MoMA PS1 presents Wael Shawky’s video trilogy, Cabaret Crusades, which comprises The Horror Show Files (2010), The Path to Cairo (2012), and The Secrets of the Karbala (2015). With three casts of elaborate marionettes and sets, the videos present an Islamic perspective on selected episodes between the First and Fourth Crusades (1096–1204). While the history and individual characters may be difficult for many Western viewers to follow, Shawky’s gorgeous cinematography, sets, and marionettes fuse childlike play with the horrors and complications of war and history. Moreover, Shawky’s work speaks to the tradition of marionettes and the current conflicts within the Arab region.
Based on Amin Maalouf’s book The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (1984), each of Shawky’s videos is constructed of short vignettes that depict Frankish and Islamic military and religious figures squabbling for power and land, committing murder, and forcing individuals to convert to their respective beliefs. As Shawky’s marionettes enact the scenes, voice-over actors narrate the story in Arabic while English subtitles appear on the screen. Additionally, texts in both languages indicate the date, location, and names of the figures. Shawky has lived and traveled throughout the Arab region, was educated in the United States, and exhibits in Europe; his hybrid experience is evident in the videos’ bilingual presentation. Moreover, in contrast to a Western-centric perspective, Shawky’s art suggests that the stories are not native to the English-speaking world but are global in scale. While I struggled to keep track of the characters and historical episodes, Shawky’s videos heightened my awareness as an outsider to the languages and events in global politics.
In addition to presenting the narrative of the Crusades, Shawky imbues the subject with the exuberance, critique, and beauty of a cabaret, as alluded to in the series’ title. While Shawky’s cabaret is not filled with campy song-and-dance numbers, the lightweight marionettes have a buoyancy and fluidity in scenes of whirling dervishes and pilgrims encircling the massive black Kaaba in Mecca. With unchanging facial expressions, the uncanny marionettes attend to grave issues; at times, the marionettes’ mask-like faces seem to critique greedy political leaders. In contrast to the artifice of the marionettes, Shawky uses actual fire and cinematic lighting to create a mesmerizing atmosphere. Through various theatrical devices such as these, Shawky transforms the historical tales into amusing, grim, and playful narratives.
While the narrative structure remains consistent through all three videos, Shawky has used different marionettes for each video to impart a range of histories and formal characteristics. The first video features more than 120 wooden marionettes that are over 200 years old. With their chipped paint, cracks, and patinas, the delicately rendered marionettes show their age and traditional craftsmanship. Shawky borrowed these marionettes from the Lupi family collection, housed within the Museo della Marionetta, Turin. The museum continues to produce theatrical presentations of children’s classics, like Hansel and Gretel—warning children of the dangers of temptation—and stories adapted for children, such as Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883)—urging the recently unified Italian nation to put aside individual interests in favor of long-term goals. As Hansel and Gretel and Pinocchio are parables that promote self-control in the face of greater collective interests, Shawky’s videos relate the ravages of war, treachery, and greed. For the second video, Shawky worked with a team of fabricators to create ceramic marionettes at the École de Céramique de Provence, in Aubagne, France. With slightly exaggerated features and buck teeth, these expressive marionettes mix vulgarity and sweetness. Lastly, for the third video, which addresses the Venetian attack on Constantinople, Shawky commissioned glass blowers in Venice to produce marionettes inspired by the African sculptures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. As an Egyptian and thus from North Africa, Shawky subtly claims as part of his legacy Sub-Saharan African art, which museums typically isolate from the Middle East; these marionettes do not display the facial features that might identify them as Arab or European. Ranging from ancient Egypt through 18th-century European marionette operas, Shawky’s project extends its multicultural history and purpose.
In a large, dark gallery at PS1, Shawky presents the ceramic and glass marionettes in two large, illuminated vitrines. The marionettes stand in rows of two, almost as soldiers. As Shawky has installed them, the marionettes are gorgeous, humorous, and mysterious. As objects, in contrast with their presentation in Shawky’s videos, they emanate a stillness, and their sheer quantity speaks to the vast number of characters featured in the videos.
In content and form, Shawky’s work draws upon the history of the Arab region, which is essential knowledge for understanding the current political landscape. As Christians, Jews, and Muslims have staked territorial claims in the Middle East and North Africa, Europeans and Arabs have carved up the region during the Crusades, European colonialism, and U.S.-led oil wars. In drawing upon the marionette tradition, Shawky uses its seemingly lighthearted form and magical theatricality as a foil to urge viewers to develop an understanding of the contentious history that is still played out within the Arab region.
Wael Shawky: Cabaret Crusades is on view at MoMA PS1, New York, through August 31, 2015.
 While PS1 is the first venue to present the entire trilogy, Horror Show Files (2010) and The Path to Cairo (2012) have been previously exhibited, either individually or in combination, at venues including the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 2014; Serpentine Galleries, London, 2013; and Documenta 13, Kassel, 2012.
 Aubagne is noted for its production of santons, Christian nativity figures particular to Provence.