A narrator of processes of knowledge and expression, half way between the documentable and the imaginable, Wael Shawky explores the ways in which stories have been written and told and analyses how these have also shaped historical reality. In his works – which mix film, drawing, painting, sculpture, installation, performance and theatrical direction, and which are always the result of research into historical and literary sources – Shawky places us in a position of awareness of the ancient and contemporary narrative mechanisms used to interpret and transmit historical, social and cultural facts and, crossing time and space, evokes a both factual and imaginary dimension of history and society, as if they could never be defined once and for all, or only from one point of view. The artist’s new film, I Am Hymns of the New Temples, is the epic tale of the human need to invent, narrate and hand down these stories: it is through these that human beings have given and continue to give a possible meaning to the world, in which they live with all the other species and with other human beings. Filmed in the summer of 2022 among the ruins of ancient Pompeii, struck by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD and therefore the witness of the impermanence as well as the continuous transformation not only of matter but also of stories, Shawky’s new film shows what rises to the surface of the different cultures that make Pompeii an authentic theatre of different yet inevitably connected narrations. For the first time, however, in I Am Hymns of the New Temples, Shawky also introduces some animals into the story, including the crocodile and the hippopotamus, often portrayed in the Nilotic scenes in the frescoes in Pompeii, and stages choreographies performed live among the archaeological excavations by performers who – replacing the marionettes used in his previous works – wear ceramic or papier mâché masks and costumes made from different materials by the ceramist Pierre Architta and the workshops at the San Carlo Theatre and the Fine Arts Academy in Naples. Also using the ancient San Leucio silks and other fabrics made by historical Italian textiles manufacturers, these props, with their decorative patterns, take on the pictorial value of a rhythmically animated tableau vivant through the choreutic movements of the performers, as in a holy procession or initiating ritual. One of these masks, together with two drawings and an edition of the film, have become part of Collectio.
Wael Shawky (Alexandria, Egypt, 1971)
Text from the introduction of the booklet by Andrea Viliani, published on the occasion of the premiere in Pompeii of I Am Hymns of the New Temples, on the 12th May 2023.