Vale Alex Rizkalla
Alex Rizkalla lived for 66 years and 6 days and when we all came together to remember him, I was struck by the depth and strength of artistic community that Alex and Julie made real for themselves and for us too. Alex lived as artists live: thinking, reading, making, collecting, exhibiting, cooking, talking, arguing his way through life.
We share Julie Davies’ eulogy to Alex, (as delivered at the memorial service by Elvis Richardson) and also words by comrade Raafat Ishak, proving conclusively that artists can use words to make art too. More moving tributes have seldom been penned.
There are photos from the wake too, where I began thinking that art might not be so much about art shows and artworks (well it’s a bit about that), but maybe art is more of an excuse for artists to get together and talk. And there’s been no better place to have a spirited conversation of the artistic variety than at Alex and Julie’s place, at Albert Street in Brunswick. I’m glad we were invited to join in. We honour Alex Rizkalla.
Eulogy by Julie Davies:
How can I possibly describe how I feel at the moment. I feel a very deep sense of resignation, of knowing there was nothing else I could do, and no possible way of helping you, and making more time. Our last project The language of illness did some how prepare us for the farewell but my world will never be the same again and my grief will be immense.
Because this is the end of our most extraordinary thirty year collaboration; as lovers, partners, friends and artists. You exceeded my wildest expectations for what a life could be through your sheer determination to be an artist and live your life in this role making everything a project worth investigating. With you life was never boring which made the everyday meaningful.
Albert Street, your home for forty years became a cabinet of curiosities, of stories and histories both yours, mine, Deans and all the people that lived, visited and partied with us. Your generosity, guidance and argumentative nature always with a purpose, will be so sadly missed by myself and many friends.
Some suggested you were a hoarder, a claim you strongly denied, because you could locate any object, text or image from the house and bring it out to discuss around our kitchen table with whoever was interested, or not. Your ability to communicate, to respond to different suggestions where the smallest fragment or object could present endless possibilities for conversation, was remarkable.
The garden was our retreat, a collaborative experiment, that took endless hours of constantly transforming our backyard, with its overgrown fruit trees, vegie garden and the labour intensive bonsai collection you’ve left me to care for, including the 30 year old Morten Bay Fig you bought me for my 30th birthday.
And the pantry. Always overflowing with endless possibilities for us to create a meal or a banquet on any occasion. As we often did for friends and family and the artist community that grew around us. Ocular Lab dinners became an important part of your repertoire and who can forget the chickpea stews or the 7 meat cassoulet you made for Bernard Sachs Polish Game exhibition that shot your cholesterol sky high.
On our first mad adventure to Berlin in that explosive time just before the wall came down really did set the direction of what our life together would be; centred around connecting, meeting and engaging with other artists. Which like everything we did, grew to many more journeys, exhibitions, discussions and artworks. Your residencies in Berlin, Oslo, Basel and Japan enriched us enormously. It was a fortunate gift to receive the Paris studio and take you back to your favourite city for the last time in 2010 just months after you MDS diagnosis.
Yes you were a Franco-file and nothing pleased you more than visiting Paris, where you spoke the language, indulged your inner bricoleur and enjoy the cuisine. A gift from a dear friend of a truffle we cooked into a delicious omelette as one of your last meals.
When we met you worked as a teacher and social worker starting at Melbourne Boys which didn’t last long and then onto Kensington Community School before establishing the horticulture program for unemployed youth at CERES in the early 80’s. You valued the role of learning but had little time for the bureaucracy of the education system. A position many of us are coming too now.
Your political activities in the late 60’s and early 70’s were so important to you. You were a draft resistor and proud of it. Whilst you had empathy for the soldiers who returned from Vietnam you objected with your voice, actions and art to the War. Of all the documents that remain in our house the letter from the courts that states you are a pacifist is by far the most important. You sometimes wondered where the resistance has gone.
Your son Dean meant so much to you. You were so proud of his achievements and progress. And was so grateful to Margaret, his mum, and Steph his sister.
When you knew you had very limited time, you invited friends and fellow artists to visit and discuss ideas and even imagine impossible projects, this reminded you at such a precious time why art and friendship were so important in your life. You were so humbled by the response and affection shown to you during that time. Yes we liked you Alex.
It was all these moments strung together that made your story, and the time you shared with me, and I with you, together.
And in our last few days together we explored your archive looking at old works, reminiscing of times past and what things meant then and now. So I have our list of what works to re-show, works that need to be destroyed as well as the works you would leave me to make without you.
Unpacking Albert Street will be the biggest project.
I will miss you. I love you.
Alex tells me a story not that long ago. It was in 1995, not long before he went to Berlin for a residency, someone had told him that he should check out a show that was on at Gertrude street because it was by an Egyptian artist. To add insult to injury, it was suggested that he should meet that Egyptian artist. I cannot do Alex’s roaring angry voice, but as most of you will imagine, his response was:
“why would I want to see a show just because it’s by an Egyptian artist, and why would I want to meet him”.
He never told me whether he saw the show or not and I am happy not to know, but we did meet a short time later, and we became friends. I actually didn’t know he was Egyptian when I met him, I suspected he was Jewish, possibly European, with some Middle Eastern connection, I didn’t really care, that wasn’t how or why we met. In fact it took us more than ten years to clarify this mute point. We were both Egyptian. Neither of us really wanted to form an opinion on each other’s background, particularly that we always ended up arguing about the virtues of my Cairo-centric view of Egypt, which was predominantly, Arab, Coptic and Islamic, in contrast to his manically cosmopolitan and Alexandria-centric view which was European, multilingual and not so religious.
I’d been to Egypt twice since we’d known each other but he didn’t really care, in fact, he questioned why I would want to go, I could never properly respond. I knew that he would never want to go back; the memory of Egypt was painful, because his Egypt was beautiful and then it was taken away from him, forever.
Alex knew how to hold a grudge, and this very particular grudge towards Egypt, I could not disagree with. Egypt did come up in many of our very recent conversations, I helped translate some documents and articles that he inherited from his father, we spoke about Alexandria, we spoke about his childhood, his Alexandrian school and his family’s expulsion from Egypt. Egypt was a shared history, a multi faceted history that we inherited and perhaps in some ways, was what brought us very close near the end of his life.
Alex was a migrant with no real homeland, he was born in Egypt to Greek parents who sent him to a French school, until he was forced to complete his studies in Arabic and was then brought to Frankston to deal with English in 1966. Eventually he settled in Strathmore where he found the water polo swimming pool shallow in comparison to his teenage water polo years in Alexandria’s deep bays.
He was possibly a Francophile, he read French and watched French news, he felt at home in Paris, his preferred adolescent destination after Alexandria, but he did end up in West Brunswick, which I am sure many of us are eternally grateful for. Australia was perhaps never the home Alex wished for, but the community of artists and friends that he surrounded himself with were certainly his people. His many arguments and disagreements, to me at least, were a sign of his boundless generosity, he cared too much, he didn’t need to be nice about it, but in fact, I could never imagine a nicer person, he would have cringed hearing me say this, and of course argue.
Alex had time for anything and anyone; all he required was some level of intelligence, some level of knowledge, some interest in art, food, wine, discussion and a broad mind. I will never forget his response when I once asked him how he keeps his garden alive. I’m sure he looked at me like I was some tent dweller from the Cairo deserts and suggested: watering. He willingly taught a backward novice about gardening, and in turn, about how to nurture and maintain friendships. He did actually tolerate fools. He was accepting of what didn’t interest him, he was curious, at one point it was plausible that Tom and I might get him to his first AFL game.
The opposite can also be suggested; he seemed destructive at times, barking up the wrong trees, putting friends off side. I believe it was born out of frustration, nothing seemed quiet right, everything and everyone was compromised somehow, and he didn’t like it, his life had already been changed and compromised, something needed to be said and done. He did not wish the same fate on his contemporaries. This is also a sign of his generosity. He was always searching for something that could not be found, but at least he searched with heart and rigour.
Alex was not an Egyptian friend, not even an artist friend, he was just a very good friend, someone that you can enjoy silent moments with, someone you can argue with, knowing full well that the point is not there to be resolved but to be argued, he was someone who took pleasure in disagreeing. He was an anarchist, he held little regard for governance, and was fundamentally sceptical but always curious and inquisitive. Art was a means towards unknown ends that for him presented something other than what was being formulated by markets and prescribed histories.
He had an appetite for news, for knowledge. He had an incredible library, which I could only look at because I knew if I wanted to borrow something, I’d have to have very good reasons to do so, otherwise he wouldn’t let me. Yet, he was always willing to part knowledge and expertise even when he was not being asked. Occasionally he would let me borrow something and would make a point of discussing the book when I returned it. He always wanted people to understand what they were looking at, what they were reading, better still if one’s understanding did not match his, it was time for a cigarette, a wine and a good argument.
As a mutual and dear friend said in a text message earlier this week: “there aren’t words to describe this loss, Alex has taken a world with him, the loss is immense”.