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This Egyptian Artist Transports Historical Figures into Our Reality With Photography

Habby Khalil tests characters from Egypt's past by placing them in our reality and uses them symbolically to tell this generation's story.

Rayya and Sakina Exhibition at Picasso Gallery

Egypt's history runs rich with myths and tales made up of heroes, gods, goddesses, kings, queens and sometimes even villains. Staged photographer and film director, Habby Khalil, is the Egyptian artist that digs into the corridor's of Egypt's past and sheds a new light on the country's historical icons and mythical figures by placing them within our reality. In doing so, he puts you in the unique position of seeing them stripped down of their reputations and legend and bringing new meaning to what we have come to know them as. What would the God Bes do if he lived in our reality? How would Cleopatra handle all the social pressures and body image issues of today's world? What happens when historical figures are snatched away from their own reality and placed in a different time frame? 

“The first art project I worked on - which is still on going – is Alienation. It’s about that moment where you lose yourself which isn’t just exclusive to Egypt’s youth but is more of a universal truth,” says Khalil.Drawing inspiration from Ancient Egyptian deities, Khalil humanises them by forcing them into human situations. By having them go through the existential crisis we’ve all been through, these deities are to a certain extent stripped of their glory. It’s at that point, “We realise none of it exists. It’s someone terrified of losing themselves as they begin to doubt all the values and beliefs that have formed their identity. So they start repeating actions they’ve stopped believing in or that have stopped working in one last frantic attempt to cling to notions that are gone.”  

The first Egyptian deity to fall in Alienation, is god of the Nile Hapi. God of the crops, lord of the birds and the fish, Hapi is famously known for an old Egyptian folkore wherein every year, a virgin is sacrificed and thrown into the Nile in his honour. In Alienation, Hapi is represented as an average man in the his bathroom. Taking a closer look, hints of the Nile have been subtly placed within the god's new environment.
“I chose a god because I don’t think anyone will have as much to lose as a god. I wanted to strip Hapi of his power by removing him from his kingdom and his people,” explains Khalil. “He’s basically redoing everything he would as a god but in a different setting which is ultimately pointless. He won’t stop though because like a lot of us, he’s stuck in the past trying to regain a former glory and refusing his new reality. We represented him as human and placed him in a bathroom that we built from scratch, away from his kingdom.”

Khalil was drawn towards staged photography because of the creative freedom the method grants its artists. The photographer adds that “It’s not attached to a person, to a place or to anything really. Any story I envision in my head, I can create.” With staged photography, every little element is set up and prepared to the last detail. With the help of his partner, Khaled Shaaban, as well as team of at least 30 people, everything is built from the ground up.

“Staged photography still isn’t that common in Egypt. Stage photography borrows much of it methods from cinema. We’re a huge team with production, a make-up artist, a stylist and more. I sketch and design everything for the project,” says Khalil. “ When I first approached galleries here, a few years ago with my newest project, no one wanted to take a risk with staged photography. So we started looking for galleries abroad when we didn’t find any takers here. We managed to get the Rayya and Sakina project to show at Empty Quarter gallery in Dubai and it was a hit. We sold so much.”  After wrapping up the Rayya and Sakina exhibition in Dubai, Khalil and his team decided to give Egypt another shot. Despite gallery owners still being somewhat skeptical and warning that September is actually dead season, the exhibition still got a good reaction. 

"People loved it and we'd like to make this type of art move a little and help grow it in Egypt," says Khalil 

For his Rayya and Sakina project, Khalil takes us on a stroll down memory lane with two of Egypt’s notorious serial killers. In using Egyptian cultural icons themselves and symbolic elements of their persona to tell the story of today’s youth and to project our common realities, the artist work hits close home for many of his audience. “I love things related to Egypt’s culture. At one point, I was reading a lot about Rayya and Sakina, and there was this newspaper that trailed their court case. What stood out to me, was that both sisters had the same goal, but were complete opposites in everything,” says Khalil of the two sisters whose story was glorified by the media and which inspired Egyptian plays, movies and TV shows. “Rayya was more of a family woman, who had a daughter and had these very traditional values. Sakina, on the other hand, was a prostitute and only cared about money. Even during their court case, Rayya sat silently and morbidly while Sakina yelled out that she’d do it all again if she got another chance.”Rayya and Sakina are part of Egyptian folklore and were infamous for their killing sprees which took place in the 20th Century. Their victims were women and the sisters were aided by their husbands. The first women and possibly only to be given the death sentence in Egypt, the two sisters’ opposing natures was used by Khalil as a metaphor for this generation’s reality.

“The contrast of the sisters’ personalities is symbolic of the traditional ideology we grew up with and the newer liberalist school of thought and their constant struggle together within us. In replacing the victim with an effeminate boy rather than a woman, I’m representing this generation of liberalism, a generation refusing to chained down by old school values,” explains Khalil of the male victim wearing womens’ clothing in an attempt to embody both genders.Khalil takes an in-depth look into Rayya and Sakina’s story and retells it story from a psychological and emotional perspective. 

"The sisters' different personality but common goal is representative of our generation in the sense that we're surrounded by a plethora of ideologies, each claiming to be the right one or the best one. In reality though, they all stem from the same place at the base; they stem from a place of greed and power,” explains Khalil. 

The Rayya and Sakina exhibition is currently showing at the Picasso Gallery until the 20th of September. 

Check out Habby's work, here.

Images courtesy of Habby Khalil. 


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