As part of Sharjah Art Foundation’s March Meeting 2018, Wael Shawky’s The Song of Roland: The Arabic Version (2017) will have its Middle East debut in Sharjah on 17 March 2018.
Shawky continues his exploration and interrogation of historical narratives in The Song of Roland: The Arabic Version, a large-scale music and theatre performance based on the French epic poem La Chanson de Roland. Translated into classical Arabic, the work will be brought to life by 20 fidjeri singers and musicians from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, who will perform in the traditional style of Arabian Gulf pearl divers.
Shawky’s performance brings together two rich but disparate traditions of narrative verse. He draws on a major work of eleventh-century French literature written in the time of Charlemagne, which glorifies both the emperor’s reign and conquests and his nephew Roland’s heroic war against the Saracens (a term used to describe Muslim Arabs). The fidjeri music, to which the classical Arabic translation and adaptation of this text are set, has its roots in the Arabian Gulf and dates back more than 800 years. Famed for their expressive solos and call-and-response choral performances, the fidjeri singers are accompanied by percussion instruments and informal choreography.
Work on the production began in March 2017, when Wael Shawky participated in a residency at Sharjah Art Foundation. During this time, Shawky worked to locate musicians and undertake rehearsals in Sharjah, and later, in Bahrain. The foundation worked closely with the artist to produce period-inspired linen and silk costuming that incorporated sherwal and jalabiya elements. The foundation’s graphic designers also helped develop the scenography, drawing on 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), which was in part supported by Sharjah Art Foundation, 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 the foundation’s production team.
The March 2018 presentation in Sharjah follows performances at Hamburg’s Kampnagel as part of the Theatre der Welt 2017 Festival, the Holland Festival in Amsterdam, Zürcher Theater Spektakel in Zurich and 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. It is funded by the Federal Agency for Civic Education, Germany.
In photographs, installations, videos and performances, Wael Shawky mines traditions of entertainment and performance through multilayered historical reconstructions that force viewers to navigate the territory of truth, myth, stereotype and cliché.