Six vibrant portraits of the men killed in an attack on the Islamic Cultural Center of Quebec adorn the walls of the mosque this weekend, as the community celebrates the fifth anniversary of the shooting.
The portraits, created by Toronto artist and former Montrealer Aquil Virani, show the smiling faces of Ibrahima Barry, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Abdelkrim Hassane, Azzeddine Soufiane and Aboubaker Thabti.
When the mosque’s co-founder, Boufeldja Benabdallah, looks at the portraits on display in the large prayer hall, he can’t help but think of the small details that make each of his “brothers” special.
“A sportsman,” said Benabdallah, pointing to a portrait of Abdelkrim Hassane. “Everyone loved him and he misses him a lot. He loved sports and he loved life.”
“An intellectual,” he said, pointing to Mamadou Tanou Barry. “We always see him sitting in the back, with his friends, talking.”
“A charming man. Every time I see him, he always has a smile on his face,” he said, still talking about the late Aboubaker Thabti in the present tense.
“I prefer to see them as they were back then,” Benabdallah said.
Virani said that was his intention: to portray the humanity of the six men, to help remember them for how they lived rather than just how they died.
“They were real people with real lives, real families and real dreams,” he said.
The portraits, based on photos submitted by the families of the six men, will be given to families as gifts, along with a personalized card, after Saturday’s commemorations.
While painting, Virani, who is an Ismaili Muslim of Indian and French descent, reflected on the fact that the men were around the same age as his own father.
“My father took me to the mosque when I was a child, didn’t he?” he said. “So, you know, there’s this question of whether it could have been me, this kind of chance of a foolish act?”
He also reflected on how the photos submitted by the families captured mundane, everyday moments in the men’s lives and how unaware they were of the tragedy of their future.
The black-and-white portraits convey respect for men, while the pattern of brightly spray-painted flowers in the background of each image is meant to be uplifting, Virani said.
“Yellow to represent hope. It’s a positive color,” he said. “Green is an important color in the Islamic tradition. Green is often mentioned in the Quran, associated with heaven and growth, so I thought mixing these two colors would be meaningful.”
Build a relationship
This is not the first time that Virani has produced a work in honor of the victims of the mosque attack. At a vigil shortly after filming, he created a live painting – an image of two praying hands – and invited those present to add their message to the work.
This led Virani to travel to Quebec to present the painting, titled stronger togetherto the mosque as a gift.
In 2018, he painted a portrait of Zébida Bendjeddou, a Quebec woman highly respected in the mosque community, as part of a series titled Let’s CelebrateThe.
This led the widow of one of the six men who died in the shooting to drop by Benjeddou to see if Virani would be interested in painting the men’s portraits.
At a commemoration in 2020, he presented each family with a handmade book, illustrated with messages of support he had collected from around the world.
“I think at that time they could really believe that my intentions were clear,” he said. “I believe that my artistic skills, my interests and my passions should be of service to the community.”
He hopes the art will inspire those who see it to go “beyond gestures and beyond messages” to take action for the Muslim community.
“[That] means voting for a government that supports Muslims, that actively fights Islamophobia,” he said.[It] means donating to the community of the mosque… standing up when you see injustices and when you are a spectator to speak out, even if it is in a caring and gentle way.
Bend the rules for a good cause
Benabdallah said Virani’s “humanistic” vision comes across in the artwork.
“When you look at each one, you feel that each man has something special: humility…exuberance, kindness,” Benabdallah said. “He did a good job.”
The mosque wanted to exhibit the paintings ahead of this year’s commemorations, although it is unusual to have portraits hung in a mosque.
“We don’t have iconography in Islam. There are no images of people or living creatures,” Benabdallah said.
“But because it’s an exception, people understand it’s for the sake of remembrance.”
While Virani knows his portraits cannot undo the trauma and violence that families have suffered, he hopes seeing the faces of their loved ones painted with care will bring them some peace.
“I hope the portraits can be a very small gesture, that for a minute families feel like others care. That others agree that it shouldn’t have happened.”