A hundred tonnes of sand form a rolling landscape in Den Frie’s underground exhibition space, Minus 2, combining with clear sky-blue walls as the backdrop for Wael Shawky’s captivating film work Al Araba Al Madfuna III, where myth, fact and fiction intertwine in a narrative of human endeavour.
Egyptian artist Wael Shawky (b. 1971) is a strong storyteller. Building on extensive research, he links personal experiences and sociological analyses with historical and literary sources. The resulting dynamic gives rise to dense and powerful film works that frame historical themes in a contemporary context, while offering perspectives on current conflicts through a historical lens.
Al Araba Al Madfuna III is set in and around Al Araba Al Madfuna, a village in Upper Egypt. The starting point of the work is Shawky’s personal experiences of the villagers’ relationship with the nearby archaeological site of Abydos. Once a religious centre in pharaonic times, Abydos is now a tourist attraction and source of income for local residents. The very objects and sites that once catalysed religious endeavour are now commodities with tangible economic value. This shift between divergent strategies of endeavour – one religious and one materialistic – is also the core theme of the short story The Sunflower (1983) by Egyptian author Mohamed Mustagab (1938-2005), on which the manuscript to Shawky’s film is based.
Shawky casts child actors to play the roles of the film’s adult characters, but overdubs their dialogue with adult voices and absurdly exaggerates the costumes and scenery: the large beards are clearly fake and the robes are far too big for the slender children’s bodies. These surreal elements are further accentuated by the film being shot in negative, with bluish and violet shades casting a chimerical glow over the scenes.
With its distinctive, beautiful visuality and dialogue mimicking the tone and structure of oral legends, Al Araba Al Madfuna III is a sophisticated yet playful exploration of the relationship between the metaphysical world and the world of tangible objects.
Wael Shawky (b. 1971) is born and raised in Alexandria where he lives and works. Recent solo exhibitions have been held at The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, USA (2021); The Louvre Abu Dhabi (2020); ARoS, Denmark (2018); Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), China (2017); Fondazione Merz, Switzerland (2016); MoMA P.S.1, USA (2015); Serpentine Galleries, UK (2013-14); KW Contemporary Art Institute, and has amongst other exhibited at Documenta 13 (2012), the 9th Gwangju Biennial (2012) and the 50th Venice Biennale (2003). In 2010, Shawky founded the educational space MASS Alexandria.
Photos by David Stjernholm