in the west are not accustomed to; with the europeans shown negatively against the arabs. I found the films somewhat uneasy to watch, the puppets seemed to be talking mockingly, as though joking, I cannot be certain as my knowledge of arabic is extremely basic, but the camera angles and extreme lighting coupled with the caricature-like expressions of the marionettes would have been the cause of nightmares had I seen the films in my childhood.

The other film however, Al Araba Al Madfuna II, is starkly different to those which make up the Cabaret Crusades. This film is made up of a cast of children in a black and white narration of the parables of egyptian novelist Mohamed Mustagab. The story seems dark, yet the girls and boys with adult clothing and false moustaches bring a softness to the piece. It is delicate where it really ought not to be. Where one would imagine the orator to have a face full of lines and history, these young faces are smooth, honest and innocent.

The drawings that accompany the films suffer in comparison to the rest of the exhibition. They are cast off to the side and while pleasant enough, don’t really add anything to the ambiance of the display, which would have perhaps been better off without them.

This show is vastly different to much western art on display at the moment. I would really recommend the exhibition, even if it is just for Al Araba Al Madfuna II alone, which I think is simply stunning.

Wael Shawky is on display at the Serpentine until 9 February

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier aka Gallery Girl is a writer and curator based in London. Her work has been featured in publications including Dazed, Hyperallergic and Vogue Arabia. She was curator of Perpetual Movement during AWAN Festival 2018 and in 2019 had a residency at the Lab at Darat Al Funun in Amman, Jordan. She has also worked with Armenia Art Fair for its inaugural edition and previously worked as an editor at I.B.Tauris Publishers. In 2019 she co-founded Arsheef, Yemen’s first contemporary art gallery. She has given workshops at Manara Culture in Amman, Jordan and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK. As of 2020 she is currently in law school, with the ambition of greater understanding the intersection between art and the law.

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