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Wael Shawky

November 29, 2013 – February 9, 2014

Serpentine Gallery, Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London W2 3XA

An exhibition of the puppets created to perform in the Egyptian artist Wael Shawky’s puppet films and three of his film projects in back-to-back showings. These are completely extraordinary and absorbing. His first two films form his Crusade Cabaret series. The Horror Show File (2010) and The Path to Cairo (2012) enact respectively the key events of the First Crusade (1096–99) and the years that follow – narrated in soothing classical Arabic, with subtitles, they are full of gentle political commentary, acute human observation, accentuated by wonderful timing – the look of the wide-eyed lingering afterthought sends tingles up your spine.

The Horror Show employed 200-year-old marionettes made in Italy. In The Path to Cairo, the puppets are new, and more grotesque, but no less compelling. Landscapes are drawn from the two-dimensional world of the miniature, but with dramatic light effects that conjure burning cities and dark alleyways so vividly they enter your dreams afterwards. The horrors are there – a baby roasted by the starving crusaders and the treacherous murder by Baldwin of the King of Edessa, who had adopted him – but the finger never points.

The equally hypnotic third film, Al Araba Al Madfuna II (2013), which is being premiered in London, enacts the retelling of the Mohamed Mustagab’s parables, Horsemen Adore Perfume and The Offering, by children dressed and bearded like adults, and filmed on the Upper Nile. The story-telling in all three is quite bewitching.

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