11 Mar 2022 - 28 Aug 2022

Dry Culture Wet Culture

M Leuven


Wael Shawky (b. 1971) is one of the best-known contemporary artists from the Middle East – his work can be found at the MoMa in New York and at the Tate Gallery in London, among others. From 11 March to 28 August, you can visit a solo exhibition at M of his work from the past quarter century, as well as some completely new creations.

The challenge is to bring something new to every city, every exhibition.

Shawky is an Egyptian, spent a great deal of his childhood in Saudi Arabia. He saw with his own eyes how the incoming petrodollars transformed the traditional nomadic tribal society into a high-tech urban society. This turnaround made a deep and lasting impression on him.

Social change remains central to his art and in particular the question how this intertwines with themes such as identity, religion, politics and history. He sees his artworks as a way of making these issues tangible. He works with various media including paintings, drawings, sculpture, film and even music.

Sleeping for 309 years!

The key word in Shawky’s work is migration. Not in the narrow sense of people leaving their homes in search of a better life, but in the broadest possible sense: the transition from one state to another. This is seen, for example, in ‘The Cave’, a series of films in which Shawky walks through a supermarket and recites the story ‘The Companions of the Cave’ from the Koran: a group of men escape from a tyrannical ruler by hiding in a cave and sleeping for 309 years. The work asks questions about consumption and religion, but for the artist it is also about migration – how the company travels through time to wake up in another society.

Shawky’s works are often part of an overall project. ‘Cabaret Crusades’ is a good example. The basis of the work is three films that shed light on the Crusades from a non-European perspective. The characters speak Arabic and are interpreted by puppets. In this way, he creates distance to the events, unlike most other films, which just want to pull you into their story.

But the project is much more than the films. For the third episode, to be shown at M, Shawky had glass puppets made by the world-famous Venetian glassworks of Murano. They will also be part of the exhibition. ‘Cabaret Crusades’ even includes objects that do not appear in the films: wooden bas-reliefs with exact copies of European works about the Crusades, to which Shawky adds monsters and mythical creatures.

Dry and Wet

Shawky’s exhibition at M is called ‘Dry Culture Wet Culture’, a title that again refers to migration. He sees in the development of societies, especially in the Arab world, a constant shift from a so-called Dry Culture – a traditional form of existence of wandering tribes in a dry environment – to a Wet Culture – a sedentary society based on irrigation and agriculture. But this migration from dry to wet is for him also a model for all major social changes, and thus for migration in the broad sense of the word.

A Story

‘Dry Culture Wet Culture’ will feature works from three projects: ‘cabaret Crusades’, ‘The Cave’ and ‘The Gulf Project Camp’, which is inspired by Arab history since the 17th century. There will also be a new work made specially for M: ‘Asphalt City’. “The link between the three is migration,’ says Shawky himself. ‘What I like about this exhibition is that it has a timeline, a kind of story. The challenge is to bring something new to every city, every exhibition, that is connected to your experience of that city. When I was in Leuven, I had the opportunity to visit the museum and get to know the rooms. The exhibition responds to this and is therefore unique. You can never recreate them exactly the same in another location.’

Wael Shawky’s ‘Dry Culture Wet Culture’, from 11.03 until 28.08.2022.

Leuven, Belguim

12:00 AM - 12:00 AM