Elements of speech, translation and transliteration figure strongly in two adjacent exhibitions at Galerie Sfeir-Semler by Lebanese artist Mounira Al Solh (b. 1978) and Egyptian artist Wael Shawky (b. 1971). Although the artists’ esthetics and subjects are very different, the concurrent shows, each containing several bodies of work (all from 2010) in various mediums, proved a fruitful juxtaposition.
What happens when you perform a set of Arabic proverbs? To make The Mute Tongue, 19 Short Video Scenes of 19 Arabic Proverbs and Sayings on 19 Monitors (each video is 3 minutes long), Al Solh enlisted Croatian artist and per- former Siniša Labrovic Ì . She has Labrovic Ì “drown in a few centimeters of water,” “come from behind the cows,” “see the stars of day” and get “confused by his own balls.” Al Solh’s humorous and provocative stagings reveal the complications of translating a culturally specific idea into video, while the literal enactment of figurative language detaches the proverbs from their traditional authority and allows their inherent absurdities to emerge.
Al Solh also showed a series of 44 mixed-medium drawings and a group of acrylic paintings, all 1 to 3 feet on a side, which are purportedly the creation of one Bassam Ramlawi, a male artist who actu- ally is her fictive alter ego. These include scenes of everyday life in Beirut and por- traits of friends. Some of the works recall René Daniels, others Otto Dix. On the wall among the paintings hangs a monitor that screens a faux documentary on Ramlawi. At one point in the video, Ramlawi—played by the artist—paints over a Cindy Sherman book with his fingers, as if to acknowledge the role of self-concealment and travesty in his own practice.
The notion of speaking in historical tongues, meanwhile, features in Shawky’s 31-minute film Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File, the centerpiece of his show. Using 200-year-old marionettes in finely crafted costumes from the Lupi collection in Turin, Italy, this elaborate production dramatizes the opening years (1096–99) of the Crusades. (It was created in part during the artist’s summer 2010 residency at the Cittadellarte-Fondazione Pistoletto in Biella, Italy.) The marionettes “speak” through voice-overs that have the formal, deliberate tone and timbre common in Arabic dubbings of epic films. Cabaret Crusades tells a tale in a satiric and quasi-humorous fashion of the Christian campaign to take Jerusalem. The artist explores the biases underlying the creation of a historical record, his use of puppets underscoring the question: who “pulls the strings” in such accounts? It is no coincidence that he has chosen a subject—European-Arab relations and contested sovereignty in Jerusalem—that is critical today.
Shawky also presents a room-size sculptural installation titled Scenography, consisting of a diorama of the Citadel of Aleppo, a fortified medieval palace in northern Syria. Here, surrounded by high walls marked with shallow arches, the structure stands in a rocky gray landscape complete with mock plants and a river of black oil that suggests the collision throughout the Middle East between historical cultures and the politics of contemporary oil production. Also on display are the artist’s captivatingly delicate drawings, all about 12 by 9 inches. With pencil, ink and home-made pigments on paper, Shawky depicts landscapes with windmills, crumbling castles and fantastical sea creatures; their immediacy contrasted intriguingly with Shawky’s more elaborate efforts.
Photo: (left) Mounira Al Solh: Barber, 2010, from the “Bassam Ramlawi Paintings,” acrylic and collage on canvas, 113⁄4 by 153⁄4 inches; at Sfeir-Semler and (right) Wael Shawky: Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File, 2010, film, 31 minutes; at Sfeir-Semler.