Horsemen, perfume and the mischievous mind of Wael Shawky

SHARJAH, United Arab Emirates: Accompanied by harmonium and 30 sets of clapping palms, 32 male voices are singing.

“A biennial,” they warble in keening in Urdu, “is a tremendously self-conscious process.”

So it is, too.

Anyone who is old enough to have had a taste for unconventional music in the late-20th century may recognize the accordion-like hand-percussive music accompanying these lyrics as qawwali.

Associated with Sufi practice, this cross-confessional devotional music of north India and Pakistan has been around for ages but was catapulted into the pop music consciousness thanks to mountainous vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and WOMAD – the world music gathering-and-branding project founded by U.K. pop artist and entrepreneur Peter Gabriel.

This lyrical remark about art biennials, self-evident to anyone who’s attended one, is the chorus of “Dictums 10:120,” a live installation work Wael Shawky created and staged outside the exhibition halls of the 2013 edition of the Sharjah Biennial.

It takes a little effort to climb into this inspired, deeply ironic and hilarious piece of work, but the expenditure is well worth the effort.

“Dictums 10:120” grew out of research Shawky commenced two years earlier, during a Sharjah Biennial residency. The artist assembled fragments from several curatorial talks given there, then gathered members of the biennial’s “production and technical team, most of whom are Pakistani,” at a series of workshops.

The laborers translated the curatorial fragments into Urdu, with an ear to using them as qawwali lyrics. The biennial flew in a pair of renowned South Asian qawwals (vocalist/harmonium players) and, along with an ad hoc choir, they performed the number during the opening week of the 2013 edition.

For the minute cosmopolitan audience of contemporary art aficionados and tourists – few of whom are believed to actually speak Urdu – “Dictums 10:120” looked and sounded like a pleasant bit of easily consumed exotica nestled amid an event whose works ran the gamut from intellectually taxing to opaque.

If you happen to have shared the language of Sharjah’s production and technical team, you heard arty non sequitur. In the work’s third verse, for instance, Urdu speakers heard these lines:

“tell history fully through documentary media

tell history fully through documentary media

“it seems grotesque to talk about it with

birds chirping and a lovely sunny day

“we’ve talked about the slipperiness of art

we might think of it as the Islamic world,

“I mean there are a lot of different dimensions.”

Winner of the 2013 Sharjah Biennial Prize, the “Dictums 10:120” performance was copiously documented, and its multimedia components have been segmented and reassembled for consumption in “Wael Shawky: Horsemen Adore Perfumes and other stories,” the solo show presently up on the Sharjah Art Foundation's sprawling grounds.

"Horsemen" is curated by SAF president and director Shaykha Hoor al-Qasimi, who has unraveled the different strands of the “Dictums 10:120” performance into its component parts and staged each element separately.

Walking into one gallery, visitors will find a sound installation of the performance, shorn from its video component. On the other side of the space – with a few of Shawky’s unrelated works to distract you – is the audio-free video of the performance. Somewhat to the right, on the same wall, are Arabic and English-language translations of the Urdu lyrics. Only then will visitors, the ones with their wits about them, “get it.”

SAF has described the project as one examining the relationship between art organizations and their local communities. It does too – the local community being that of the migrant labor it employs.

The work’s playful punch, however, resides in its conflating a genre of devotional music with the rarefied language of a contemporary art biennial. Festooned with the jargon known by the relatively small group that speaks it, this language implies cultural exclusivity and ideological positioning in precisely the manner of the religious-themed lyrics ordinarily heard in qawwali.

Though worlds apart in both class and cultural terms, the continent-hopping biennial habitués are, in the context of Sharjah, no different than the migrant laborers who maintain the place.

The comic inversions at the heart of “Dictums 10:120” characterize Shawky’s most-interesting past work.

Of the same vintage and provenance as “Dictums 10:120” is the video “Al Araba Al Madfuna II,” 2013. It was inspired by the Shawky’s experience of visiting the eponymous Upper Egyptian village, where religious adepts are called in to offer advice on where to dig for buried treasure.

Appropriately, the work’s cast is made up of a group of male figures in jalabiyyas, sitting in a rural house alongside the Nile, recounting folktale-like stories before an audience of other male figures, one of whom digs a trench in the earthen floor.

The video reeks of nostalgia.

The cognoscenti may recognize the tales to be derived from the work of the late Egyptian author Mohamed Mustagab (1938-2006). Shot in black-and-white 35mm film, the piece’s cinematography curiously recreates and conflates two distinct film languages from the Egyptian cinema of yesteryear.

Visually it conjures up those monochromatic, modernist dramas located in idyllic rural settings. Its tone is that of a handful of historical arthouse works, all of them emulating “Al-Mummia,” 1969, Chadi Abdel Salam’s stately fiction about a dutiful state functionary who sets out to foil a tribal antiquities-smuggling ring.

The inversion betraying the authorship of “Al Araba Al Madfuna II” lies in the fact that Shawky’s cast aren’t “men” at all but little boys, no more than 10 years old. Their peasant garb is supplemented by voluminous moustaches and beards. The world-weary voices that narrate their tales, meanwhile, sound as though they’ve risen from throats no younger than 60 years.

The youngsters are literally lip-synching an older generation’s tales, yet they do so as if they owned them.

“Horsemen” also includes Shawky’s best-known piece, the 12’45” “The Cave,” 2005, here projected in a circumspect loop on the second floor of the exhibition space.

This fine work of deadpan incongruity takes its name from the Quran’s 18th sura, and it embraces the chapter’s key themes – the tale of the persecuted believers made to sleep in a cave until the rest of the world agreed with them, say, or the one about God’s intercession to bring parity between a rich man and a poor man.

Here, the artist is filmed reciting the titular sura while walking through the bustling aisles of an Amsterdam supermarket.

The execution of the performance somehow makes its themes all the more pertinent.

“Wael Shawky: Horsemen Adore Perfumes and other stories” is up at Exhibition Building P, Bait al-Aboudi, Bait Gholoum Ibrahim, Sharjah Art Foundation Art Spaces, until June 13. For more information see

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 05, 2014, on page 16.




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