Characters as symbols: Resurrecting Egypt's infamous serial killers Rayya and Sakina through art

Soha Elsirgany , Saturday 15 Sep 2018

Artist Habby Khalil revisits Egypt's notorious serial killers with 11 images in a creative photography exhibition

raya sakina
Rayya and Sakina exhibition by Habby Khalil at Picasso Gallery (Photo: Soha ELsirgany)

In a photography exhibition, artist Habby Khalil presents a series of staged monochrome images inspired by Egypt’s infamous serial killers, the infamous sisters Rayya and Sakina.

The Rayya and Sakina exhibition is being held at the Picasso Gallery between 12 and 20 September, after it debuted at the Empty Quarter Gallery in Dubai.

Rayya and Sakina started their crimes in 1919, and were executed alongside their complicit husbands in 1921, the first women to face the death sentence in Egypt.

Khalil had lots of material to draw from, given how the story, trial and execution of Rayya and Sakina was widely covered in newspapers at the time. Their tale was also adapted to films, television series, and a comedy play.

The photographer wanted to present a different angle to what was out there, creating a body of work that’s both familiar, but also treads new ground.

“I am not retelling the stories but using the characters as symbols. I’m taking the side of the sisters and looking at the emotional and psychological aspects of the events,” Khalil says in an interview with Ahram Online.

Still Cinema

His photos are cinematic in the way they are staged and performative, with a studio setup and lighting. A controlled, sterile environment prevails, evoked by the plain white background which makes it seem as if the characters exist in a vacuum.

The women are in full make up and could have been seductive if they didn't appear so cold and distant. They are shadowless, like haunting ghosts, with the overhead lighting neutralizing their heavy presence.

Also a director of short films, Khalil approaches photography the same way he does film.

He works with producer Khaled Shaaban and a team to develop the set and production of the photos.

“I work in the style of staging art. Treated like cinema, everything is planned and customised to serve the idea, and the images are developed from sketches,” he says.

For this exhibition, they spent almost five months between pre-production and the exhibition, with only a few days of actual shooting.

The costumes are custom made and designed, with the subjects selected as they would be cast in a film.

Khalil presents a silent game of body language and props.

The viewer plays mix and match to understand the language of the photographer and to see how many different combinations he could come up with for the same characters and props.

Their costumes are connected as one in several scenes.

In “Confession” they are facing each other, connected with a khimar that covers their lips and nose only to reveal eyes in conversation.

Conversely, in “Follow Me”, they have their backs to each other, but are bound to one another with the same trailing headdress.

What attracted his attention during his research was how both sisters were very different in temperament and character. Despite different motives or justifications, both sisters pursued the same ends that justified the means.

Although he sought present this shyness of Sakina, and boldness of Raya, they end up seeming like two versions of the same person. You can tell they are different women, but not enough to make different characters out of them.

Two of everything

In addition to his theme of contradiction between the two sisters, Khalil also wanted to present the contrast between past and present and their often clashing ideologies.

I felt [Rayya and Sakina] were a replica of what we are living, a state of ideologies in contrast between past and present. All ideologies end up being the same, and we are all the victims,” he said.

The black and white photos are ink-jet printed on differently sized canvases, but mostly large.

“The choice of black and white reinforces this idea of contradicting ideologies. Old against new.
While the white space reflects the psychological isolation of the characters, as if they are trapped in this limbo.”

Here what differs from the historical records is that their victim is a male.

Wearing faux-leather tights, he gives off a bad boy, rock-n-roll vibe. The original sisters were taking in unsuspecting female victims, who were wearing jewelry or walked with sums of money.

The victim in Khalil’s version is also wearing jewelry, but he represents more than wealth.

“He is the new generation and their way of expressing themselves, he is the new victim of the old thoughts.”

He is also suggestively androgynous, and so in a way is also channeling the female victim.

In “Neighbours”, they stand amidst an installation of white pillars with the blood hand. The pillars look like parts of walls, but are shaped like tombstones.

Two of the strongest compositions are titled ‘Angel’ and ‘Inevitable’. In both, the subjects are in the center and face the camera, and placed next to each other they invite comparison.

In ‘Angel’ we find Rayya seated holding the victim, with a hand loosely covering his mouth as he lies in surrender between her lap and the floor.

His pose evokes Christian iconography, which Khalil chose to present Rayya’s religious tendencies.

The photo prompts the questions: who is the angel? Could she be the Angel of death or is he the angel of innocence?

Rayya had started a family and had a young girl whom she tried to shield from the crimes.

‘Inevitable’ is a more tightly framed composition, with Rayya standing behind a young girl. The photo’s title serves as the commentary from the artist.

“This photo is about how no matter how you try to hide it, the consequences will catch up and everyone will pay the price,” he says.

In all the images the women are clad in black, except for one titled ‘Justice for All’. In this photo Sakina stands in the center of the frame, dressed in a skin-toned leotard and holding a scale.

The backstory makes this more relevant. Sakina lived her life as a prostitute, and during the trials she remained indignant, screaming that she was taking her rights.

‘Ceremony,' the photo right next to the gallery's exit, features the sisters seated closely side by side. Here they function as one unit despite their differences, easing the tension stirred by the contrasts in Khalil's other images.

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