Egyptian artist Wael Shawky’s new work had its world premiere at the Theater der Welt Festival in Hamburg on 27 May 2017.
Shawky continues his exploration and interrogation of historic narratives in The Song of Roland: The Arabic Version (2017), a large-scale musical theatre performance based on the French epic poem La Chanson de Roland which has been translated into classical Arabic. The work is performed by over 20 fidjeri singers and musicians from Sharjah and Bahrain, performing in the traditional style of Arabian Gulf pearl divers.
Shawky’s new work brings together two rich but disparate traditions of narrative verse. He draws on the oldest traditional work of eleventh-century French literature, written between 1040 and 1115 in the time of the Emperor Charlemagne, which glorifies the his reign and conquests along with his nephew Roland’s heroic battle in 778 against the Saracens (a term used to describe Muslim Arabs). The translation and adaptation of this text into classical Arabic is set to fidjeri music, which has its roots in the Arabian Gulf and dates back more than 800 years. The fidjeri performers are known for their expressive solos and call-and-response choral performances which are accompanied by percussion instruments and informal choreography.
Work on the production began in Sharjah with a residency for Wael Shawky hosted by Sharjah Art Foundation in March 2017. During this time, Shawky worked with SAF to locate the musicians and undertake rehearsals in Sharjah and, a month later, in Bahrain.
The artist also worked closely with SAF to produce period-inspired linen and silk costuming that incorporates sherwal and jalabiya elements. SAF’s graphic designers have also helped develop the scenography, which was inspired by miniature paintings and medieval maps of cities such as Aleppo, Damascus and Istanbul.
The Song of Roland builds on a number of major projects by Shawky, including Cabaret Crusades, the landmark film trilogy comprising The Horror Show Files (2010), The Path to Cairo (2012) and The Secrets of Karbala (2015), in part supported by SAF, as well as the artist’s performance Dictums 10:120, commissioned for Sharjah Biennial 11 (2013), which was developed through a series of workshops engaging members of SAF’s production team. In 2014 Sharjah Art Foundation also presented a solo exhibition Wael Shawky: Horsemen Adore Perfumes and other stories that included a new film Al Araba Al Madfuna II, co-produced by the Wiener Festwochen and Sharjah Art Foundation.
Performances of The Song of Roland have already taken place for three nights in Hamburg’s Kampnagel as part of the Theatre der Welt 2017 Festival and for two nights at the Holland Festival in Amsterdam. Later confirmed presentations will be during the Zürcher Theater Spektakel in Zürich on 22 – 23 August and from 28 – 30 December at the Onassis Cultural Centre in Athens.
The Song of Roland: The Arabic Version is produced by Kampnagel, Hamburg and is co-produced by Theater der Welt Festival 2017, Sharjah Art Foundation, Holland Festival, Onassis Cultural Centre-Athens and Zürcher Theater Spektakel.
The Song of Roland: The Arabic Version
Performance view: Kampnagel, Theater der Welt, Hamburg
Produced by Kampnagel Hamburg; co-produced by Theater der Welt Festival 2017, Sharjah Art Foundation, Holland Festival, Onassis Cultural Centre Athens and Theaterspektakel Zürich
Funded by the Federal Agency for Civic Education, Germany
Photo: Janto Djassi
Performance with 32 musician and singers
Microphones, wooden platform, cushions and sound system
Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation
Photo by Alfredo Rubio
Wael Shawky: Horsemen Adore Perfumes and other stories
Front: 4K, Ultra HD video, silent
11 minutes, 10 seconds
Right: decorative objects, 2014, wall-based vitrines containing aluminium plaques, asphalt felt
Framed dimensions 200 x 140 x 10 cm
Photo by Alfredo Rubio
Wael Shawky uses a range of media to explore issues of history, religion, culture and the effects of globalisation on society today.