Gazbia Sirry – Gazbiyyiah
By fatenn mostafa-kanafani

Egyptian painter Gazbia Sirry is one of the most influential figures of twentieth-century modern Arab art and a leading figure in the Egyptian modernist movement. Her celebrated career and international recognition climaxed with the recent acquisition of her painting, The Fortune Teller (Kare’at al-Kaf, 1959), by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, making her the first Egyptian female artist in the museum’s permanent collection.

Gazbia Sirry was born into the Egyptian aristocracy in 1925 and recently passed away at the age of 96 in November 2021. Her studies at the Higher Institute of Fine Arts for Women Teachers in Cairo (Institut Supérieur des beaux-arts pour Jeunes filles, 1948) were followed by a teaching diploma that paved the way for a three-decade-long teaching career at the Faculty of Art Education. To protect her independence, she rebelled against the increasingly conservative apparatus and resigned in 1981.

In 1951, Gazbia Sirry traveled to Paris and joined the studio of the French painter Marcel Gromaire (1892-1971), known for his choice of social subjects. A year later, in 1952, she moved to Rome to study at the Egyptian Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. Finally, in 1953, she was awarded a government scholarship and joined the Slade in London (1955), befriending the modern Sudanese painter Ibrahim El-Salahi, who was also completing his degree. When she returned to Egypt, Sirry rose to prominence through her unflinching depictions of daily life and its attendant socio-politics with a particular devotion to patriarchy, gender equality, and independence. Her work evolved through several distinct phases during her seven-decade-long career. Never a purely aesthetic question; the search for the essence of the Egyptian identity was Sirry’s maelstrom. She used it to create a singular cross-stylistic signature to evoke political activism: universal in scope and of the most sophisticated kind. Unwavering in her commitment to the nationalist discourse and gender politics, she dedicated the first part of her career to drawing attention to the socio-political conditions of the Egyptian working class. She pioneered a movement of eclectic social realism with a punch in the process.

Since bursting into the art scene, Gazbia Sirry refused to fit into mainstream art. Instead, she began her career by providing snapshots of daily life and painting the pulse of urban and rural Egypt. Mixing her multi-layered heritage of ancient Egyptian art with Mexican mural art and hints of surrealism, Sirry gave life to her own Expressionist realism. The contradiction in scale between her figures and the different scenes in which they appear gives a feeling of calculated modernism and authoritative primitivism. She rebelled against the third dimension in extension to a heritage of ancient Egyptian and Oriental arts and infused surrealistic elements in a somehow child-like manner. In Palm Tree (1955), a man in a traditional white peasant galabia leans on an upside-down palm tree; both hands intertwined, forming one earthy-brown block in the shape of a cross. Sirry’s choice of colors and the mixing of vertical and horizontal structures are rich in symbolism and allude to a Coptic Christian scene. Is it a priest? Maybe Jesus? Subtle during the first stage of her career, the surrealist approach will be particularly prominent in the later Houses series that she began in the early 1970s.

After the Six-Day War in 1967 and studies in the USA, Gazbia Sirry offered a multi-faceted narrative in which expressionism, symbolism, and abstraction blended. In search of the essence of the human condition, her paintings became non-representational patches of colors, with little to no traces of figures revealing Sirry’s confidence in the goodness of humankind and the importance of freedom. In her final phase, Sirry expressed life’s futility without ever ceding from its strength.
“Oozing with energy,” the petite dame moved from one stage to the other but remained consistent in her existential concern led by an act of unfailing courage, making her ‘the sincerest artist on the banks of the Nile.” A trailblazer in thought, art, and actions, Sirry was highly independent. Never standing still and unlike most of her contemporaries who were loyal to one school of thought, she never shied away from radical transformation. With little warning, she moved away from figurative to expressionistic to abstraction, always allowing space for social commentary. Playful and spontaneous, even during the direst times, she had the urge to step in, make a statement, then move on. “I see humanity everywhere.”

In the end, Gazbia gave the germ of a new identity that made no explicit distinction between seeing and militancy. As she fluidly moved between styles chronicling ordinary life and releasing social rage, the prolific artist with a record of 80-plus one-woman shows across continents concluded by giving glimpses of what words do not say. Thriving for authenticity, her iconography may well be a silent nod to her extraordinary farsightedness as she foresaw the urgency to convey the importance of a collective sense of a shared fate. Driven by a sense of obligation, Gazbia Sirry became the spokesperson of an entire nation. If Mahmoud Saïd is considered the father figure of Egyptian modernism, Gazbia Sirry is the mother.