31 Aug 2023 - 17 Feb 2024

I am Hymns of the New Temples

Sfeir-Semler Gallery Karantina


Not a single beating heart was left on earth.
once again…
the idea of creating Man was renewed…

Wael Shawky, I am Hymns of the New Temples, 2023, excerpt from film script.

Sfeir-Semler Gallery is proud to announce Wael Shawky’s solo exhibition in our Karantina flagship space in Beirut, with a new multifaceted colossal project, including a film, sculptures, paintings, and an installation.

Premiering Shawky’s I am Hymns of the New Temples in the Arab-speaking world, the exhibition centers around the film produced for the Pompeii Commitment program which takes as a starting point the ancient city buried under the ashes of Mount Vesuvius eruption in 79 A.D. and its multiple layers of interconnected ancient Mediterranean societies. The work questions the constructed narratives of humanity’s genesis, and how stories transmitted through space and time, across generations, millennia and continents often overlap as one civilization fades and another replaces it.

Shawky reflects on the construction of identities based on national narratives that rely on myths, mythologies, folk tales, or legends. The film uses the ruins of Pompeii, as well as the Nile in Upper-Egypt, as a backdrop, while actors, wearing ceramic or papier-mâché masks, echo the vanished people of a city that bore influences from the Greek, Roman and Pharaonic antique worlds. They are in constant movement throughout the film dancing to the music Shawky composed and reminding us that even what we perceive as everlasting, is in constant flux.

Drawing inspiration from olden Roman and Greek theatre traditions, the comedy and tragedy performed in the amphitheater ruins becomes the formal skeleton through which the actors narrate Greek myths in Arabic. The action is set within a long-gone era, but the characters become part of another, more ancient story, underpinning the immaterial bridges between civilizations and cultures and their mutual influences. They tell us the tale of the Egyptian Isis, and how she somehow came into being as the descendant of Greek gods. The goddess, who resurrects her husband Osiris after his assassination, is worshiped as the divine mother and was believed to help the dead enter the afterlife in Egyptian mythology. In the plethora of Hellenistic deities, however, she is represented as Zeus’ wife, while Osiris, ruler of Egypt, becomes her son. Later on, Christian iconography of the Mother of God with her child Jesus is said to trace its origins back to the depiction of Isis with her son Horus. As Hesiod writes in his Theogony, the emergence of the ancient mythical cosmos is the result of a multicultural stroke of luck, a first great moment in Western intellectual history that happened around the Aegean Sea, with the coming together of traditional streams from very different early cultures.

Shawky’s film is based on the search for a visual representation of this permeability, this transmission. The prelude is certainly the story of the emergence of the mythological cosmos, or mankind, with the narrative elements pointing to its transcultural origin. The film’s storyline imperceptibly draws us in, as we follow the woes of humankind, the endless cycle of life and death, the merciful and vengeful gods dichotomy: myths turn into beliefs, only to become forgotten realities centuries later, fictions that we still nonetheless rely on to explain the world around us. As in a Greek tragedy, the final scene of the film prophesies human dystopia and the eternity of the gods, the symbolic pillars of antiquities cultures. The characters, marionettes-like and imperfectly human, evolve in a hybrid state, their final song become emblematic of the sins of new generations, as children’s voices take over, literally heralding the future.

The surrealistic hybridity of the film is translated throughout the exhibition. The metallic Pompeian red walls turn the space into an infinite skyscape, creating an atmosphere that accentuates the grotesque grimacing faces of the masks borrowed from the set, and the phantasmagorical colors of the paintings which depict a flow of subjective, fictitious ideas around this morphing of historical-cultural material. The works metaphorically reference mankind’s inherent need to explain and understand its own origins: borrowed, repurposed, appropriated, transposed, retold, the same stories of creation, destruction, punishment of people by gods, renewal and ultimate rebirth can often be found in many religions or societies founding myths, modified to fit a particular point of view.

The work I am hymns of the New Temples won the tender PAC-Plan for Contemporary Art 2020 promoted and supported by the Directorate General for Contemporary Creativity. The production of the work, curated by Andrea Viliani, is the result of the collaboration between the Italian Ministry of Culture and the Pompeii Archaeological Park in the context of Pompeii Commitment. Archaeological Matters, the first long-term project dedicated by the Park to contemporary arts and cultures.