One year after martyrdom: Bakir's exhibition at Hanager provokes reflection

Ati Metwaly, Thursday 19 Jan 2012

An exhibition by Ziad Bakir - martyr of Egypt's revolution - displays a remarkable talent and provokes reflection on life's fragility


Many people cross our path in life. Some appear for moment, others stay in our lives for longer. Sometimes we are easily attracted by sparkling personalities who pull us into their world of action. But we often underestimate the wealth and profoundness of those who are not attention seekers and prefer to keep their most beautiful worlds to themselves and the people closest to them.

There was nothing showy about Ziad Bakir, martyr of the Egyptian Revolution, a remarkable soul who left this world too early, at the age of 37. Bakir’s attitude was marked by great humility and a calm voice. He listened and observed, sometimes exchanging a few sentences. At the same time, he had a bubbling energy inside him, which, though hidden from many people, was very apparent to those who were close to him. He found his own ways to let the energy out: through his artwork, family and the desert, with the latter earning him the nickname ‘desert fox’.

Ziad Bakir spent many years at the design office of the Cairo Opera House. He worked with each and every artist who stepped onto the opera stage. Bakir was an observer and a listener. He would sit with the artists and listen to their tales, then he would go to his computer and create the most noteworthy designs for the opera, ballet, symphonic concert, or dance performance he was working on.

Bakir’s exhibition at the Hanager Arts Centre represents the second time his work has gone on show to the public. In October 2010, Bakir held his very first solo exhibition. A limited number of works were displayed in the hall of the Cairo Opera House. Bakir walked me through the exhibition, happy and humbled. His mother was there, full of pride. This was one of the important stepping stones in Bakir's artistic development, as finally some light was shone on his accomplishments.

The security forces killed Bakir four months later. Today, Hanager Arts Centre gives over a large hall to Bakir’s posters, photographs and a small insight into his personal life. The newly opened hall in a revamped modern theatre, with impressive presentation and good lighting has it all... except Ziad.

Four months ago, Bakir’s family addressed the former minister of culture Emad Abu-Ghazi to hold an exhibition of his work. The Hanager Art Centre seemed to be the place that would best embrace Bakir’s artistic wealth. The current minister of culture, Shaker Abdel Hamid, helped finalise the project and opened the exhibition on Wednesday 18 January.

A graduate of the High Institute of Art Education in Zamalek – obtaining his BA in Interior Design in 1995 – Bakir lived in a home filled with art, music and literature. His interest in art was inherited from his mother, Sawsan Fouad, an interior designer herself. “It was Sawsan who kept pushing for the exhibition that would present Ziad’s work,” Mohamed Saleh Bakir tells us, seated in front of a panel entitled This year the candle burned out, displaying the last work created by his son. Posters created in January 2011 introduce the Akram Khan Dance Company, Take the Floor, Lizt Alfonso, Contemporary Arab Music and others.

“We also thought about using the art gallery at the Music Library in the Opera grounds, but the space is too small for all those works,” Mohamed Saleh Bakir asserts, adding that this specific gallery is now named Ziad Bakir’s hall. The large exhibition hall at the centre gives deserved justice to over 320 posters designed by Bakir.

Bakir’s posters represent possibly the most unique and tangible representation of performances that took place at the opera house in recent years. The exhibition concentrates on works created from 2008 onwards, which are his most mature work, whilst his work from 2010 shows an artist in his prime. Bakir used to create many designs for one performance – experimenting with ideas, content, colours and shades – creating a picture for the music.

When at the Opera House I would pass by the designers’ office, sit on a chair next to Bakir’s desk and watch him juggle between different designs. He would show thee or four versions of one poster and ask which one I liked most. Sometimes he didn’t comment on my choice, other times he would say a few words about a design that he favoured. Very often works carrying more symbolic elements - Bakir's favourites - remained on his computer, while those that were characterised by more direct vocabulary found their way onto the posters. But Bakir didn’t mind as he knew that in one way or another, his art would never be lost.

And it is this exhibition that reveals the full artistic spectrum of Bakir’s creativity. On the one hand we find works that comply with commercial requirements of the opera productions, and on the other hand posters that carry different aesthetic sensitivities. Nonetheless, none of the works compromise their artistic output.

Apart from posters, the exhibition glimpses onto Bakir’s personal life: a few pictures with his three children, family, colleagues and artists. We also find photos from his graduation ceremony and a few original paintings of set designs from his graduation project. Music of Bach, Bizet and J. Strauss played in the exhibition hall, completing Bakir's world.

The exhibition opening included also a short video directed by Tarek El-Deweiry using footage from Bakir’s life, such as a birthday celebration held at his home, before it moves to the most drastic scenes from Egypt’s 18-day revolution, ending with Bakir’s funeral on Sunday 13 March, attended by crowds of pro-democracy supporters. Ironically, Bakir had never been involved in an opposition movement before, and when on 28 January 2011 he left his home never to return, he decided to join his peers as a sign of solidarity with people demanding change. He was among the first to give his life for that change…

Though the exhibition carries a sense of sorrow, it is also a celebration of a great artist with remarkable talent whose contributions to the Cairo Opera House were perhaps not realised until it was too late. As such, the exhibition provokes many reflections about the fragility of our lives and how we often fail to notice the most precious gems crossing our paths.


The exhibition opened on Wednesday 18 January and will continue until 31 January

Hanager Arts Centre, Cairo Opera House grounds, Zamalek

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