The corridors of the maternity hospital were packed with doctors, medical staff and even patients who had got up from their beds. Security personnel fought with passersby who were trying to get in and reach room 113.
They wanted to make sure that the Rhino Child had arrived — or was it just another rumor? They’ve been patient for so, so long, waiting for Him to save the world and bring them salvation — the salvation they’ve been promised in the holy scriptures, folktales, stories their grandparents used to tell them, the salvation prayed for by their religious leaders at times of strife. Is He really sleeping in room 113?
(Translated by Mada Masr from The Rhino Story)
This is one of 21 “scenes” which Egyptian artist Mohamed Abdelkarim carefully constructs in his art book The Rhino Story, launched this July at Cairo’s Mashrabia Gallery. And it is with such vivid episodes that he invites his readers to engage with his character, a rhino. But the text is not the sole element: Also included are eight reproductions of paintings produced in parallel to the story by Cairo-based artist Ahmed Sabry. The gallery showed a larger collection of the paintings as an exhibition under the same title.
The narrative and paintings are captivating, making allusions to contemporary moments and mixing them with histories of orchestrated violence. In fact the inspirational text was Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, first published in 1909. As the two artists were hundreds of kilometers apart and used a strict method for producing their collaborative work, the project took exciting turns.
In 2011 Abdelkarim was in Beirut attending the independent arts study program Home Workspace. Sabry was in his home-studio in Cairo. They decided Abdelkarim would send Sabry the text scene by scene as he was writing. Sabry would then start working on them, taking the text as a starting point to push the story in new directions. Each artist-friend would send their work to the other, but neither was allowed to comment on what was sent to them.
Abdelkarim and Sabry talked to Mada Masr over Skype about the process of developing Rhino Story and their responses were edited into this interview.
Mada Masr: How did this collaboration come about?
Ahmed Sabry: Before Abdelkarim proposed the project, I was already looking for a literary work, a novel or a story, to respond to with my paintings. I’ve been critiquing mass media for a while now in my work, focusing mostly on television — as television takes a story or event and re-produces it in a different format; it interprets it, producing new meanings. So I wanted to follow the same process with different sources, in this case a literary work. I saw this as a natural development. It was coincidental that Abdelkarim emailed me saying he was working on a story and wanted someone to reproduce it in another art form.
Mohamed Abdelkarim: Yes, I was researching Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto. The main things that drew me to it were the aesthetics of mechanization and the industrial production of weaponry and warplanes. Another part was related to the glorification of violence and searching for its aesthetics. I was trying to reproduce the manifesto by constructing an allegory similar to those in holy texts like the Bible or Quran — the main element being a rhino. Every time it’s mentioned it’s different — it could refer to me, the “chosen one,” or sometimes even a particular incident.
I wanted to work with Sabry on this idea for two reasons. For starters, it eases the responsibility of tackling such a problematic and fascist viewpoint as Marinetti’s. The responsibility is diluted among the collaborators. But I also think this collaboration enriches the work as Sabry was not invited to illustrate the text, but take it as a starting point and layer it with his own references and interpretations.
MM: But why did you chose to use a rhino as your protagonist?
MA: The rhino is on the verge of extinction. It aggressively attacks in a straight line, which reflects a radical and uncompromising way of thinking. I used it to reflect this idea when I contributed to the artist book Fifteen Ways to Leave Badiou (2011), produced by the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum. And I wanted to continue using it as a symbol in reproducing Marinetti’s manifesto.
AS: It works well as a symbol because it’s violent by nature and can’t see well. So it attacks whatever it sees in front of it before thinking. It reflects this conflict between new and old ideas.
MM: How did Abdelkarim introduce the project?
AS: He first sent me the manifesto to explain his references. The actual scenes hadn’t been written yet. Abdelkarim wrote the scenes as I painted them and sent them to me one at a time. I didn’t know how it would turn out while working. We were producing at the same time, and we agreed not to discuss or interfere with each other’s work. Whatever came out of this process became the artwork.
MA: It was important that we work in parallel. I shared a Google Doc with Sabry so he could follow the writing as it happened and he sent me images of the paintings as he developed them. That’s why I sent him all the references before we started, so he’s not really working through me but in parallel.
MM: Could you talk a bit more about the actual process of producing the work? How did the scenes or images you saw affect the work you were still doing?
AS: Abdelkarim wasn’t writing the scenes in an order. They don’t feel like a novel when you read them, but like film scenes. So my paintings came out in the same way. The scenes propose ideas and stories, but it isn’t a storyboard. Each time he sent a scene, I took it as my starting point and added my own viewpoint and interpretation.
This was also possible because glorifying violence is more of a philosophical thing that Abdelkarim approaches in his work abstractly. The character (the rhino) feels like a human with so many details in its life — it gets entangled in problems it has nothing to do with and sometimes reacts violently to things or in self-defense. In my paintings I used the general context as inspiration. I also used real life events or news stories or images I saw in my daily life. Some of the characters I paint might initially seem far from the context of the story. For example there’s the painting with the pigs and a guy spraying liquid. It’s an image I recreated from the 2010 killing of pigs in Lebanon Square. It’s not mentioned in the scenes, but I felt it was relevant to the story. Also the painting of the guy in the mask — it’s inspired by a famous wrestler I watched on television while working on the paintings. I felt his character was somewhat similar to the rhino’s so I painted him and put the rhino mask on him. I worked on the actual scenes, but also weaved things in that I saw or remembered.
MM: How did you decide on the form through which you’d exhibit the final work with the public?
AS: We were thinking whether to show the text and images together or separately. We decided to present them together so people could get a hint at how the project came about. But I feel that this wasn’t necessary because it’s the final artwork that’s important to the public. Also, people reading the story and seeing the paintings might not necessarily see the relationship.
MA: While working on the scenes and paintings with Sabry, I wasn’t really thinking of how they’d be shown — I was more interested in the process. In the end, we included the 21 scenes in English and Arabic and 12 of the paintings printed in the middle of the book, so readers wouldn’t interpret them as illustrations. And of course there’s the exhibition of the paintings. We decided not to highlight the process as that felt like we were trying to justify the work that came out of it. If I wanted to make the process visible, I’d have done it differently — online or in some other way so people could watch us as we worked scene by scene and painting by painting.
MM: Some people are interpreting the rhino and the context as being about the Egyptian revolution because it was shown at the height of political polarization.
MA: It’s true that some scenes deal with personal experiences with the revolution, yet in very abstract ways. Others have nothing at all to do with it. I wanted to create an allegory about violence — it’s an idea I’ve been working on for a while and across different mediums. It’s not meant to tell a specific story or be conclusive in any way. I tried to clearly emphasize this through the book’s subtitle: “21 paragraphs,” meaning scenes. They’re separate. And in each, the rhino plays a different role like a scene in a film with sharp cuts and no transitions — it’s not a linear narrative.