Kunstsammlung NRW
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Worldwide: Wael Shawky’s “Crusades” in Qatar

In recent months, the artist Wael Shawky has been shuttling from Düsseldorf to New York via Doha. Traveling with him are his unique glass marionettes, his "actors," manufactured on Murano, which reenact the medieval crusades from an Arab perspective in ways that are as childish as they are gruesome. In October of 2014, Shawky collaborated with a 40-member international film team to create "The Secrets of Karbalaa," working at the heart of the exhibition in the K20. Now that a postproduction phase has been completed, Wael Shawky's cinematic trilogy "Cabaret Crusades" is finally finished - after five years. The film is currently on view in the US and Qatar, having been premiered in Düsseldorf in a raw version.

Doris Krystof, the curator of both the exhibition and the film project at the Kunstsammlung, who accompanied the artist closely for a period of months, traveled a few weeks ago to Doha in Qatar, where Shawky's largest solo exhibition to date opened at the Arab Museum of Modern Art (Mathaf).

Krystof shares her impressions with #32.

Doha is the capital of the Emirate of Qatar, located on the Arabian Peninsula, and is ruled by the absolute monarchy of the Al Thani family. Apparently, Qatar has the highest per capita income in the world; like the rest of the Gulf States, its wealth comes from enormous oil and natural gas deposits. Doha is a city under construction. From the newly laid out waterfront promenade, the Corniche, you can look out across the water toward the new city district of West Bay. The old town of Doha has yielded to an enormous building site. Rising there is the new city center of Doha, soon to be the most modern metropolis in the Persian Gulf. According to the "Qatar National Vision 2030," the ruling Al-Thani family is investing billions in education, technology, art, and mega-events such as the FIFA World Cup 2022.

Opening in 2010 in the framework of the 2030 development agenda was the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA), designed by the renowned architect I.M. Pei, given an imposing setting on the Corniche. The collection of Islamic art was assembled during the past decade, and contains precious handcrafted objects from all regions of the Middle East.

In the cool interior of the MIA, airy blinds in front of the large window of the cafeteria offer an impressive view of the new Doha in West Bay.

Every hour on the hour, a shuttle bus travels from the MIA to the Arab Museum of Modern Art (Mathaf) around 30 kilometers away, at the edge of the city in Doha's so-called Educational City.

En route by bus to Mathaf, in the vicinity of the completed Convention Center, you see one construction site after the next; nearly all of the international star architects are building here, among them Jean Nouvel, Rem Kolhaas, and Zaha Hadid.

After 45 minutes, you arrive at the Mathaf, opened in 2010, where the Wael Shawky exhibition is taking place. On the site fencing, posters advertise exhibitions held in the flat-topped building. The core of the Mathaf is its collection of art from Arab lands, which encompasses more than 6000 works, and was assembled by Sheik Hassan Al-Thani (*1960), the son of the Emir, and a former art student.

One day before Wael Shawky's exhibition opening, preparations are in full swing. As earlier, during work on the glass marionettes in Murano and during the film shoot in Düsseldorf, Francesca Luise, the costume designer, and Giorgio Benotto, who produced props for Shawky's films, are busy with their tasks until the last minute. Nowhere else have Wael's marionettes been displayed in such large vitrines - you can almost stand up in them. The Doha exhibition is the most extensive presentation of Shawky's works anywhere to date.

The opening reception takes place on March 15, 2015: everyone waits in front of the museum for the arrival of Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani. No one is permitted to enter the exhibition before Qatar's most powerful art collector, who is also a patron of Wael Shawky.

Wael Shawky guides Sheikha Al Mayassa through the exhibition. This important younger sister of Sheikh Hassan Al-Thani, who studied politics and literature in the US and France, has been much talked about for her spectacular purchases, which include Cézanne's "Card Players" for 250 million dollars. As Chair of the Qatar Museum Authority (QMA), she builds bridges between East and West. It is said that her acquisition budgets amounts to 1 billion US dollars annually, and that she plans to make Doha the world's greatest art hotspot.

The production of the glass puppets in the Berengo Studio on Murano near Venice was also substantially supported by the QMA. Manufactured there for Shawky's film alongside the glass marionettes were a number of immovable, static class figures. For these "extras," Shawky developed a completely new form of wall presentation for Doha.

Produced for the exhibition in Doha were a large number of works on paper, executed by Wael Shawky during his three-week stay in Doha in a studio at the newly created Fire Station for Artists in Residence. Using the most diverse pens and materials, the artist reflects here on the motifs of the medieval visual world of the third Cabaret Crusades film.

The presentation of the glass marionettes in specially manufactured display cases, most of them painted in turquoise and petrol blue, colors favored by Wael Shawky, bring the group together as an ensemble of great actors. After appearing in the film, the figures have now become individual sculptures, many decked out in new costumes.

In Doha, one feature of the information panels in the exhibition is conspicuous. We read the words: "Crusades and Other Stories" - isn't something missing from the title? We need to understand, the museum explains, why the word "Cabaret" had to be omitted. With its Western implications of bordellos, nightlife, criticism, and mockery, the word "Cabaret" doesn't sound very nice in Arab Doha...

The elaborately produced third part of Cabaret Crusades (The Secrets of Karbalaa, HD video, 120 min.) deals with the events of the Second Crusade (1145-49) up until the Sack of Constantinople by Venetian crusaders in the year 1204. Once again, marionettes depict the history from an Arab perspective. Playing the roles of legendary twelfth-century figures such as Sultan Saladin, Bernard of Clairvaux, Richard the Lionhearted, the Hohenstaufen King Conrad III, and Emperor Frederick Barbarossa are the unique glass marionettes produced on Murano in Venice after Shawky's drawings of African sculptures.


Text and photos: Doris Krystof

On the international exhibitions:

Wael Shawky: Cabaret Crusades
New York
January 31 - August 31, 2015

Wael Shawky: Crusades and Other Stories
Arab Museum of Modern Art (Mathaf)
March 17 - August 31, 2015

Exhibition archive of the Kunstsammlung: