Six vibrant portraits of the men killed in an attack on the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City are adorning the walls of the mosque this weekend, as the community marks the five-year anniversary of the shooting.
The portraits, created by Toronto-based 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 displayed in the main prayer room, he can't help but think of the little details that made each of his "brothers" special.
"A sportsman," said Benabdallah, pointing at a portrait of Abdelkrim Hassane. "Everyone loved him and misses him a lot. He loved sports and he loved life."
"An intellectual," he said, pointing at Mamadou Tanou Barry. "We always see him sitting in the back there, with his friends, talking."
"A charming man. Whenever I see him, he always has a smile on his face," he said, still speaking of the late Aboubaker Thabti in the present tense.
"I prefer to see them like they were back then," said Benabdallah.
Virani said this was his intention: to portray the humanity of the six men, to help them be remembered 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, which were inspired by photos submitted by the families of the six men, will be offered to the families as gifts, along with a personalized card, after Saturday's commemorations.
WATCH | Artist focuses on the six men killed by painting a portrait of each:
As he was painting, Virani, who is an Ismaili Muslim of Indian and French heritage, thought about how the men were around the same age as his own father.
"My dad brought me to mosque when I was a kid, right?" he said. "So, you know, there's that question of could it have been me, this kind of randomness of a senseless act?"
He also thought about how the photos submitted by the families captured mundane, everyday moments in the men's lives and how unaware they were of the tragedy in their future.
The black-and-white portraits convey respect for the men, while the brightly coloured spray-painted flower pattern in the background of each image is intended to be uplifting, Virani said.
"Yellow to represent hope. It's a positive colour," he said. "Green is an important colour in Islamic tradition. Green is mentioned a lot in the Qur'an associated with paradise and growth. And so I thought mixing these two colours would be meaningful."
Building a relationship
It's not the first time Virani has produced work honouring the victims of the mosque attack. At a vigil shortly after the shooting, he created a live painting — an image of two hands in prayer — and invited those in attendance to add their message to the work.
That led Virani to travel to Quebec City to present the painting, titled Stronger Together, to the mosque as a gift.
In 2018, he painted a portrait of Zébida Bendjeddou, a Quebec City woman who is well-respected in the mosque community, as part of a series called CélébronsLa.
That led the widow of one of the six men who died in the shooting to reach out through Bendjeddou to see if Virani would be interested in painting the portraits of the men.
At a commemoration in 2020, he gave each family a handmade book, illustrated with messages of support he had collected from around the world.
"I think at that point they could really trust that my intentions were clear," he said. "I think that my artistic skills and interests and 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 to support the Muslim community.
"[That] means voting for a government that supports Muslims, that combats actively against Islamophobia," he said. "[It] means donating to the mosque community … standing up when you see injustices and when you're a bystander to call things out, even if it's in a caring and soft way."
Bending the rules for a good cause
Benabdallah said Virani's "humanist" vision shows up in the artwork.
"When we look at each one, we feel that each man has something particular: humility … exuberance, kindness," said Benabdallah. "He did good work."
The mosque wanted to display the paintings ahead of this year's commemorations, even if it is unusual to have portraits hanging in a mosque.
"We don't have iconography in Islam. There are no images of people or living creatures," said Benabdallah.
"But because it's an exception, people understand that it's for the good of remembrance."
While Virani knows his portraits cannot undo the trauma and the violence the families have suffered, he hopes that seeing the faces of their loved ones painted with care will bring them a measure of peace.
"I'm hoping that the portraits can be a really small gesture, that for a minute, the families feel like others care. That others agree that this shouldn't have happened."