Gazbia Sirry was born in Cairo in 1925 to an aristocratic Turkish family. She was raised by two women: her widowed mother and divorced grandmother. After graduating from the Institut Supérieur des beaux-arts pour jeunes filles (Cairo) in 1948, she pursued her training at the studio of Marcel Gromaire (1951), then in Rome (1952) and London, where she obtained a postgraduate degree from the Slade School of Fine Art (1955). Her early works connected her to the Group of Modern Art, which argued that Western means of pictorial expression could serve the development of a modern and authentic Egyptian art. In this regard, the hieratic figures outlined in black that characterise her paintings from the 50s and 60s borrow as much from pharaonic sepulchral paintings as from the Coptic tradition, as well as from lithographic techniques. Her numerous depictions of women and the 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 Nasser’s regime was a complex one, as it had imprisoned her husband.

In the second half of the 60s, G. Sirry’s style shifted toward a more geometrical type of figuration closer to abstraction. Several commentators consider this evolution to be the result of both a residency in Los Angeles (1965), during which the artist became more familiar with abstract expressionism, and of the defeat of the Six-Day War (1967), which left the collective identity of Egypt deeply scarred, marking the end of the Pan-Arab dream. The policy of openness led by Anwar Sadat from 1970 accelerated the internationalisation of G. Sirry’s career. From then on, her work was often shown in diplomatic contexts, as was the case for her series of solo exhibitions at the Goethe-Institute in Cairo from 1970 to 1987. She lived in Tunisia in 1984 and 1985. In 1993, she stayed at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, and in 1994-95 participated in Forces of Change, the first exhibition devoted to Arab women artists held by a Western institution, despite her reluctance to be categorised according to her gender. Aware of the inequalities between 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 in Cairo following the suppression of nude art classes for religious reasons.

Sirry has continued to paint late in life, especially landscapes and street scenes in watercolours – a medium she has consistently used. Aged 85 during the 2011 revolution, she painted a series of pictures in an increasingly minimalist style. Despite her international career (Venice Biennale in 1956, 1958 and 1984; São Paulo Biennale in 1953 and 1963; Pan-African Festival of Algiers in 1969; FESTAC in Lagos, etc.), G. Sirry remains little known abroad. Egypt, on the other hand, regularly celebrates an artist who, from her support of anti-colonial struggles and 1952 coup to the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, has never ceased to paint in reaction to her country’s history, all the while contributing to the expression of an Egyptian and Arab pictorial modernity.

Nadine Atallah

© Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions