Puppet Jihad at MoMA PS1 Puts Burlesque Into Extremism
Wael Shawky’s videos are abundant with beheadings and crucifixions.
“We must wage jihad against the occupier.”
Those aren’t the words of a balaclava-clad militant, but rather those of an Arab ruler in Wael Shawky’s masterful new video Cabaret Crusades: The Secret of Karbala. It’s having its debut at New York’s MoMA PS1 in the Egyptian-born artist’s first U.S. museum solo show, “Wael Shawky: Cabaret Crusades.” The exhibition’s centerpiece is the “Cabaret Crusades” video trilogy (a project that has occupied the artist since 2010), in which marionettes reenact the holy wars that convulsed Europe and the Middle East nearly a thousand years ago.
The show is nothing short of a marvel. The videos are like lush, high-production-value history painting, updated with video cameras, dramatic lighting, and elaborate sets. They’re also like Team America: World Police—which predates Shawky’s project by several years—but played chillingly straight. Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s film lampooned the Global War on Terror, which none other than George W. Bush proclaimed a crusade. Shawky dramatizes the backstory of outrages like ISIS’s gory propaganda videos, the latest of which was billed as a warning to crusaders (see ISIS Sets Up Public Screenings of Horrific Murder in Raqqa and ISIS Destroying Iraq’s Cultural Heritage One Site at a Time). The artist, who is Muslim, lives in his native Alexandria and spent his childhood in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
The very brief first chapter, Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File (2010), employs more than a hundred marionettes, two centuries old, that the artist borrowed from the Lupi Collection, in Turin, Italy, where he found them rotting in a basement. Their wooden faces are anything but wooden, their lively expressions pairing with dramatic voice-overs to vivid effect as they play out the early years of the Crusades. The subsequent chapters, doubtless spurred on by better funding garnered after the first chapter was widely seen, stretch longer, reaching feature length with chapter three. Alongside lengthy rosters of musicians, voice-over artists, singers, puppet masters and the like, the credits even name workers devoted to ensuring continuity between takes.
[A word about the display: That the museum provides a large, separate room with comfortable seating for each video is praiseworthy. However, the sound bleed between the galleries showing the first and second parts is unpardonable. Museums have been showing film and video for decades. Can they not get this right?]
Befitting their subject, Shawky’s videos are abundant with beheadings and crucifixions, and there’s even a scene showing a man roasting on a spit during a famine. Canines made of glass feast on the body of an executed man. Soldiers indiscriminately thrust their spears into a bloody pile of writhing bodies.
Spanning continents and centuries, the story is complicated, to say the least, and Shawky’s films don’t aim to be didactic. Characters enter as if in a pageant, often identified by subtitles; many of them just as quickly disappear. They often remain on screen just long enough to enact some critical betrayal of an ally or to dictate a vital message to an emissary. But what the films lack in conventional character development, they make up for with emotional punch that comes principally from the expressive power of the marionettes, which are so detailed, they have eyes that blink. You can hear glass clinking on glass when they do. There are also plentiful musical numbers with driving percussion and hypnotic vocals.
Some essential developments happen off-screen, adding to the challenge of following the sequence of events. But indirection can also equal subtlety. For example, after Pope Urban II, at the tale’s outset, gives a sermon promising absolution to crusaders, we’re spared the obvious visuals of marauders trooping off to war in favor of the sight of a puppet silently sewing a cross onto a cloak.
Dozens of the marionettes are on glorious display. The ceramic actors featured in the second chapter, Cabaret Crusades: The Road to Cairo (2012) were commissioned from French craftsmen, while Italian glassworkers created the fabulous glass creatures that populate The Secret of Karbala. They wear grand finery in richly varied fabrics (sewn by an Italian tailor), and the strings that manipulate them are in evidence, some holding the puppets erect, others dangling on the floor of the display case. The play of light off the glass surfaces makes them seem animate; arranged in ranks, they appear like holy warriors on the march.
Shawky let his lyrical imagination run wild in designing the marionettes (several suites of drawings are also on display). They sport snouts recalling those of horses or rhinoceroses, spiky facial growths or drainpipe-like appendages on their foreheads; some take the form of camels or ostriches. Oh, and there’s a dragon crafted from black glass. While subtly poking fun at man’s firm conviction that he’s superior to the animals, this bestiary also pushes the tale firmly into the realm of fable, which is fitting, since for most of us the Crusades might as well be a fable anyway.
The enduring power of that fable and its political utility were on display this month, when Barack Obama, speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast (why do our presidents have to publicly pray, again?), made the innocuous observation that “During the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” Obama needn’t have reached so far back, what with Christian militias terrorizing Muslims in the Central African Republic even today.
Of course, the marionettes suggest the sinister forces that “pull the strings” of historical actors. Shawky also aims by using the puppets to allow the story itself to resonate without excess theatrics. He has said of marionettes: “They don’t act.” In like manner, he has often employed children in his videos to reenact other pivotal historical events like the 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The misdeeds of adults are all the more poignant when acted out by children or puppets, which economically suggest that the grownups are not as “grown” as they think.
As we watch Shawky’s videos, the jihad of today, waged by militants outraged at Western and Israeli occupation and exploitation, seems like just the latest chapter in a long tale (see FBI Secretly Monitors American Artist Molly Crabapple Over Islamic Imagery). To Western eyes, the Crusades might seem like prehistory. But especially to cultures with longer memories, as Faulkner would have it, the past is never dead. It’s not even past.
And history is longer than just the last millennium. Referring to the Sunni-Shia rift that many Americans learned about only thanks to the Iraqi insurgency, Shawky has said in an interview, “Many Arab historians believe that it is the main reason for the weakening of the Arab region during the Crusades, and still today.”
That rift began in the year 680.
“Wael Shawky: Cabaret Crusades,” organized by MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach and curatorial assistant Margaret Aldredge, is on view through August 31.
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