Four years ago, an aspiring caricaturist, graffiti artist and pantomime enthusiast, Hisham Rizq, enrolled in Helwan University’s Faculty of Fine Arts with his friend Amir Abdelghany. Less than a year later, on Wednesday July 2, 2014, Rizq’s body was found in Zeinhom morgue. The 19-year-old had disappeared four days earlier; the autopsy report stated the cause of death as drowning in the Nile, and the incident was never investigated further.
This month, Abdelghany and six of Rizq’s friends — Osama Nasr, Mohamed Hassan, Mohamed Abdol-Magd, Mamdouh Gamal, Mostafa “Jimmy” Gamal and Mohamed Omar — organized the third self-funded memorial exhibition for the artist. At the headquarters of Merit Publishers in downtown Cairo, lent to them free of charge by publisher Mohamed Hashem, they were joined by six more young people who volunteered after seeing the first and second memorial exhibitions, which each had separate concepts and a flexible team of organizers. Chitra Sangtani wrote at length about last year’s exhibition and the inspiring way in which it was organized here.
A member of the April 6 Youth Movement, Rizq had many friends among both his art school colleagues and the revolutionaries active in Tahrir Square. Abdelghany says Rizq was “artistically born” during the period after the revolution, explaining that he was also part of the Revolution Artists Association, which organized the Mad Graffiti Week from in January 2012, gathering graffiti artists from all backgrounds and levels of experience. “All kinds of things were allowed during the time of the revolution,” Abdelghany remembers. Rizq spent a lot of time making graffiti and performing pantomime to people on the street.
From July 19 to 21 at Merit, Mostafa “Jimmy” Gamal performed pantomime sketches every half an hour before a mourning audience, who could also view a short untitled film by Tarek al-Geddawy on the exhibition’s ideas about oppression and action, murals and a portrait of Rizq by Ammar Abu Bakr, once part of the famous Mohamed Mahmoud Street graffiti wall. Beneath imagery of a clock, a rifle, maps, timelines and angels — all painted in the thick-outlined figurative style with pharoanic and fantastical elements that was popular among graffiti artists working in Cairo’s public space after the revolution — were strewn gas masks and tear gas canisters, spent bullets and rubble, and police caution tape.
Mokhtar Mounir, a lawyer who defends graffiti artists, says that graffiti production has declined in Egypt since its peak during the 2011 revolution. “Graffiti was present before the January 25 revolution,” he starts. “There was no grip tightened on the artists, probably because people didn’t really care or weren’t aware of what they were up to. It got really popular during the revolution, it was at its peak like many other tools of self-expression, and the state wasn’t exerting any effort to fight it off.”
In the run up to June 30, 2013, the state started to crack down on graffiti, Mounir says. Security forces would confiscate tools and paint, and in some cases arrest graffiti artists, but even though the law gives the state the right to sentence them up to six months in prison, Mounir says he never saw artists get jailed. “After June 30, the state started to adopt a hostile attitude against graffiti artists,” the lawyer continues. “They began erasing or painting over graffiti, then things escalated to arrests on charges of distorting the view and damaging public property.”
Before he disappeared, Rizq, Abdelghany and another friend had gone to Alexandria to brainstorm ideas for an exhibition Rizq had in mind, Abdelghany says. On the day they planned to return to Cairo, Rizq, always fiercely independent, had to leave Alexandria three hours earlier than the others, for reasons he didn’t disclose and that remain unknown. His body was found four days later.
The following year in 2015, Rizq’s friends decided to bring their friend’s exhibition idea to life as a way to help people remember him, his art and his approach to life. Named The Trader of Simplicity, the first memorial exhibition for Rizq gathered around 450 people who mostly came to mourn their deceased friend. Presenting Rizq in a dramatic way, documenting his art and other activities, the exhibition was organized by artists and activists, including Zizo Abdo and Sanaa Seif.
The second, in 2016, started raising questions about his mysterious death: drawings on the walls symbolized the revolution, mysteriously subverted, as well as maps, timelines and infographics charting Rizq’s own journey. There was a deliberate reflection of the organizers’ anger at the confusion and passiveness that greeted his death. The visitors consisted of around 300 artists, cinematographers and academics.
This year’s exhibition had around 200 visitors, many of them capturing the event on their mobile phones. “We stopped presenting Hisham as a character, and we delved more into his philosophy, his resistance, his ideas and everything else that had inspired him,” Abdelghany says. “The pantomime sketches and visual arts performed were all analyses of Hisham’s philosophy.”
Any artworks belonging to the organizers return to their owners at the end of each exhibition, while the ones that permanently belong to the exhibition get either sent to Abdelghany’s studio or find homes with fine arts students.
“We want to immortalize Hisham’s memory, his ideas and philosophy inspired by the revolution, its spirit and its flame that has been blown out,” Abdelghany says. “We want to immortalize the feeling that overwhelmed us six years ago, the one that people are trying to forget.”
All photos by Mohamed El Raai