A three-day art exhibition titled Tager al-Basata (The Trader of Simplicity) opened at Cairo’s Merit bookstore for the second anniversary of the death of Hisham Rizq on July 15.
I heard about it through a friend who was struggling to get hold of a hard drive to contribute some footage to it. The exhibition was self-organized between circles of friends — it was very much a community initiative, and was difficult to hear about outside of this community. When I found my friend on the street on the day of the exhibition, I decided to follow him to Merit. The crowd was big and it grew during our wait. Upon opening, they decided to limit the audience to 30 people at a time.
Being the first group to go in, we immediately found ourselves within a system that spatially controlled our route. The exhibition could be split into four sections: the archive, the film, the performance and the finale. The first room consisted of crudely constructed walls creating narrow passageways, in which photos of Rizq and drawings by him were hung, illuminated by low-level lighting. Rizq was 19 when he died, and the material portrayed him as an artist at the beginnings of his life and practice. The chaotic curation of the photos and the intense smell of perfume imbued the room with the atmosphere of a shrine. The constriction of space made it also rather claustrophobic. The extremely personal nature of the content made me aware of the sensitive connection other audience members would have to these photos, and as an effect of this I stood more remote from the subject, like looking at it from its outside.
After the archive, we passed into next room through a blacked-out passage. A projection was set up and once all the group had arrived, the film began. By 20-year-old filmmaker Omar Mohamed, the youngest of the participating artists, it shows conversations with people connected to Rizq: his parents, his friends, and perhaps the most touching, an ice-cream seller in Alexandria he had once painted. It is set in many locations: home, street, the sea. Unable to understand all the Arabic myself, my experience of the 16-minute film was particularly formed by the travelling shots in between these people and places. TitledShams al-Maghib (Sun Sundown, 2016), it begins among the walls of Rizq’s house and his bedroom, takes you across the walls of downtown Cairo, and finally lands in the sea of Alexandria, where the camera, and effectively the viewer, is submerged. The film lends itself to the structure of a journey, and I felt I was being guided.
The camera plunges into the sea repeatedly, with flashes of footage previously seen in the film superimposed between the waters. This layering of images, accompanied by the sound of a thudding heartbeat, built an emotional crescendo in the room. Rizq’s body was found in the Nile in July 2014. The cause of his death and exactly what happened is still uncertain. Considering this, the sequence I have just described is a little obvious and perhaps lacking in subtlety. However, I refrain from making a strong criticism of this because the experience of tragedy created here reflects that of a real event, and is clear in its construction. It is not trying to mystify what it’s talking about.
Moustafa Gemi, a mime artist, was sitting among the audience in costume. Gemi and Rizq became friends during the revolution, discovered the art of mime together, and used to perform on the street. After the film, Gemi faced us with a concentrated glare that immediately broke us out of cinema-viewing mode and made us aware of ourselves as spectators. Throughout the act, there were several moments like this in which he directly confronted the audience with itself. The act involved communication between three bodies: Gemi as the mime artist, us as an audience, and a third figure that only appeared behind a screen in parts of the performance, as a shadow. This figure was intended to represent Rizq and was played by Baher Shinouda. Shinouda’s performance was rooted in dance, and incorporated very fluid movements, while Gemi’s was more about narration and his presence more weighted.
The work was conceived and choreographed by both. Gemi tells me it was intended to depict a dream scene in which he encounters Rizq. The other side of the screen exists as a separate reality in which he is able to see his friend, though only as an ephemeral figure that ultimately vanishes again. The performance was dramatic, the soundtrack too. But it was very generous in terms of storytelling and delivery, and was not scared to reveal its own vulnerability.
The performance ended in a literally shattering event. The screen was torn down, the room behind exposed, and a large elevated portrait of Rizq was revealed. This was the finale. The walls were covered in painting and drawings, and were actually a continuation of the room we had been sitting in, but could only now perceive as a whole with the lights on. Realizing we had been sitting in it all along made the unveiling more momentous. It was a very communal experience, and for myself at least, the atmosphere produced seemed to come from within the collective body. “We don’t mean to make people cry, but realize who Rizq is and what his life goals were,” says Amir Abdelghany, one of the organizers. As an artist and a “child of the square,” Rizq’s dream lived in the “concept and passion of gathering,” Abdelghany tells me. As we walked around the two rooms, the realization of a togetherness that was also confusing dawned on us. People wept, hugged and took out their phones to capture something of this feeling.
The walls were painted by Hassan Darwish, Mahmoud Nour, Shahinda Idrees, Ammar Abu Bakr, Amir Abdelghany, Mohamed Abu el Magd, Omar Nour, Osama Nasr, Moaz Hamdy, Moustafa Bogi and Ahmed Nour. Each artist had freedom over their own section of wall, but they also worked as a group to make the piece flow as one. The finished work functioned as a sort of spatial map, charting fragments of information and events surrounding Rizq’s life and death: places, dates, and faces were super-imposed upon one another, creating overlapping patterns and blocks of color, with lines or routes running everywhere. I felt the painting communicated well with the film we had just watched: It solidified themes of journeys, connections and the act of tracing memory. An object was also placed in a hollowed part of the wall. I found out it was a remnant of the Mohamed Mahmoud Street wall, famed for its portraits of martyrs of the revolution (and destroyed in 2016), upon which Abu Bakr had painted a mural of Rizq soon after the news of his death. The physicality of the object — its very weight — held significance in this context. It embodied a sense of memory that was heavy, and created a dialogue between a history of the revolution, Rizq’s death, and the present exhibition. The simple pattern on this piece of wall, surviving from the mural it once was, had been replicated and spread throughout the work.
I’d like to return to something mentioned earlier — the experience of “sitting in it all along,” where through a sudden opening we became aware of the walls around us. For me, this encapsulated a lot. It expressed a moment in which you uncover the secret that is not a secret, that actually exists all around in the everyday. Since this is often the case, the question is not about uncovering, but about what we are focusing on right now, and through what lens. This was the beauty of the exhibition — that it guided our focus in a sequence that was well-considered and clear about what to look at and when. It struck me as being like immersive theater, in which the audience moved as active participants in the performance of the work. While this approach was strong in providing an experience, however, I feel that some parts of it could have been less prescribed. In order to produce more individual and more varied readings of the work, it was perhaps necessary to allow the audience some space or silence to think for themselves in between.
Some organizers say they wanted viewers of the exhibition to not just know the story, but also be activated by it. In this case, as a whole, it could have definitely been less dramatic, particularly in terms of sound, with less focus on producing emotion as opposed to clearer concerns or questions. This would have also been more appropriate considering the secret or mystery at the heart of this story: Just before his death, Hisham Rizq publicly spoke out, on social media, against the political and religious oppression he saw in society. Whether he died for these views or whether the story is different remains unknown. What surrounds it however, and what is most important now, is the mythology being constructed around this event, led by a group of friends and spread through the medium of art. Despite everything, the exhibition was by far the most alive and interesting work I have seen recently. It spoke honestly and openly about its subject and did not shy away from being both personal and political. But it is important that the construction of this mythology is self-aware, that the artists understand what they are creating and that the figure of Rizq does not get lost in nostalgia — since mythologies stay alive and relevant when one can speak about the present through them.
Using his life history and philosophy as a guide, the exhibition was organized by a crew of around 15 young people, led by Mamdouh Gamal, aiming to “fulfill Hisham’s dream.” They go by the name of Shams al-Maghib, and bring together two main circles of his friends: art students from the Faculty of Fine Art in Zamalek where he studied, and revolutionaries met on the streets of downtown Cairo. The mixture of these two backgrounds was also apparent in the audience, and I thought the dialogue opened between the two was a very positive outcome of the exhibition. Two of the organizers from the more low-key exhibition last year, marking the first anniversary of his death, are currently in prison: Zizo Abdo and Sanaa Seif. One key organizer working on it this year was in prison last year. Therefore the network that exists behind its making is one that is flexible by force of circumstance. It exists through participation on a freely moving basis, and decisions are collectively conceived among those willing and able to be involved. For me the strongest part of the exhibition lay in its organization. The group is still relatively new and in the process of figuring out their ethos and testing out their identity. Nonetheless, in the face of political instability, they have created a model of working together that can endure through its flexibility, and is defined by its spread as opposed to its build.
A bookstore and publisher, Merit is owned by Mohamed Hashem, who is respected for supporting work that pushes against the lockdown on freedom of speech. “He did not charge any money and let us construct and paint whatever we wanted in the space,” organizer Ayman Gika Salah tells me. While I thought the venue was perfect and showed the work well, the group also did not have much choice. Everything was self-financed. They tried to obtain funding and a space, but Abdelghany tells me many cultural venues he approached in Cairo turned them away: “Nobody wants anything to do with political issues or any topic to do with the revolution.” But the exhibition did not use itself as a platform to represent the revolution, or purport any political aims as such. It was about much more than that, it was about a story — which is undoubtedly political, but then again, what isn’t?
For the art students, this is the first exhibition they have made outside of college. The group say they will continue to create something each year in memory of Hisham Rizq, to make his story better known and take his “philosophy” further. Remembrance can be a very special way to generate something new: each time you retell a story you activate it, and the event of its retelling becomes a new story in itself. I hope new things will happen from this exhibition and the discussions surrounding it.