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wael shawky

The Forty Days Road. Wet culture - Dry Culture

23 III - 22 IV 2007

The concept of indigenous culture has become difficult of late. The demarcation line between permanent cultural features and acquired ones has become blurred. The constantly renewed attempts to ‘colonise’ the world have put to sleep our vigilance with regard to the right to a natural evolution and development of the countries outside Western culture. In spite of its variety – or, perhaps, thanks to it – Africa remains the best example of this phenomenon.

Wael Shawky’s exhibition touches upon cultural areas in which the mutual penetration of different social systems does not become a success; on the contrary, it brings to the fore the disproportions involved and leads to conflicts. Shawky emphasises the lack of inter-cultural communication which, as the artist suggests, stems from unfamiliarity with the ambient language, from ignorance and from lack of respect for that which is different. The artist carefully choreographs stories in which he skillfully juggles the elements of cultures quite distant from each other.   His synthetic films contain  penetrating insights into history and make use of its complex subtleties, while being deliberately misleading and provocative. The resultant hybrid puts into a sharp focus the current global processes: attempts by Western civilisation to dominate desert cultures; as well as religious animosities, demographic changes and economic transformation. 

The title of the exhibition refers to Darb al-Arba'in - the legendary commercial route also known as the Forty Days’ Road, which links Egypt and Sudan. The video installation of the same title is a surreal story based on the prevailing motif of trekking across the desert. In the course of crossing the desert, various episodes occur which introduce aberrations into the harsh landscape. The seemingly neutral background turns out to be a collage of images from deserts in Egypt and in the USA. The wanderer, the protagonist of the film, endeavours to claim the achievements of agrarian culture, frequently referred to. Those achievements do not fit easily into desert conditions - an environment in which they are useless – they are, nevertheless, an attempt to explain the process of modernisation. 

References to artificial or enforced attempts at development are but one aspect of the issues that preoccupy Shawky. 

The remaining two films concern an equally sensitive topic: religion in the modern world – a driving force of history, which has to date failed to find a safe space for a dialogue. Wael Shawky tries to achieve the impossible. He enters a Roman Catholic church in order to pray from the Holy Qu’ran.The Arabic chant of his invocation remains impenetrable to those entering the place of worship. On this occasion, the lack of comprehension leads to a peaceful coexistence between the worshippers of two rival religions. In the church, the artist quotes the sura devoted to the life of Mary, who is similarly perceived and adored in both religions. This starting point provides an opportunity to venture beyond the stereotypical view of Islam and Christianity.  Shawky seeks common ground, while not refraining from pointing out the differences.

A Digital Church, made in one of Kraków’s churches, conveys yet another important message. The film, permeated with symbols of the sacred, demands that we realise the great power of the paraphernalia assumed to be indispensable for practising the faith: of the architecture of the temple, the purpose of which is to create a microcosm for believers which will provide them both with security and exclusivity; as well as the power of the words and the language of the prayer. However, does the exclusivity of the place belong now in the past? And does the modern world not call upon us, as never before, to soar above the material artefacts of faith?

Bitter precedents can be found: the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, one of the most important buildings in the Islamic culture, erected in order to overshadow a place sacred for both Judaism and Christianity, to this day remains the cause of bloody conflict. The Dome on the Rock, reminiscent of a merry-go-round, which – together with the Al-Aqsa Mosque - was meant to be the starting point of the Muslim domination in the world, provides a sarcastic punch line for the mechanics of the processes released by excessive attachment to places and symbols.

Anna Smolak

^ Wael Shawky, Digital church, video, 2007

^ Wael Shawky, Digital church, video, 2007

^ Wael Shawky's exhibition, photo Marek Gardulski

^ Wael Shawky's exhibition, photo Marek Gardulski

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