Chloe Wyma on Wael Shawky

Unlike the complex marionette dramaturgies of his renowned 2010–15 “Cabaret Crusades” video trilogy, Wael Shawky’s new film, Isles of the Blessed (Oops! . . . I forgot Europe) (all works 2022), the centerpiece of his exhibition at Lisson Gallery, is condensed to a single moving image: Seated at a hearth, a lone puppet of an elderly woman recounts one of Europe’s foundational myths in Arabic, Shawky’s native tongue. She tells us a tale about Europa, a beautiful Phoenician princess who is abducted and raped by Zeus on the island of Crete. Europa’s brother Cadmus, endeavoring to find his missing sister, consults the Oracle of Delphi, who advises him to forget about her (hence the parenthetical in the film’s title) and establish the infamous city of Thebes in Boeotia, central Greece. Cadmus slays a dragon and sows the soil of his new kingdom with its fangs: The act enrages the god Ares and sets into motion a twisting yarn involving cursed bloodlines, civil war, Dionysian madness, and maternal filicide. The ensuing events, many of them familiar from Euripides’s The Bacchae, culminate with Cadmus’s exile to the Western Balkans, where he leads a cohort of non-Hellenic tribes to victory in battle against their neighbors, becoming their ruler. In the denouement, he and his wife, Harmonia, are transformed by the gods into serpents and finally sent to live in eternal bliss in Elysium, also known as the Isles of the Blessed.

While “Cabaret Crusades” underscores the material causes of a conflict so often characterized as a mystifying “clash of civilizations,” Isles of the Blessed posits, through the figures of Europa and Cadmus—both said to come from modern-day Lebanon—an “Oriental” origin for Europe. Herodotus credits Cadmus with bringing the fundaments of the Greek alphabet from the Levant, while Europa gives birth to King Minos of Crete, ushering in the ancestral European civilization that bears his name. Europe, Shawky implies, is a chimera in multiple senses of the word—an illusory projection and a hybrid construction inextricably entangled with and constituted by its supposed others. Written out, this might sound like an academic catechism; not so in Isles of the Blessed, where the cosmopolitanism of the ancient world—with its warring city-states, meddling gods, and perplexing moral codes—offers a compelling countermythology to pernicious civilizational politics.

Although better known as a puppet master than a painter, Shawky originally trained as the latter, and the twelve canvases on view here demonstrated his marvelous imagination in that department. While all the paintings were titled after the film, they did not illustrate the events recounted in Isles of the Blessed but, rather, constituted a metamorphic image world variously evocative of the decalcomaniacal fantasias of Max Ernst (an acknowledged reference for Shawky), the quixotic symbolism of Odilon Redon, and the galactic primitivism of James Cameron’s Pandora. A yellow fourteen-fingered Cyclops gazed upon a flowering tree in Isles of the Blessed XII as weird, needle-nosed organisms assembled in a twilight conclave in Isles of the Blessed IV. Gentle long-necked beasts—familiar entities in Shawky’s work that call to mind brontosauruses, camels, or giraffes—appeared throughout the show, such as the pink two-headed monster emerging from fragments of landscape in Isles of the Blessed I, or the animal carrying a xenarthral rider in Isles of the Blessed VI, or the beast nuzzling its lapidified counterpart in Isles of the Blessed VIII. Exquisite corpses amalgamating animal, vegetable, mineral, and machine tested the limits of description. These capriccios seemed to partake in the project, championed by Silvia Federici and other thinkers, of “re-enchanting the world,” while remaining happily disencumbered of excess metaphysical baggage. “I have no idea where they came from, and I would be lying if I said that they mean something,” Shawky has said of his paradisial creatures. And yet, he insists, “they are part of my language.”

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