Egypt's "Godmother": Artist Gazbia Sirry
Updated: Oct 30
"On my passport it says that I am an artist painter, not a professor or any other title. I prefer to be a free woman." Gazbia Sirry in front of an Egyptian temple, ca. 1970s
(Photo @Art Talks, Egypt archive, Photographer unknown)
For 70 years, the artist, Gazbia Sirry, chronicled Egypt’s history “vacillating between triumph and defeat, dignity and humiliation, social justice and inequality”, and “arguably birthed a new identity that makes no distinction between seeing and militancy”.
“I embrace the world. I am always interested in politics, economics, the social changes that are happening and the crises we are witnessing. All these events affect me. I do not draw or paint them; I paint reactions to them,” the artist told Mariam Hamdy in The Female Pharaoh (July 2011).
“I was always alone in my work. I never copied, nor was I heavily influenced by foreign artists. The fruits of my labor came completely from within me, and I am Egyptian. . . My Egyptian-ness is derived from my love for my country and the fact that I belong here. Putting love aside, it is simple: Egypt is my root. When it grows and becomes a plant and a being, it is useless to ask: ‘Why did you grow this way?’ I just did.”
According to When Modern Art Form Meets Politics (June 30, 2021), Post Notes on Art in a Global Context, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York:
“Notwithstanding the historical significance of her art – and the international recognition that has come with a record of 75-plus one-woman shows across continents – Sirry is surprisingly under-studied, and her art is described predominantly in technical terms centered on ‘color’."
The artist in front of Life on the Embankment of the Nile (1960)
The American University in Cairo (AUC) gives us another opportunity to study Gazbia Sirry’s work. An exhibition of her work, October 23 to December 23, at the Center of Arts (Aisha Fahmy Palace) in Zamalek showcase landmark pieces that include some that she donated to AUC, including three sections of the 10-meter mural, Life on the Embankment of the Nile as well as 14 of 16 paintings of a 2008 donation, reported AUC (October 16).
“Educated in Egypt and Europe, Sirry built one of the most influential careers in 20th-century modern Arab art. Divided into three overlapping phases, her paintings blur art and politics as they narrate the story of societies vacillating between triumph and defeat, dignity and humiliation, social justice and inequality. Sirry arguably birthed a new identity that makes no distinction between seeing and militancy,” according to When Modern Art Form Meets Politics.
“As she fluidly moved between styles, this . . . grande dame became the national godmother to an entire nation.”
Gazbia Sirry taught at AUC and Helwan College of Fine Arts, her renamed alma mater.
According to AWARE (Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions), which was founded in 2014 in Paris to make visible the work of women artists of the 19th and 20th century by publishing online content of their work:
“Aware of the inequalities between the genders, without openly declaring herself a feminist, G. Sirry objected to the separation of women and men in the Egyptian Fine Artists Association founded in 1979 and resigned from her teaching positions at the Helwan College of Fine Arts and the American University following the suppression of nude art classes for religious reasons.”
The Female Pharoah reports that she resigned from her academic posts when she felt that the academic curriculum in both universities were suppressing creative expression.
“I stopped teaching when they prohibited modeling, when they started to prohibit all sorts of things that were considered normal and when opinions on what was ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ prevailed. I did not believe art could be taught this way and I wanted nothing to do with it.”
With regard to separation of the sexes, Sirry reasons:
“Why should we be separated? It was a ridiculous idea. The problem was that it was suggested by the women themselves!” she exclaims.
As a woman artist, her confidence never faltered:
“I just did not care. I just did what I wanted and lived how I wanted. No one stopped me.”
Gazbia Sirry (left) at her first solo exhibition, Museum of Egyptian Art, Cairo, March 1953 (Photo @Gazbia Sirry Family)
Gazbia Sirry (October 11, 1925 – November 10, 2021) was born in Cairo into an aristocratic family. She was raised by her widowed mother and divorced grandmother. Only last year, she died at age 96.
She graduated from the Institut Superieur des Beaux-Arts Pour Jeunes Filles (Cairo), where her dissertation traced Egypt’s political history. She continued study at the studio of the painter and engraver, Marcel Gromaire, in Paris (1951), then in Rome (1952) and London, where she obtained a postgraduate degree from the Slade School of Fine Art (1955), according to AWARE. (Coincidentally, the renowned Portuguese painter, Paula Rego (January 26, 1935 – June 8, 2022) was an undergraduate student at Slade at the time Sirry was there.)
Meanwhile, the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 was a period of profound societal, economic and political change that began with the toppling of King Farouk in a coup d’etat by army officers led by Mohamed Naguib, Egypt’s first president, and Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s second president, according to The Suez Crisis of 1956 and Its Aftermath: A Comparative Study of Constitutions, Use of Force, Diplomacy and International Relations (July 2015), Boston University School of Law. The revolutionary government moved to abolish the constitutional monarchy and aristocracy of Egypt and Sudan, establish a republic, end British occupation and secure independence of Sudan. It adopted a nationalist, anti-imperialist agenda expressed through Arab nationalism, pan-Africanism and international non-alignment.
Back home in Egypt, in 1952, Sirry joined the Modern Art Group, according to the Dalloul Art Foundation, a Beirut-based visual arts institution dedicated to making modern and contemporary Arab art accessible:
“These artists were anxious to participate in developing an authentic Egyptian art, yet they did not flatly reject Western pictorial means of expression; instead, they combined them with local iconographic elements.”
According to AWARE: “The hieratic figures outlined in black that characterize her paintings from the 50s and 60s borrow as much from pharaonic sepulchral paintings from the Coptic tradition, as well as from lithographic techniques. Her numerous depictions of women and working class were pertinent to nationalist iconography, contributing to G. Sirry’s acknowledgement in official spheres and earning her state grants and exhibitions at governmental venues. However, G. Sirry’s relationship with (President) Nasser’s regime was a complex one, as it had imprisoned her husband.”
Sirry’s husband, Adel Sabet (1924-2018), was a journalist and geologist. He was arrested in 1959 and imprisoned for more than two years.
Gazbia Sirry, Two Wives (1953). “At the center, the new wife sits on the floor, looking straight at the viewer. In her arms, a newborn baby . . . is latched to her breast. The first wife sits miserably behind her replacement. Grieving, the latter’s two teenage daughters console her as they feel responsible for their mother’s misfortune,” writes the Museum of Modern Art piece."
The Dalloul Art Foundation writes:
“The life of Cairo’s working-class neighborhoods became an important source of inspiration for Sirry during the 1950s when she refused to join her family in their move to the posh neighborhood of Manial al-Roda. During this time, Sirry rented a room in Helmeya in order to stay in touch with the reality of poverty, which impacted the majority of the Egyptian people. Her neighbors served as models for some of her paintings, such as Umm Ratiba (1952), Umm Antar (1953), and Both Wives (1953).
“These portraits of mothers were presented at her first personal exhibition, held in 1953 at the Museum of Egyptian Modern Art in Cairo. Women of all social classes are recurrent protagonists in Sirry’s early work, which emphasizes their strength and individuality. These paintings reflect upon the role of women in nationalism, an arena in which women are traditionally flattened to mere allegories. . . .
“The paintings also reflect debates, ongoing since the beginning of the 20th century, on women’s rights within the family and society in Egypt. The Teacher (1954) for example, addresses women’s labor as well as their role and their recognition as educators.”
Gazbia Sirry, Umm Saber (1952), oil on hardboard (98 by 68 cm). (@ArtTalks, Egypt Archive)
She also paints a woman from the countryside who resisted British occupation and, consequently, was killed by British soldiers.
“Umm Saber (1952) is a tribute. . . The painting depicts a rural woman dressed in a traditional loose-fitting black gown. Staring out at the viewer, her eyes are filled with fear and she is leaning backward. On the right, three men attempt to hold her before she collapses, while on the left, a young boy, probably her son, raises his tiny arms as he seeks to grab his mother’s attention. In the background, a dozen small figures dressed in similar uniforms and holding rifles stand behind barbed wire. A two-dimensional solid ground separates the soldiers from Umm Saber. Evocative of ancient Egyptian painting, the main figures are characterized by an absence of linear perspective, which results in a seemingly flat and static scene. Darker than the woman, the three men and the boy are shown in profile, their eyes drawn from a frontal view to infuse the surrealistic elements with Sirry’s ancient past,” according to When Modern Art Form Meets Politics.
Picture of Fatma, also known as Umm Saber, a rural peasant killed by British soldiers, on demonstration posters during a women's protest led by political activist and painter, Injy Efflatoun, Cairo, 1951 (Photo @ArtTalks, Egypt Archive)
Sirry also paints urbanity.
Gazbia Sirry, Song of the Revolution (1952). Oil on hardboard (89.5 x 69 cm). Private collection, Bahrain. (Photo @ArtTalks, Egypt Archive)
“Two emancipated upper-class urban women represent the dawn of a new era. A tribute to the Revolution of July 23, 1952, and the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy, Song of the Revolution, also painted in 1952, depicts two fashionably dressed women with strikingly short hair, gazing at the unknown. Rendered in horizontal shades of red, white, green, and black, the women’s clothes blend the colors of the old royal and the new liberation flags to symbolize the rite of passage.
“One woman plays the piano while the other is standing. Portrayed with a falcon face reminiscent of Horus, the emblem of the revolution, the standing woman places her birdlike hand firmly on the illegible music note, bare except for the word nashid (chant or anthem).”
Gazbia Sirry, Kare'at al-Kaf (Fortune Teller), 1959. Oil on canvas, 89.5 x 69 cm. (Courtesy of Gazbia Sirry Family and Zamalek Art Gallery, Cairo) (Photo @ArtTalks, Egypt Archive)
By 1959, Sirry was working in a new stylistic zone. Fortune Teller (1959) marks the break between representational painting and the beginning of the abstract period, writes When Modern Art Form Meets Politics:
“Meticulously constructed around the symbolism of colors developed in ancient Egypt, the face and belly of the central figure flaunt the blue color that routinely symbolizes fertility and rebirth. The diamond-shaped belly hints at the amulets used to protect the pregnant. While the yellow/gold face stands for the eternal, the choice of a striking red body indicates life and victory, and anger and fire. Facing the viewer, the central figure displays swollen breasts, a rounded belly, and possibly an embryo, cradled by a pale hand.”
Gazbia Sirry, Detention (1962)
Sirry’s move toward geometric abstraction began in the late 1950s. It accelerated from 1965, following a residency at the Huntington Hartford Foundation in Pacific Palisades, California, where Sirry became acquainted with abstract expressionism.
“The defeat of Egypt and its Arab allies by Israel in the Six-Day War, which occurred shortly thereafter in 1967, is also considered an influential factor in the transformations of the artist’s work (as noted, for example, by Jessica Winegar in Creative Reckonings, 2006). Ushering in the collapse of the pan-Arab dream and the death knell of Nasserist ideology, the 1967 defeat inspired both despair and patriotism in many Egyptians,” according to the Dalloul Art Foundation.
Gazbia Sirry, Women-houses, 1978. Oil on canvas
Earlier realism gave way to abstract forms: houses became human forms became houses.
Chika Okeke-Agulu, professor at Princeton University, in Huffpost (January 27, 2016), writes:
“In the late 1960s, following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Sirry’s previously well-formed figures and landscapes – reflecting the certainty of hope in the wake of the 1952 Gamal Abdel Nasser-led Revolution – began to dissolve. The earlier pictorial realism incrementally gave way to abstract forms: houses became human forms became houses. Painting became, it seems, a process of meditation about the nature of the human, and about the imagined community.”
President Anwar Sadat changed Egypt’s trajectory in his 11 years as president from 1970 to 1981. He re-instituted a multi-party system and inaugurated the Infitah economic policy, which opened the door to private investment. He led Egypt in the Yom Kippur War, also known as the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, to regain Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which Israel had occupied since the Six-Day War of 1967, making him a hero in Egypt and, for a time, the wider Arab world.
Afterwards, Sadat negotiated with Israel, culminating in the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. He and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin won the Nobel Peace Prize. Reaction to the treaty was favorable generally among Egyptians. However, the Muslim Brotherhood and the left rejected it because they felt that Sadat had abandoned efforts to ensure a Palestinian state. (The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 by an Egyptian schoolteacher who preached applying Islamic Sharia law to all aspects of life.) In the Arab world, Sadat was almost universally condemned, according to Peace With Israel, U.S. Library of Congress.
Gazbia Sirrey, Mother Desert (1973), oil on canvas (71 x 98 cm)
This period of openness accelerated the internationalism of Sirry’s career, reports AWARE.
In the 1970s, she began painting the desert, where geometric shapes populate a landscape composed of bands of color.
“Her style becomes almost abstract here, scraping and carving pictorial material to emphasize
the texture of the surface, as in Composition from the Desert (1974). She continued to explore the theme of the desert in 1984-1985, when she moved to Tunisia with her husband,” according to the Dalloul Art Foundation.
Gazbia Sirry. The Kite (1960) “reflects the emergence of new political and cultural anxieties”,
In 1993, Sirry held a residency at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. In the same year, the museum held the first exhibition devoted to Arab women artists held by a Western institution. Despite her reluctance to be categorized by her gender, Sirry was one of 70 artists from 15 countries who were represented in Forces of Change: Artists of the Arab World, according to AWARE (Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions).
After the exhibition’s tour throughout the United States, she donated her three works to the National Museum of Women in the Arts. In 2009, she donated The Kite (1960) to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Tahrir Square in central Cairo became the focal point of the 2011 Revolution.
(Photo by Getty Images)
In 2011, mass protests in Tunisia had forced the long-time, dictatorial President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee his country, reported BBC News (February 9, 2021). Could it happen in Egypt, many wondered.
After Sadat’s assassination in 1981, Hosni Mubarak became Egypt’s fourth president. For three decades, Mubarak, nicknamed the pharaoh after the ancient all-powerful monarchs, had ruled Egypt with an iron fist.
“Social media was abuzz with one sentence: ‘The answer is Tunisia.’ Somehow it was hard to believe that it could happen here.
“It was 25 January, National Police Day, and there had been rare calls on Facebook for protests against police brutality and poor living standards. However, the authorities did not expect much of a response because strict emergency laws prohibited most mass gatherings.
“Then, suddenly, I heard reports that thousands of demonstrators demanding political and economic reforms had poured into the streets of Cairo. Immediately, I drove the short distance to Tahrir Square in the center of the city and could not believe my eyes.
“It was an extraordinary sight: young men and women from all walks of life crowding into the heart of the capital and chanting the same thing: ‘The people want the fall of the regime.’
“They were not from opposition parties or the Muslim Brotherhood, which was then Egypt’s most organized Islamist group. Most were regular Egyptians who were bravely taking part in anti-government protests for the first time. . . .
“When, finally, on 11 February, (after 18 days), Mubarak stepped down, there was an outburst of joy and euphoria.
“But it was not to last.”
Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, became Egypt’s first democratically elected president. However, in 2013, after one year in power, he was ousted by popular protests supported by the armed forces.
In 2014, Egypt elected President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, another military strongman, reported BBC News. Instead of freedom and social justice, the authorities systematically crack down on activists, bloggers, journalists and entrepreneurs.
In April 2019, the Egyptian constitution was amended to pave the way for Sisi to stay in power until 2030.
Gazbia Sirry, Untitled (Hope), 2013. (Image courtesy Zamalek Art Gallery, Cairo)
Following the 2011 Revolution and the 2013 coup, the octogenarian artist had two solo exhibitions at the Zamalek Gallery in Cairo: Time and Place in 2012 and Hope . . . Always in 2014.
Gazbia Sirry, Untitled (Hope), 2013. (Image courtesy Zamalek Art Gallery, Cairo)
The 2011 Revolution was the second revolution in Gazbia Sirrey's life. The Egyptian Revolution of 1952 had occurred 59 years in the past when she was 27, distant enough, perhaps, for her to interpret some of its success. She was 86 for the second revolution. One could say that it takes long years of living to still see hope, to be old enough not to be fanatical but young enough, at heart, to still uphold ideals.
“As these late paintings show, she has come close to that point only few artists are privileged to reach: that moment when the hand, mind and paint engage in a mystical dance, a spare dance along the edges of the imagination,” writes Chika Okeke-Agulu, professor at Princeton University, in Huffpost (January 27, 2016). “There is something effortless, yet powerfully restrained; loquacious, yet meditative about her handling of paint in these canvases.
“Now, as these recent works suggest, painting for Sirry is, as never before, a resolutely potent medium for pondering the nature of being, of time and fate. Each and every mark she makes now come across as, not simply an exercise in manipulation of paint or of composing pictorial space, but an act of opening the window of the imagination to allow us to feel the inchoate order that existed and still exists before and beyond the world we know.”
Gazbia Sirry, Untitled (Hope), 2012. (Image courtesy Zamalek Art Gallery, Cairo)
Sirry says in The Female Pharoah: “The difference between a true artist and an amateur is drama. The most important thing – a work of art is drama and the expression of this drama and deep experience that the artist goes through. If an artist cannot express what he/she has absorbed, then he/she simply is not an artist.
"On my passport, it says that I am an artist painter, not a professor or any other title. I prefer to be a free woman."