Marionettes in an installation at the gallery, which also features the artist’s films
Marionettes in an installation at the gallery, which also features the artist’s films © Hugo Glendinning

I am less than gracious when a dawn alarm tugs me from my bed on a Saturday morning to watch the first part of Al Araba Al Madfuna, the artist Wael Shawky’s latest film. But an interview with Shawky at 10am makes the viewing essential.

Grumpily, I press “play”, and the Nile glides across the screen in monochrome. The scene cuts to a dark chamber peopled by children dressed as men. As one digs a hole in the floor, the others tell the story of a community who, on the advice of their dying leaders, devote themselves to the worship of various animals until they mutate into hybrids. A parable warning us of the perils of blind faith, it enraptures through the musical voices (which are adult); the solemn conviction on the children’s faces; and the equilibrium of the images as they shift between the airless cave and the ancient river.

Wael Shawky at the Serpentine
Wael Shawky at the Serpentine © Jasper Fry

The fact that, by the end, my imagination feels renewed owes much to Shawky’s gifts as a storyteller. Nevertheless, that is just the tip of a far more complex vision. “You are watching one story but you are hearing another story. You are watching a kid but you are hearing a man, so you are focusing on two systems simultaneously,” he tells me as we sit in the lobby of his Marylebone hotel, sipping coffee from paper cups.

The tale of the hybrid villagers was originally a story by the late Egyptian writer Mohamed Mustagab. It is typical of Shawky to layer one imaginative gesture on to another so the spectator is left enlightened yet giddy by the pyramid of shifting expressions.

This vertiginous vision has propelled him to the peak of the contemporary art world. The recipient of numerous awards, including the Sharjah Biennial prize this year, he has had solo shows at the KW Contemporary Art Institute in Berlin and the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Now it is London’s turn: his new exhibition, Wael Shawky: al-Qurban, opened this week at the Serpentine Gallery.

Shawky was born in Alexandria, Egypt, but spent his youth in Mecca, where his father worked as an engineer. “I think I was making all the drawings for every activity in the whole school,” he remembers, laughing. Now 42, today dressed in a casual blue T-shirt and jeans, his easygoing manner and ready smile ensure that he retains a light-hearted, youthful air.

From the first, he possessed a subtlety of mind. Traumatised by his return to Alexandria when he was 13, he entered a “very turbulent” adolescent crisis. Solace came at 17, when he enrolled at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. “From that moment, I don’t think I was thinking of anything else [except art].”

Lessons at the academy were “mainly drawing and painting”, he recalls. Other than the groundbreaking work being done at Cairo’s non-profit Townhouse Gallery – which gave Shawky several early solo shows – Egypt had almost no contemporary art scene. His awakening occurred on a trip to Madrid, where he saw Bill Viola’s videos at the Reina Sofia museum. “It was really, really great.” He pauses. “I hadn’t seen anything like that in Egypt at all.”

He started to visit New York every summer. Soon, a crucial influence was Joseph Beuys. “Oh my God, yes. That was the man,” he breathes. “The idea that the material itself became a vehicle for human belief was very important for me,” he continues, citing Beuys’ custom of making installations out of fat which, according to his own self-mythology, had saved him when he was shot down as a pilot in the second world war.

“In order for you to receive any information from this cube of fat, for example, you had to believe in its chemical content. For me this is a bit religious. It is [similar] to when you look at the Koran or the Bible. It’s a book which is sacred as it is, even if you don’t open it, because you believe in its chemical content.”

A flair for expressing the flawed, contradictory processes by which we arrive at faith and knowledge is the bedrock of Shawky’s vision. As a young artist, he made installations out of asphalt to reflect his childhood in Mecca – to “understand the relationship between me and my family and Saudi Arabia, which had discovered oil and the British and American oil companies were arriving. All the modernity that I lived in the 1970s in Saudi Arabia [was] based on this western arrival. The asphalt was a metaphor for oil, of course.”

Marionettes in an installation at the gallery
Marionettes in an installation at the gallery © Hugo Glendinning

Paradoxically, his gift for deconstruction hinges on his feeling for old-fashioned narrative. The work that catapulted him to the world’s attention was Cabaret Crusades, a two-part film in which marionettes act out the medieval struggle for control over the Middle East. A spine-tingling anti-epic, it leaves viewers appalled by the carnage yet riveted by Shawky’s meticulous mapping of the era’s Byzantine twists and turns. “I had to do a lot of research,” he agrees. A crucial source was The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (1984), a history of the period by the Lebanese-French writer Amin Maalouf. “It shows you that history can be told from a different angle …from the Arab side.”

His new two-part film, Al Araba Al Madfuna, is also grounded in his fascination with the way that the stories we tell ourselves – uncertain, mutable, contingent – evolve into unquestioned beliefs. Its seeds were sown more than 10 years ago when a friend invited Shawky to witness a ritual in a village in upper Egypt. There, he explains, there is a ritual of digging through the floors of homes in the hope of discovering buried Pharaonic treasure. “But it is impossible to discover a tomb unless you break the spells of the Pharoahs that act as protection on the door of the chamber.” Night after night he watched as his friend, who works as a medium, engaged in his dialogue “with something like ghosts”.

What fascinated him was the dichotomy between the means and the end. “They use a metaphysical system, magic essentially, to reach a material, physical system: gold.”

The second part of the film, which premieres this week at the Serpentine, turns on a rumour. “It’s set outdoors and you see one group of kids going to another group of kids spreading this story.”

Like the first film, the tale the children are telling was written by Mustagab. Entitled The Offering, it centres on a village of traders who, suddenly afflicted by muteness, transform themselves into entertainers who clap at parties. When a man comes to restore their voices, he disappears mysteriously. “Perhaps the villagers killed them because they didn’t want to lose the clapping.”

Given the tortuous history of Shawky’s own region and the nature of his interests – social transformation, the nature of faith, power and communication, the way our collective fantasies can tip into psychosis – how does he succeed in making work which is profoundly relevant to its political moment yet also sufficient unto itself?

“I try as much as I can not to react to current political events,” he says. “You can’t expect a revolution to happen today. I [may] be making a film about the revolution [tomorrow]: that’s changeable. Yes, the revolution will happen and we will support the army now, and the second day the army will cheat on you. You will change your mind after you made the film; this is not art, it is just reactionary activity. Art must be much bigger than this.”

We have been talking for two hours and Shawky has a plane to catch, yet he never glances at his watch or mobile phone. That lucid, scrupulous commitment to presence is the key to his art’s power. It is what compelled him to, for example, track down a particular radood – a Shia religious singer – to play the part of Ibn al-Khashshab, an important Shia leader with a role in Cabaret Crusades. “I did think: why am I being that precise? Perhaps nobody will notice the radood.” He pauses. “But it’s internal.”

Serpentine Gallery, London, to February 9. Lisson Gallery, London, January 31-March 8 2014.

This piece has been amended since first publication to reflect the fact that Wael Shawky has had a solo show at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, not the Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis

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