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A quiet violence
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 27 - 09 - 2018

In Egypt, the tale of the two sisters Rayya and Sakina — the first women ever to be sentenced to death in Egypt in 1921, for luring countless women into their house with the promise of exclusive and well-priced merchandise, only to murder them by strangulation, steal their jewellery and bury the bodies within the house — has been a dramatic influence on the collective imaginary and an integral part of folk memory.
Writers and artists have not stopped interpreting the incident. But in his Picasso Gallery photo exhibition (1-12 September), the second showing of the same collection (the first was at The Empty Quarter Gallery in Dubai, in November 2017), Habby Khalil gives the tragedy an entirely new dimension.
A quiet violence
The show features 13 black and white prints of staged scenes: Khalil's usual modus operandi, and though expensive and complicated a growing trend in the Arab art world. “It's almost like a film set,” he explains, “with a script, décor, casting and lights. Everything should be accurate. Unlike other photography schools, there is almost no margin for improvisation.”
For this project, Khalil chose a young man (representing the victims, who were invariably female in reality) and two very similar-looking women. “I wanted to put the victim in a grey area,” Khalil says, “to question who the victim is. The young man's kitschy style is a symbol of the new generation. I also wanted to raise the issues of liberalism and gender equality.”
A quiet violence
The women, who have a body shape and facial features that evoke old-time grassroots Alexandria, are practically identical. Their resemblance and the indistinguishable, authentic clothes they wear — black milaya and translucent face veil — create a sense of symmetry that encourages the viewer to focus more on the action, theme and movement in each picture. The young man is bare-chested, with long hair and female accessories.
Black and white intensifies drama and contrast (between the women's age and the man's, tradition and modernity, beauty and crime). According to Khalil, “the white background represents the inner isolation of the two criminals.”
A quiet violence
The effect is instantaneous and deep. The viewer is involved in the horror, but Khalil's ability to suggest and evoke rather than depict it is the most remarkable aspect of the show. Silence predominates. The subjects' faces reflect no violence, or anger. The characters are present, they sometimes interact, but calmness and peace are all you see.
Born in 1979, Khalil is a self-taught photographer, with a professional background in animation and advertising in Dubai, Doha and Cairo. He participated in group exhibitions, notably “Amalgamation” and “Medley” (both 2018) in Dubai. He is haunted by historical and folk tropes.
In Justice for All, a solitary Sakina looks like some exotic ballerina with two incense burners mimicking the scales of justice in her hands. The eroticism reflects Sakina's vulnerability, unlike Rayya she was single and worked as a prostitute, while the incense is a reference to the sisters' method of covering up the smell of disintegrating corpses.
A quiet violence
In Neighbours, the two sisters playfully hide behind tombstones in a spacious graveyard. It is as if death has become a dear part of our daily life.
Inevitable shows the face of Rayya's daughter like a spot of light wrapped in the darkness of her mother's robes — the blind inheritance of deeds and traditions.
The Guard shows the young man in an open box like a coffin, unable to break out of the wrapping paper that keeps him inside, while in another box Sakina holds the shovel with which she will bury him.
Purge has him between the two sisters, submissively holding both their hands and wearing women's jewellery on both hands. There is a sense of peace and agreement over the crime that is taking place.
A quiet violence
The power of the pictures is that, while communicating a definite view of the incident, they invite the viewer to interpret them in various ways. In his ongoing project, Alienation, five of the best known ancient Egyptian gods appear in the flesh in various spatial frameworks questioning the nature of belief. The first stage of the project, entitled “Habbi”, was featured as a video art in Trio Biennale in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil 2017.
The artist's next photography project, “The Way to Heaven”, deals with using religion to promote negative values, questioning traditions related to women in rural areas: lack of proper educational choice, early marriage and male hegemony.
A quiet violence
“Rayya and Sakina” is a notable contribution to the status of photography in Cairo galleries, which have been reluctant to accept it as art.


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