Fifteen years after her passing, the grandson of a pioneering Egyptian artist embarks on a mission to save his grandmother’s legacy and keep her name alive.
Along the agricultural fields painted emerald, orange, and Tuscan yellow, there stands a procession of workers heading towards ‘The Market’ (1957). The faceless figures — farmers and peasants; fathers and sons; mothers and daughters — move along the canvas in silence, their paths set in streaks of oil left by the strokes of a paintbrush. Some carry plates of vegetables and meat to sell at the market, others shepherd the animals — goats, cows, and ducks — to their eventual slaughter. It is a painting steeped in colour and life, yet its message is solemn and everlasting: do not forget Egypt’s unseen majority.
As a child, I was mesmerized by this painting. It was my grandmother’s art — Nanaa’s art, as I used to call it. I was far too young to grasp how privileged I was to grow up immersed in such culture; too young to recognize the unique place my grandmother occupied in modern Egyptian art, or understand the profound impact it would have on me as an adult.
I was just 12 years old when Menhat Helmy passed away in 2004. My aunt, Nihal Khallaf, assumed control of her mother’s work. As a successful businesswoman and art lover, she was ideally suited to look after the collection. Realizing the vast potential this held, my aunt decided to host a retrospective exhibition for Helmy’s work, the first since Helmy retired from her profession in the early 1980s. With the help of curator and sculptor Ehab El Laban, the exhibition debuted on December 19, 2005, at Horizon One gallery in Cairo, and was opened by former Minister of Culture Farouk Hosny. Life was good.
And yet, all good things must come to an end.
My aunt — one of the heirs to the family legacy — was killed in a car accident in September 2007. Her loss was as sudden as it was devastating. She was the heart and soul of our family, and the fabric that kept us together. Without her, there was nothing left for us in Egypt.
My family, comprised of my single mother and younger brother, left Egypt and immigrated to Canada, taking with us only a handful of my grandmother’s works. I entered university and emerged with a degree in political science and economic development. I became a journalist, got married, and cemented myself in the new world. The only true reminder of my previous life was the abstract etchings hanging on the walls of my apartment. And yet, something called me back to Egypt all those years later — a need to understand my grandmother’s work and to uncover the artistic heritage our family left behind in Egypt.
I returned to Cairo for the first time in seven years in January 2019 with the sole intention of rediscovering my family’s legacy. I visited the old apartment in Maadi, where the wooden floors creaked and groaned as I made my way down the hall. The walls were yellowed and cracked, while a thick layer of dust rose to greet me with each step I took. The entire space was unrecognizable.
The apartment had become a makeshift storage unit that held the vast majority of my grandmother’s art. Paintings and etchings, drawings and sculptures — a legacy put aside for seven years. While most of the art was safely wrapped and stored, several of her works had been damaged in a recent flood. There were cracks in the canvas and chips in the metal frames. Some gave off the faint smell of rust. Others had water damage which warped beautiful images until they were no longer distinguishable.
Deciding it was time to take action, I moved the collection out of storage and into another apartment in Cairo, where I had enough room to unpack and catalogue it for future research. As I unboxed the cardboard shells surrounding the art and uncovered the contents within, I was struck by how much of my grandmother’s work I did not recognize. While I recalled the handful of nude portraits, still life paintings, and black-and-white etchings that occupied our home when I was a young boy, I was shocked to find that they made up a small percentage of her overall work. By the time I had finished unpacking the work, I had noted over 70 black-and-white etchings on zinc, 25 paintings, 30 sketches and drawings, 10 lithographs and woodcut drawings, and approximately 60 abstract coloured graphics, many of which were tucked away in old portfolios.
Beyond the actual collection of works, I discovered that my aunt had undergone the tedious process of gathering all the magazines and newspapers that my grandmother had been cited in, dating back to the early 1950s. She repeated this process with all the pamphlets, catalogues, and gallery magazines that featured my grandmother’s work in their exhibitions. Apart from that, there were notebooks, signed guestbooks, journal entries, and endless piles of letters in storage that served as the foundation for my research and the primary tool I used to reconstruct a timeline for my grandmother’s life and work.
A Pioneer of Egyptian Printmaking
Born in 1925 as a middle child in a family of seven sisters and two brothers, Menhat Helmy stood out amongst her siblings through her artistic talent. She graduated from Cairo’s High Institute of Pedagogic Studies for Art in 1949 before traveling to the United Kingdom in 1953 to continue her education at the Slade School of Fine Arts in London. During her three years at Slade, Helmy studied drawing, painting, and etching. She tried her hand at figurative paintings and nude portraits before settling on etchings as her preferred medium. She experimented with engravings on zinc and wood, which culminated in her winning the Slade prize for etching in 1955.
After receiving her diploma, Helmy returned to Egypt and found that her country had undergone significant socio-economic and political upheaval. She decided to use her newfound fascination with etchings to document the societal changes taking place around her. She engraved several black-and-white etchings on zinc of the building of the Aswan High Dam and the 1957 parliamentary elections — the first since the 1952 Egyptian revolution — forever immortalizing these historic moments in Egyptian history.
While these historical etchings provide a small glimpse of a bygone age in Egyptian history, much of Helmy’s work at the time focused on the country’s poorest people and the districts they resided in — Egypt’s unseen majority. These works reflected the artist’s sensitive nature, as well as the growing narrative of socialism following the removal of the monarchy. There were etchings of agricultural landscapes being worked by peasants, fishermen on the Nile, workers labouring inside brick factories, and alleyways in Boulaq with detailed scenes depicting life in Cairo at the time.
Though graphic art forms such as etchings had been taught in Egypt since 1934, this important art form only became recognized by the art community in the 1950s. Along with likes of Hussein El Gebaly, Abdalla Gohar, and Mariam A. Aleem, Helmy was recognized as part of a pioneering generation of artists who played a pivotal role in the field. Helmy’s black-and-white etchings were critically acclaimed for their remarkable complexity, as well for their incredible difficulty in realization. Helmy was one of the first artists to engrave entire scenes into her work, replicating the effects of sketches and elaborate drawings on zinc before transforming them into prints. She would continue to hone and perfect this style well into the 1960s, winning several awards and honours along the way.
Helmy won the Cairo Production Exhibition prize in 1957, the Salon du Caire Prize in 1959 and 1960, and the National Merit Prize for Etching in 1981. After participating in over a dozen biennales around the world, including Italy, Tokyo, Ireland, Norway and Yugoslavia, Helmy won the Ljublyana Honourary Prize in 1961 for her work displayed at the Ljublyana Biennale for Graphics. She would later be made an honourary professor at the prestigious Accademia delle Arti del Disegno for her work displayed at the Ljublyana Biennale. It should be noted that it was her captivating etching on Boulaq that garnered the most attention and awards during that time.
After numerous participations in group exhibitions around the world for over a decade, Helmy decided to host her first ever solo show at the Akhenaton Gallery in 1966. The exhibition showcased 55 of her finest black-and-white etchings depicting life across Egypt at the time. The exhibition was documented in the press at the time and was well-attended by Egyptian artists and intellectuals, as well as politicians.
While Helmy was celebrated for the pioneering steps she took as a printmaker, it was her paintings that piqued my attention during the past few months of research, as they revealed a side of my grandmother that I never knew existed.
Over the course of her career, Helmy painted a handful of pieces that would stand the test of time, winning awards and receiving acclaim from artists and curators around the world. One such piece is ‘Procession to Work,’ a fairly large painting that depicts workers moving alongside the Suez Canal. Since it was painted in 1957, it is reasonable to assume that the work is centred around the Suez crisis that took place in 1956. The worker at the head of the procession can be seen releasing a dove in flight, a symbol for peace. The piece was sold at Christie’s in October 2007, less than a month following my aunt’s death.
Plenty of Helmy’s paintings during this time carried interesting socialist messages and embodied her empathetic perspective on working class life in rural regions of Cairo. These works are characterized by the faceless figures peppered throughout the paintings, establishing both equality and creative harmony. She would continue with this style until the mid-1960s, when political tension in the region would provide new material to consume her creative output.
Following the Arab-Israeli War in 1967, Menhat Helmy painted another piece with political overtones titled ‘Exchange of Fire/Suez Cannons.’ The painting, which was completed in 1971, showed the military strikes taking place between Egypt, depicted in brown, and Israel. depicted in green, with the Red Sea as their separation. Helmy also replicated the painting in print as a black-and-white etching — one of the rare times she ever felt the need to present a single piece in more than one medium.
In 1971, Helmy painted one of the most powerful paintings in her collection. Titled ‘اطفال بحر البقر’ (The Children of Bahr El Baqar,) the work paints a grim picture of the primary school bombing that took place in the Egyptian village of Bahr El-Baqar on April 8, 1970. The school was bombed by the Israeli Air Force, killing 46 children and wounding 50 others. The entire school population at the time was 130 students over three classrooms. Israel later claimed that they thought that the school was an Egyptian military base. Helmy decided to paint this dark piece in the memory of the 46 students who died in the little-known tragedy.
While Helmy continued to embed subtle political messages in her work, she also challenged herself with various artistic styles before rooting herself in abstraction.
The final decade of Menhat Helmy’s artistic career was characterized by her sharp pivot towards abstract art and her fascination with technological advancements such as computers, modern vehicles, and space exploration. During that time, she transitioned from black-and-white figurative etchings that depicted realistic situations to conceptual graphics with complex geometric structures and bright colours.
While Helmy’s earlier works were influenced by European masters such as Spain’s Francisco Goya and Germany’s Albrecht Dürer, her later work was uncompromisingly architectural in its use of geometrical abstraction, something she was likely predisposed to through her exposure to Islamic art. She experimented with techniques that required both craftsmanship and artistry, adding depth of space and texture to her work that did not previously exist.
Helmy’s pivot towards the abstract correlates with her move back to London in the 1970s after her husband, Abdelghaffar Khallaf, was promoted to the position of medical attaché to the Egyptian Embassy in London. Helmy began with abstract works that were still based on real-life observations, such as ‘The River Thames’ in London (1974), ‘Tenerife’ (1976) on the Canary Islands, or the Eiffel Tower in Paris (1975). As she grew comfortable with the style, Helmy freed herself of representational art and achieved full abstraction with pieces such as ‘Corridors’ (1976) and ‘To the Point’ (1978) — pieces that bore little attachment to specific real world events or monuments but still maintained remarkable geometric synergy and a colour palette of warm tones that brought about a deep sense of tranquility.
Tenerife is a particularly good example of Helmy’s experimentation with texture and colour to illicit the dryness and smoldering heat on the island during the 1970s. If you look closely enough at her depiction of the golden sand and the endless space, you may start to grow a little thirsty. On the other hand, graphics such as ‘Way to Universe’ (1975-78) was a colourful medley designed to awaken our human urge to travel and explore through abstract symmetry and blended tones that represent the limitless wonder of outer space. There were no bounds to Helmy’s style at the time, or the topics she was willing to engrave into her work.
Not only was Helmy ahead of her time — revolting against the customary traditions of classical paintings in favour of new mediums — she was also a tireless experimenter, searching for new horizons. Her work transcended the boundaries of traditional art and bucked the trends set by fine art schools at the time. Her work was a creative adventure — a journey into one woman’s desire for expressionism in the age of political change, technology and man-made miracles.
It has been 15 years since the last time Menhat Helmy’s work was on display at an exhibition; 15 long years since art experts, collectors and intellectuals flocked to galleries to witness the results of her steady hand and creative spirit.
And yet, all that is about to change.
Art collector, professor, and the founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, acquired one of Menhat Helmy’s finest paintings — a dark-blue work of abstraction titled ‘Space Exploration’ that depicts the universe beyond. The work will be featured on a touring exhibition called Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s to 1980s, which will begin at the Grey Art Gallery in New York City in January 2020. The exhibition will showcase the work of some of the most important female Arab artists of the time, including Etel Adnan, Huguette Caland and Saloua Raouda Choucair. Thanks to the tireless work of Sultan Al Qassemi and Barjeel curator Suheyla Takesh, Helmy will now take her rightful place alongside these iconic women in art.
In the meantime, I embarked on my newfound mission to catalogue and archive my grandmother’s work and legacy. I started a Wikipedia page as well as an Instagram account featuring some of her finest work along with captions explaining the context of her art. I then compiled the dozens of press clippings and book citations that mentioned my grandmother and spoke to some of her old colleagues and fellow artists, such as Dr. Mustafa El Razzaz, in the hopes of gathering as much information as possible to publish a book on her life and artistic achievements. The long-term goal is to place her work in exhibitions in Egypt and abroad. I am confident that art lovers around the world will be able to enjoy her work first-hand in the near future.
As my grandmother’s work is presented to a new generation of art lovers, it is surreal to think that it was just a few short months ago that her paintings and etchings were tucked away in storage, never to be seen again. Instead of disappearing into the historical abyss, she will now live on in exhibitions in Egypt and around the world, her name engraved in the landscape of modern Egyptian art history.
I would like to thank my mother, Sara Khallaf, for allowing me to take control of her mother’s legacy and play such an important role in rekindling Menhat Helmy’s name. Without my mother’s support, none of this would have been possible. Thank you.
All images are courtesy of the author.
Karim Zidan Karim Zidan is an Egyptian-Canadian writer and translator whose work has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, VOX Media, and World Literature Today. He is also the grandson of Menhat Helmy, a pioneer of Egyptian printmaking (etchings and graphics) and has since taken over the management of the estate and the curation of her work in international exhibitions, museums, and galleries.