Allegories of the present: Eternal Wars and Cabaret Crusades
The past is never dead. It's not even past.
– William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun, 1951
What kind of truths do allegories contain? In allegorical stories, such as Aesop's Fables, people, animals, things, and events represent broader ideas and messages. Is allegory's level of abstraction and distancing still a powerful method for communicating underlying meanings? In our epoch, how capable are we of deciphering subtexts and identifying with deeper human conditions folded into stories? Are we able to pause in order to question our perceptions about stereotypical mass-media representations of conflicts and the violence that mark our era?
Addressing these questions, and more, a number of art exhibitions displayed work in a variety of mediums in New York recently. Several sweeping, epic scale grand narratives featured historiographical perspectives – compressed and fractured histories examining the telling of history itself. These exhibitions questioned and analyzed the very nature of the way we tell our stories as History, often told by victors rather than the vanquished. Two artists in particular vividly embodied stories in which the past came alive with contradictions and ambiguities that echo into the present. As with allegory, these artists found visual languages oriented from a more distant and elevated position, revealing the instability of history as constructed from competing stories and representations, in which shifting perspectives and mythologies reign.
At PS1 MoMA, Wael Shawky's (Alexandria, Egypt, 1971) magisterial film trilogy was installed in special viewing rooms: Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File (2010), The Path to Cairo (2012) and The Secrets of Karbala (2015). Samira Abbassy (b. Ahwaz, Iran, 1965) exhibited her subtle yet compelling Eternal War series (2008-2015) consisting of six sets of paintings, each set comprising 10-12 oil on gesso panels. Different cycles of Abbassy's on-going Eternal War series were installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Eternal War, Second Circle, 2011, purchased by the MMA), FiveMyles Gallery and B2OA Gallery, New York; the Bernstein Gallery, Princeton University, New Jersey, and Rossi & Rossi Gallery, London.
Shawky and Abbassy, both Diaspora artists raised abroad (Mecca and London, respectively), create artistic languages in which the boundaries between what is real, invented, or imagined are never clear. Incessantly repeated cycles of wars, occupation, exile, genocide, migration and ethnic cleansing are the engines driving their retellings of history. Empires are ruthlessly obliterated while new empires overlay their own cultures, histories and mythologies; hybrids are thus created. The grim follies and savage acts repeated and detailed in Shawky and Abbassy's projects reveal human vulnerability, betrayal, fragility, vanity, and greed laid bare on a theatrical stage: heads roll or rot on stakes. Yet their artistry is riveting and seductive.
Both Shawky, renowned as a video/film and installation artist, and Abbassy, painter and sculptor, were inspired aesthetically and thematically by historical narratives and a variety of artistic periods and styles. Common to both artists is their research of the illuminated manuscripts of the Shahnama (or Book of Kings), the Persian national epic. Originally written in the 10th-11th centuries, these manuscripts are illustrated epic poems, written in Farsi, documenting the invasions of the Persian Empire; today these manuscripts are scattered in museum and private collections, their double pages out of sync and scrambled. The interplay of lore, legend and history in the Shahnama and its allegorical poetic language, providing models of conduct and rulership, offered both artists a rich examination of hybrid artistic forms and porous, unfixed histories.1
Abbassy's multi-panelled figurative oil paintings, Eternal War, Second Circle (2011), depict narrative fragments occurring over time that may be rearranged in any linear order, except the first and last panels which act as bookends or a kind of Ouroboros, an eternal return. The flow of time may run to the left or right, always interrupted and in flux. The possibilities of multiple arrangements make manifest the fractured nature of stories as essential triggers, the means and outcome of wars. The panels abut one another in a cinematic freeze frame, so that the holes and discontinuity of the stories are literal. This framework brings the battlefield up-close in specific panels, the figures sharpened in a sepia-colored palette, with shades of brown, like dried blood, feces and mud. The shattered figures and decomposed bodies are often scraped and smudged, set against generous swathes of shallow-white negative space without a horizon, adding to the horrors. The contrasting scene fragments and actions are frozen in mid-air, awaiting the viewers' imagination to seam together the narratives evoked. Combining flattened areas of space with silhouettes as well as rounded modeled figures and isometric views, Abbassy shuffles many perspectival traditions which add to the disorientation of battle scenes. A decapitated head sprouts a blood-fountain on a vast empty field, a horse weighed down by the armor and weaponry of its slain master crushes a woman whose splayed skirt is as poignant as the horse's prone silhouette. The power of these understated yet affecting figures generates a dreamlike surreal imagery that suggests timelessness or recurrence as in the prints of Francisco de Goya's Disasters of War (1810-20) and Otto Dix's The War (1924).
Maryam Ekhtiar, Associate Curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Islamic Department, where she displayed Abbassy's contemporary panel paintings alongside historic objects in the exhibition Bazm O Razm (Feast and Fight, February 17th - May of 2015) has noted in her wall texts Abbassy's subtle allusions to battle paintings from the Shahnama, the Khamsa (lavishly illustrated poems) and Qajar period portrait paintings of the early nineteenth century. The dual concepts of feasting and fighting, with roots in legend and the reign of historic shahs, were complementary ideals of pre-Islamic Persian kingship and were deployed as side-by-side themes in double pages. The importance of aesthetic seduction to capture the viewer with sheer beauty, whether the scene depicted feasting or battle, real or fabricated imaginary scenes, was paramount. Thus, Abbassy intertwines elegant gestures with sepia paint, luscious outlines and gorgeous textures and patterns on shields, saddles and helmets, to draw us in with over-arching serpentine movements of line. While referencing scenes drawn from the Shahnama, especially illuminations of the Battle of Karbala and the emergent cults of martyrdom, the first all-encompassing battle that marked the split between Shia and Sunni sects, Abbassy's figures are often stylized as archetypes, describing real actions and passions in the abstract language of form.
The artist's newest Eternal War series is entitled On Message (2015), which incorporates in its very title the use of propaganda and slogans with roots in ancient warfare. One outermost panel features a line-up of film cameras standing at attention as if marking a border or fortress framework, the cameras presumably shooting media narratives that will be looped endlessly on TV and social media. A figure wearing a general's uniform with medals galore stands behind a podium with microphone and Presidential seal, his head miraculously flowering with multiple heads like a Hindu god. An American flag unfurls behind stanchions. Modern weapons, representing ‘technological progress’, update the scenes with anthropomorphic helicopters, drones, heavily armored tanks and guns. And yet, the contemporary vernacular reveals the same carnage as centuries earlier; flowers bloom over the half-buried heads on the ground. A phalanx of contemporary warriors drop from a gaping hell-hole of a helicopter, aiming their weapons at an arch, a turbaned figure amid rubble, a soldier in camouflage gear whose head goes flying, and an aircraft smoldering in flames. Plumes of smoke, ‘the fog of war,’ permeate panels depicting a car bomb explosion, nearby an arm, a leg, a shoe. A tall chain-link fence crowned with spiraling razor wire consumes another panel, with a naked, crouched and blindfolded man seeming to tremble as a dog with an over-sized head is held at bay by a woman in a niqab. Flat patterns forming arabesques and curlicues adorn a carpet shown in isometric perspective, with the profile of a seated bearded man watching a battle scene on the TV, while on the panel's extreme right edge the profiles of two niqab covered women raise their hands to their eyes.
Abbassy, who moved to New York in 1998, refers to herself as a ‘fictional historian,’ reinterpreting histories and period styles, blending cultural traditions in a hybrid visual lexicon: Indian, Persian, European, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish and Christian.2 Abbassy notes that, ‘Media fascination with the “east - west divide” downplays any common ground between the two cultures. This sort of cultural exclusivity doesn't work for me. I believe there are universal themes that are equally valid in any society. I appropriate material freely from the visual traditions of either cultures using one to sharpen the other.’3
The Syrian translator emailing the French subtitles for ‘Wael Shawky's’ Cabaret Crusades, working from the Arabic original wrote from Damascus: ‘This translation is an adventure, not only for you, but for me as well. Obliged to reread the old chronicles to find the names of people and places, I was struck by the resemblance between the invasion of Damascus by the Crusaders and what is happening right now here in Syria. It leaves me sick at heart, for now the orchards of Ghouta in Damascus are the scene of the same battles; but this time the enemy is not from the outside…’4
Entering the upstairs galleries of MoMA PS1 that house Wael Shawky's trilogy of films about the crusades, organized by Klaus Biesenbach, the visitor encounters a dramatically lit fantasy dreamscape of magical marionettes dangling in rows within long glass and wood vitrines. Flanking galleries house two stage sets of fortresses and cities, either black or white exclusively. Adjoining galleries feature dark heraldic flags made of tar and pigment as props, indicating Arab or Crusader armies. The stage is set. Black curtains mark the three portals to enter each of Shawky's Cabaret Crusades films. While the contemporary Lebanese-born French writer Amin Maalouf's The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (1984) provided Shawky with much source material to tell the story of the crusades from the perspective of Arab chroniclers, the artist also mined reams of documents in archives and libraries in order to glean dialogue for his historical characters. Major events in the films as well as intimate gossip are related in classical Arabic, the language of literature and religious doctrine of the 11th and 12th centuries, with English translations on screen, establishing an elevated, poised artifice based on documentary evidence. The films cover the period from Pope Urban II's Council of Clermont declaring the First Crusades in 1095, to the sacking of Constantinople in 1204. As Shawky's marionette Pope delivers a rousing composite of at least four different accounts of his speech to open the first film, The Horror Show Files, the indiscriminate brutality and murders, conquests and conspiracies begin.
The first two films of Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File and The Path to Cairo (32 and 58 minutes, respectively) embrace the breadth of an epic poem while retaining the minute intimacies of lyric poetry, with its emphasis on hidden everyday moments of cruelty and compassion. Shawky's camera smoothly pans mist covered stage-set cities dramatically lit by torches, zooms in on bedrooms where assassins strike deadly blows with swords, and aligns decisive orientations toward city squares constructed with mosaic patterned facades and flora to represent Mecca, Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, and Jerusalem.
Spectacular shots of the stage sets and marionettes open each film. Plague-ridden Constantinople opens The Horror Show File in 541 AD, establishing the historical context of the weakened Byzantine Empire, from which the crusades emerged. Then a scene from the fateful day of November 27, 1095, as Pope Urban II in France asks all European Christians to fight against Muslims to reclaim the holy land: ‘God wills it.’ Mass delusion, the hubris of rulers and functionaries, and power-hungry but feckless provincial bureaucrats travel down the rabbit hole of seemingly endless follies, with disastrous consequences. The marionettes, representing actual characters from history books, speak and sing the fragments of history carefully collected by Shawky, jiggling with a variety of emotions. Their clunky articulated forms are inorganic but are brought to life by visible wires and strings, manipulated by invisible puppet masters. The primary metaphor is foregrounded. Shawky found the 120 painted wooden marionettes used for the Horror Show in a basement near Turin, part of a vintage Italian collection over two-hundred years old, which needed to be conserved and newly recostumed. Wooden limbs clack, torsos bob and weave, weightless, as these characters perform historically accurate translations of speeches transcribed from the lips of the major actors of history. Documented scenes of mayhem, cannibalism, roasting people alive, and other gruesome acts are depicted by shaking puppets, as the scene is panned slowly, closely, on piles of dismembered corpses; limp marionettes more life-like as corpses. The poignancy of puppets controlled by unseen forces, by avarice, mendacity and sheer carelessness is embedded in their dents, fissures and layers of paint, emphasized by close-ups that highlight their alien, artificial qualities, but also invite our active imagination and identification.
The Path to Cairo, tracing the following 50 years, focuses on the turmoil and misadventure that fractured the Muslim leadership. The first scene starts in 1099, with the sacking and burning of Jerusalem, where it is estimated close to 100,000 crusaders massacred thousands and ruled a city in ruins. The stage sets are different from the 3-dimensional sets of the Horror Show, and are like unfolding pop-up books, emulating the flat and isometric perspectives of Arabic and Persian miniatures and maps from the period. Shawky collides several perspectival traditions, as does Abbassy, linking perspective to the very means by which artists make the world intelligible, establishing the human relationship to our surroundings, as a philosophy of space. For Path to Cairo, the artist designed and cast a new set of terracotta marionettes in a town near Marseilles, known for its clay nativity tchotchkes. These terracotta puppets combine animal and human anatomy, with several becoming grotesque fantasies by morphing from camels and cats into diplomats and courtesans; others sing scripted fjeri music from centuries past, composed by Arab pearl fishers. The intense compression of dialogue and time-frames, with marionette-characters speaking, singing, conjuring and debating brings to the fore the machinations of rulers, the uncontrollability of wars and conflicts once these decisive actions unravel in time.
Shawky is precise in transcribing documents for dialogue and songs, which are performed by his human-animal puppets; this splicing together cumulatively creates a fictive realm of doubt about any single truth of selected details. The cabaret element of song and dance, mixing sacred and profane, sung by strange marionettes, often vulgar in appearance– absurd camels wearing dresses, svelte gawky giants attired in silks or chunky dwarves with protruding teeth and pigs' snouts–remind us of the ribald humor and crazed anarchy of Berlin cabaret in Weimar era Germany. Drums, tambourines, lutes, and other instruments accompany songs of prophecies, prayers, dirges, wedding celebrations and ecstatic arias.
The Path to Cairo ends with a lone fallen marionette lying on the ground, while boats at sea reflect the port city on the water by candlelight. A single marionette's pleading for tolerance and peaceful coexistence echo to no one in sight.
Whether the scene is a ritual feast, a celebration of marriage or a gruesome pile of bloodied corpses, the camera framing of the subject is aesthetically alluring and expressively dramatic. Shawky, like Abbassy, relies on ‘visual seduction’ as a key strategy to bedazzle the viewer into close involvement in the details of the sensual, visual experience.5 In order to trigger affective emotions and intellectual attention on the details of a story and the mining of a theme, seduction is the hook.
The extraordinary sensual pleasures of the final film reside in three essential elements: the music, the specially designed glass marionettes and the elaborate revolving stage-set. As in Abbassy's early Eternal War series panels, Shawky's third and final film in the trilogy, The Secrets of Karbala (2 hours), alludes to the battle in 680 that decisively established the split between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The film begins with the story of Noureldin Al Zenki, where the second film ended. It follows the history of Salahuddine, Al Zenki's ambassador to Egypt, outlining the historical period between the second crusade (1145–1149) and the third crusade (1189–1192). As in the earlier films, the main characters names appear on-screen, in English and Arabic. The plots are complex and difficult to follow within the shifts of power in Egypt from Shia to Sunni. This last film begins with a long established scene of the kaa'ba in Mecca, surrounded by revolving planes that slowly move. Alternately designed to be a city, a battlefield, a garden and a palace, the mechanical set's surfaces rotate clockwise and counterclockwise, and at different speeds. The stage set itself reverberates the themes of the cyclical repetition of mindless violence and underlying systems and economies hidden from view but controlling the players on stage. The film's physical and metaphysical structure inhabits the marionettes and their actions. The circumambulatory movements of figures and landscape reverberate in time, and cannot escape the circle. And the unifying factors that make this nearly-impossible complexity of plots and counter-plots comprehensible, or at least cohesive, are the moving stage set, the amazing music – mixing Iraqi Shia Radoud voices, traditional Arab Gulf music, and electronic music – and the fabulous hand-blown Murano-glass marionettes Shawky designed, inspired by African art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The surreal, make-believe world of spectacle is an allegorical distancing device that nevertheless pulls us in because of the magic of aesthetic beauty.
The over-100 bizarre animal-human forms comprising the glass marionettes have articulated limbs and some have eyelids that blink and clink together. Their hybridity and their distorted forms are delightful and elegantly costumed. They twinkle as light falls across their limbs and their conjoined forms suggest a variety of gestures and allusions to fables and legends across cultures. Thus while the music is culturally or religiously specific, the whole surreal ensemble invokes a moveable feast for the senses. Shawky's Secrets of Karbala paradoxically deploys vivid visual beauty, even a transcendent thrill, while telling a tale of collective insanity played out in on-going violence, destruction and war. The artist shows us the naked self-interest and megalomania of rulers, and the brutalization and degradation of countless human beings sacrificed along the path to ‘victory’. Even if the viewer is unfamiliar with classical Arabic and the cultural contexts of the music, the underlying themes will resonate and multiply.
- Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/shnm/hd_shnm.htm
- Abbassy interview: http://m.gulfnews.com/life-style/general/an-identity-beyond-roots-and-culture-1.1466539
- Abbassy is quoted at: http://www.b2oa.com/samira-abbassy/
- Wael Shawky Cabaret Crusades, exh. cat., (Dusseldorf, Germany: Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfallen, 2015), 119.
- ‘A Breakable History: Wael Shawky's “Cabaret Crusades” at MoMA PS1’ at Blouin Artinfo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7U-pqjdHIY
DEBORAH FRIZZELL PhD is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Art History at William Paterson University in New Jersey, where she teaches modern and contemporary art history and theory.