Wael Shawky, Al Araba Al Madfuna, Polygon Gallery, until Jan. 12, 2020.
The villagers dreamed of finding buried treasure in their own backyards.
In the early 2000s, artist Wael Shawky ventured to Upper Egypt to a village called Al Araba Al Madfuna. The village was located in an important historical area, where locals believed the Temple of Osiris had once stood. There were rumours of great tombs and treasure buried underground, and for years the villagers had kept digging and digging and digging. Shawky spent time with these people, engrossed by their attempt at employing a spiritual and mythical system in order to reach a concrete and physical end – the promise of gold.
“He was so amazed by these people who were digging holes, even in their homes, and they’re looking for this treasure, but there are no maps or no one’s telling you where to find it. You have to kind of divine it,” says Helga Pakasaar, chief curator at Polygon Gallery. “It’s really about this idea of believing in the future, the role of legends and myths being like guidelines in our life, even though we like to think that we’re smarter than that. There are other ways to operate.”
Inspired by his weeks spent in Upper Egypt – as well as Egyptian writer Mohamed Mostagab’s short story “Sunflower,” wherein the plant becomes a metaphor for inventing change and adopting new ideas after villagers start using them for ethereal purposes – Shawky set out to create his own project.
In his trilogy of films, titled Al Araba Al Madfuna, Shawky’s highly experimental moving pictures offer an at times surreal, dream-like interpretation of the stories we tell ourselves, and how the relationship between history and the present is always complex.
The third film in the trilogy is showing now at Polygon Gallery, along with a more robust exhibition that gives visitors the feeling that they’re simultaneously floating through the sky and swimming underwater at the same time.
Noting that the artist wanted the Polygon space that would be showing his film to “look like infinity,” Pakasaar says Shawky has crafted an “otherworldly environment” with an exhibition room replete with a sand dune, a series of sculptures and the film itself.
On the sculptures, which look like miniature versions of Ancient Egyptian pieces, Pakasaar points out that upon closer inspection the hybrid creatures the sculptures depict aren’t quite right.
“It suggests a type of traditional ethnographic museum display where you have artifacts and animal figures in a display case, but you look at them together, they don’t make sense,” she says.
That lack of continuity is in keeping with the exhibition as a whole. In the third film of Al Araba Al Madfuna, everything looks beautiful and nothing is as it seems. As the viewer takes in the approximately 25-minute film, there’s children dressed in turbans, sporting moustaches, performing as adults and speaking – or lip-syncing – the parables of Mostagab’s “Sunflower” story. This is combined with re-enacted scenes depicting Shawky’s own encounters with villagers, played by children, digging for tunnels and looking for gold.
But story or dialogue aren’t necessarily the focus here, explains Pakasaar. Instead, guests should endeavour to lose themselves to the dreamy mood and surreal imagery on display – perhaps best represented by the fact that Shawky made the conceptual and creative decision to invert the film’s colour while making his project. The greenish tall grass appears purple and the dark pupils of a character’s eyes look like shining beams of light.
“There are many layers of things not quite aligning,” says Pakasaar, who adds that the Polygon is planning to show Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades film series, recently ranked among the best art of the 21st century in an article appearing in the Guardian, at a later date.
“He questions the writing of history, and our own memories mixed in there as well, and how that changes how we understand the past, and let alone the present,” says Pakasaar. “It’s also, in a way, like a parable for what we’re grappling with today – world conflicts and conditions of change and uncertainty, and how do we understand the world?”