‘I am Hymns of the New Temples’ by Wael Shawky at Sfeir Semler Gallery Karantina

Amphora with lid, 2022 Ceramic, 60 x 60 x 80 cm Installation view, Sfeir-Semler Beirut (Karantina), 2023 Courtesy of the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg

Wael Shawky presents a new exhibition at the Sfeir-Semler Gallery, at their flagship space in Karantina in Beirut. This project encompasses a diverse range of artistic expressions, including a film, sculptures, paintings, and an installation. The exhibition premieres Shawky’s “I am Hymns of the New Temples” in the Arab-speaking world, a film that serves as the centrepiece of the show.

Shawky’s film takes its inspiration from the ancient city of Pompeii, which was buried under the ashes of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. It delves into the intricate layers of interconnected societies that thrived in the ancient Mediterranean world. This cinematic work challenges the constructed narratives of human origins, highlighting how stories traverse through time and space, overlapping as one civilization fades into another’s existence.

Installation view, Sfeir-Semler Beirut (Karantina), 2023 Courtesy of the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg

The exhibition invites viewers to reflect on the construction of identities based on national narratives, often rooted in myths, mythologies, folk tales, or legends. Shawky’s film unfolds against the backdrop of Pompeii’s ruins and the Nile in Upper Egypt, featuring actors adorned with ceramic or papier-mâché masks. These actors, representing the vanished denizens of a city influenced by Greek, Roman, and Pharaonic worlds, move gracefully to Shawky’s original music, reminding us of the perpetual state of change that even the seemingly everlasting experiences.

Ceramic masks, 2022 Glazed clay, oil paint Variable dimensions Installation view, Sfeir-Semler Beirut (Karantina), 2023 Courtesy of the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg

In a nod to ancient Roman and Greek theatre traditions, the comedy and tragedy enacted within the amphitheatre ruins serve as the framework for the actors to narrate Greek myths in Arabic. This amalgamation of cultures underscores the intangible connections between civilizations and their mutual influences. It sheds light on the story of Egyptian goddess Isis, her transformation into a descendant of Greek gods, and the subsequent development of Christian iconography based on her mythology.

Shawky’s film artfully seeks to visually represent this cultural permeability and transmission. It immerses viewers in the universal human experience, from the cycle of life and death to the duality of merciful and vengeful gods. The narrative unfolds, guiding us through myths beliefs, forgotten realities, and the fiction we still rely on to make sense of the world.

The surreal hybridity of the film extends into the exhibition space, with metallic Pompeian red walls creating an infinite skyscape. This atmosphere amplifies the eerie visages of masks borrowed from the film set and the phantasmagorical colours of the paintings, all exploring the fluid nature of historical-cultural materials. These artworks metaphorically touch upon humanity’s intrinsic drive to comprehend its origins, often reinterpreting and recontextualising familiar creation narratives to suit diverse perspectives.

“I am Hymns of the New Temples” is the result of a collaboration between Shawky and the Italian Ministry of Culture and the Pompeii Archaeological Park, as part of the Pompeii Commitment project. It reflects the enduring relevance of ancient myths and their enduring impact on contemporary thought and creativity, encapsulating the essence of cultural transmission and reinterpretation across time and civilizations.

I am Hymns of the New Temples 2023 Single channel video, colour, sound, 57 minutes 43 seconds Installation view, Sfeir-Semler Beirut (Karantina), 2023 The film 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. Image courtesy of the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg

About Wael Shawki

Wael Shawky, born in 1971 in Alexandria, currently resides and works in both Alexandria, Egypt, and Philadelphia, USA. In 2010, he established MASS Alexandria, an independent nonprofit institution in Egypt, dedicated to contemporary art education, interdisciplinary research, and critical thinking. His artistic contributions have been featured in prominent global exhibitions, including venues like M Leuven Museum in Brussels, Belgium (2022), The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas, USA (2021), The Louvre Abu Dhabi in the UAE (2020), and many more. Shawky has earned numerous accolades, including the Honorary Citizenship of Palermo (2017) and the Abraaj Capital Art Prize in Dubai (2012). His works are held in esteemed international collections such as Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, MoMA New York, and Tate Collection in London.

Location: Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Karantina, Beirut

Dates: August 31 to December 29, 2023



SELECTIONS is a platform for the arts, focusing on the Arab World.

Selections editorial presents a quarterly print magazine and weekly online publication with high quality content on all subjects related to Art and Culture. Full of world-leading artworks, exquisite brand imagery, original creative illustrations and insightful written articles.
Selections Viewing Rooms presents carefully curated online art shows aiming not only to shed light on contemporary art executed by living artists, but also for viewers to buy contemporary fine art, prints & multiples, photography, street art and collectibles.
Discover the previous and current shows here.
Cultural Narratives foundation is an extensive collection that is travelling the world by leading established and emerging talents aiming to reflect the culture of the region in their works.