Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1313, (29 september - 5 October 2016)
Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Issue 1313, (29 september - 5 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Fused into it

Rania Khallaf reviews the life of a legend

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Al-Ahram Weekly

“I feel I am fused into various elements of nature and life such as human beings, the desert, the sea, plants, and even man-made constructions.”

That is how Gazbia Sirry introduces the picture book, Lust for Colours, published in 1996 and featuring critical studies and reproductions of her paintings from 1945 to the end of 1980s. Celebrating her 91st birthday, now, the prestigious Zamalek Art Gallery is holding a retrospective exhibition entitled “Art is My Life”, which includes some 65 oil paintings representing the artist’s career. It is to open on 11 October, also marking the gallery’s own 15th anniversary. Standing before Sirry’s paintings, old and new, feels like confronting all of contemporary Egypt: The defeats, moments of cheerfulness, nature, the simple and kind people, and the architecture.

It is fascinating to see the extent to which Sirry, born on 11 October 1925, has interacted with Egypt’s political and social history, how her paintings stand as a witness to all that took place in Egypt from the mid-20th century until 2014, when she finally stopped painting due to health issues. This retrospective exhibition demonstrates Sirry’s boundless appetite for different artistic methods and her fearless exploration of them. It showcases all the styles of painting she practiced, with a special focus on both her very early realist portraits and her very late minimalist paintings. While the artist’s early paintings are characterised by a bold depictions of the human figures, her abstract style was developed after 1965 when she ended a three-year fellowship at the Huntington Harford Foundation in Los Angeles.

The Kite (1960), one of her iconic paintings, depicts a girl flying her kite over buildings, where her body is bigger than her house. It is one of her landmark expressions of women’s awakening. Grief, a transitional painting of 1967, executed after Egypt’s defeat in the war with Israel, is another iconic painting, which features a portrait of a bereaved woman in black, against a background of dark walls, a yellow pyramid and the emerging sun. The painting translated the state of social and political criticism that pervaded the nation at the time.

Equally fascinating are Sirry’s early portraits. She painted people she knew well: her maid Mabrouka, for example – a dark girl with a face full of kindness and dignity – whom she painted in 1945. The Nubians (1962), showing a mother and her four children with beautiful ornaments in the background, is similar. But another painting in faint colours, dated 1971, features homes and human figures painted in straight lines to resemble homes, using an entirely different approach to depict the frustration following Nasser’s death and the 1967 defeat. Yet it is a vibrant palette and spontaneous figures that make up her signature. Her art was to expand to expressionist depictions of desert and sea.

“Compositions from the Desert” is a series of oil paintings produced in the 1970s. All abstract, their bold colours – yellow, blue, red and brown – form geometric figures against a mute background, giving the viewer strong feelings: enthusiasm, and a yearning to unite with the country’s beautiful landscapes. But more unique perhaps is Sirry’s fascination with houses – a recurrent theme – which appear on their own or in conjunction with people. The abstract oil painting People and Houses (1980), for example, features a mass of people which almost takes up the whole painting; but behind them are rows of houses executed in such a way as to look like the people’s shadows.

In Sirry’s 1950s paintings, you can observe brightly coloured children on swings or playing hide and seek, reflecting contentment and joy in the wake of the 1952 Revolution. The feeling is echoed in the 2012 minimalist painting Hope, a similarly bright vision optimistic about the 2011 Revolution. It is a remarkable experience seeing them side by side.

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The Zamalek Art Gallery owner Naheda Al-Khoury was keen on meeting Sirry some 20 years ago, she says, when she first arrived in Egypt from Lebanon: “I was just an art collector fascinated by her works, and luckily enough, we have been good friends ever since that time. I do not look at an artist from a gender perspective, but I believe that Sirry is one of the few artists who have made an impact on the scene, not only in Egypt, but in the Arab world and globally as well, and international scene as well.”

A passionate painter, Al-Khoury adds, Sirry dealt with a wide range of topics: people, streets and landscapes. “She is an artist with a message, which is very clear in every single painting she completed. When I look at her paintings – and that was true even before I met her – I always feel her nerve, the power delivered by her strong brush strokes.” Al-Khoury quotes Sirry as saying that she feels that she is there in every painting she painted:

“When I paint children, then I am the child embodied in the painting, I am the one who jumps and runs. And when I paint peasants, then they also bring out a part of me, hiding here or there deep inside.”

This has always been evident to Al-Khoury. “This is the 74th solo exhibition by the artist, the sixth in our gallery, and it reflects not only her personal history but also the history of the Arab region.” In almost all her works there is hope, an invitation to fight for life, to survive:

“Sirry is a very kind and cheerful woman. She has a special passion for nature, especially the sea and the Nile where she has practised her lifetime’s hobby of fishing. She also wandered around Europe and the United States, studying art, exhibiting her work, and looking for inspiration.” The exhibition, Al-Khoury announces – ongoing till 7 November – will feature a seminar– with her friends and students to discuss her work.

A new picture book with an 86-page study by prominent artist and critic Mustafa Al-Razaz and reproductions of paintings from 1980s until 2014 will also be published. “It is a complementary book to the one published by the American University in Cairo in 1996. And it is the gallery’s honour to be the publisher, this time,” Al-Khoury says.

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