Fantastical mythology: Wael Shawky
Jan 11, 2023
Alexandria-born Wael Shawky’s solo exhibition at Lisson Gallery in New York, reverses eurocentric views of Ancient Egypt, the Middle-East and Europe, rewriting histories of West and East as fluid, diasporic and entangled. The title, Isles of the Blessed (Oops!...I forgot Europe) comes from the film work in the exhibition and the paintings within do not have a separate title, allowing the narrative to intertwine throughout the entire space.
When we think of Ancient Egypt, what comes to mind? Stories of gods such as Osiris, Isis and Set, feats of architecture and engineering, and papyrus drawings of famed pharaohs and Egyptian queens in that truly unmistakable style. What, in turn, is popularly known about ancient Lebanese societies? The Phoenicians for example, is a once lost society, now known to be the root of much of what we view as ‘civilised.’ Unlikely, perhaps, that we understand these regions as the source of much Greek mythology. However, as Isles of the Blessed (Oops!...I forgot Europe), makes clear, histories of Europe, Africa and the Middle-East are entangled, and far from distant.
Isles of the Blessed (Oops!...I forgot Europe) hums gold and pink, a female clay marionette sitting atop a bed of flames speaking out into the space, forcefully articulating her life story in the artist’s (and her) native Arabic. This is Europa, a princess from Phoenicia, an ancient civilisation sited in what is now Lebanon, today credited with developing the world's oldest alphabet which travelled across the Mediterranean and was used to develop the Arabic script, Greek alphabet and in turn the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. Hence, phonetics.
As she describes it, Europa was abducted from her homeland by the Greek god Zeus, and taken to Crete where she was married, and became both queen and – legend has it – gifted her name to the continent. Meanwhile, Europa’s brother, Cadmus, searched for her until the Delphic Oracle ordered him to give up, follow a cow, and build a town in the place she lay down. As narrated in Shawky’s film, Cadmus’ own story develops into the founding of Thebes and the Spartan race, the building of an empire, and finally banishment to the Islands of the Blessed, a paradise in which to live out eternity. Cadmus is also credited with bringing the Phoenician alphabet to Greece – having arrived rather later than his sister, Europa.
The story of Europa, Zeus and Cadmus is essentially one of misogynistic and Eurocentric theft and assimilation, Eastern culture stolen and absorbed into Western stories. This is underlined by Shawky’s wittily executed exhibition title: Isles of the Blessed (Oops!...I forgot Europe) - of course Europe is never ‘forgotten’ from history. It is Europa and her Middle-Eastern Phoenician roots, which have been forgotten from the genesis story of the European continent and its histories. Widely, Shawky’s practice can be seen as history from below, drawing focus to the places, people and perspectives which have become masked beneath dominant narratives. Indeed, this new work displays clear lineage to a past work that Shawky is best known by: The Cabaret Crusades, whose three filmic volumes see puppets and marionettes take part in epic recreations of medieval clashes between Muslims and Christians, from the perspective of “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes” (1983), by the French Lebanese author Amin Maalouf.
Before he was a filmmaker, Shawky was a painter, and in this exhibition eleven new oil paintings on canvas pave the way for the film work. Surreal, animalistic and abstract, buildings rising out of beasts, landscapes gaining faces or arching into limbs, with undeniable visual similarities to the work of Hieronymus Bosch, these works somehow support the imagination to ‘see’ the vivid beings and creatures that Europa speaks of in the next room. Isles of the Blessed (Oops!...I forgot Europe) is a brilliant pairing of works, allowing the viewer to both indulge in fantastical mythology and to rethink the way that we understand histories, and the borders that we have constructed between.
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Wael Shawky's sixth solo exhibition at Lisson Gallery titled Isles of the Blessed (Oops!...I forgot Europe) is on view until Jan 14, 2023. For more information about the exhibition, please click here.