Gazbia Sirry is an Egyptian painter born in Cairo on October 11, 1925, into a family of aristocratic descent. She grew up in a luxurious villa in the Helmeya neighborhood, surrounded by a community of more modest means. At the age of four, she lost her father, the architect Hassan Sirry Naamy. In the wake of her father’s death, her mother, Esmat El-Daly, took charge of her education with the help of her grandmother, who herself was an independent woman due to a previous divorce. With her two sisters, Gazbia Sirry came of age in a predominantly female environment, though her paternal uncles played a role in her introduction to art and culture, taking her to the theater and familiarizing her with their library.  

Encouraged by her mother, Sirry completed her studies in the field of fine arts, obtaining a diploma from the fine arts section of the Higher Institute for Young Women in Cairo (known in Arabic as Al-Ma'ahad al-'ali li Mo'alimat al-Funoun al-Gamila) in 1948. The following year, Sirry concentrated her energies on art education before continuing her training abroad. From Paris, where, in 1951, she studied under the tutelage of the painter and engraver Marcel Gromaire (1892-1971), she furthered her studies at the Egyptian Academy in Rome in 1952, and later in London, where from 1954 to 1955 she took painting and lithography classes at the Slade School of Fine Art. After she returned to Cairo, she taught art there for more than two decades, at the Faculty of Arts Education (‘Kolliat al-Tarbia al-Fannia’) and, more briefly, at the American University. She left her position in these two establishments in 1981, following a state ban on figure drawing using nude models.

At the beginning of her career, Sirry joined the Modern Art Group (‘Game'iat al-Fann al-Hadith’), alongside Hamed Oweiss (1919-2011), Youssef Sida (1922-1994) and Zeinab Abdel Hamid (1919-2002), among others. Partisans of the Nasserian revolution, 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. 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 Oum Ratiba (1952), Oum 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; here, Sirry suggests that a wide variety of real, living women define the new Egyptian Republic. 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. 

Sirry’s style in the 1950s is recognizable by the frontal figures contoured in black, reminiscent of Pharaonic art and Coptic icons. This accented delineation indicates Sirry's interest in printmaking, and her taste for the decorative arts is reflected through the ornamental treatment of costumes and interiors.

Gazbia Sirry exhibited mainly in governmental venues and represented Egypt internationally, including the Biennales of Sao Paulo (1953), Venice (1956, 1958), and Alexandria (1959,1963). She was supported by the government and received, from the early 1960s, several annual scholarships, such asthe ‘Menhat al-Tafarrogh’, allowing her to dedicate herself entirely to painting. However, like many intellectuals, her husband, the journalist and geologist Adel Sabet (1924-2018), was arrested in 1959 by the Nasser regime. His detention lasted more than two years and was behind Sirry's inspiration for paintings such as In Prison (1959), and the Portrait of Adel (1962). Those paintings signal a stylistic evolution towards a more geometrical mode of representation, which itself can be seen to testify to the critical distance the artist kept vis-à-vis the political situation.

Sirry’s stylistic evolution towards geometric abstraction accelerated from 1965, following a residency at the Huntington Hartford Foundation in 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.

This pessimistic climate, which started after the war and continued into the 1970s, is evident in the series Metamorphosis and People-Houses (Al-Biout Wal-nas). These compositions, often segmented into several parts, are based on a contrast between void and accumulation. In Houses with Their Heads on Fire (1968), hybrid forms, both anthropomorphic and architectural, burst into flame or are projected to abyssal depths as in Metamorphosis(1968). It was also during the 1970s that Gazbia Sirry began a series of paintings depicting the desert, where basic geometric shapes populate a landscape composed of bands of colors. 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.

In 1993, Sirry held a residency at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, where in the same year an exhibition opened in honor of women artists from Arab countries. The exhibition, Forces of Change, included three of her paintings created on the spot. Following the tour of this exhibition to institutions throughout the United States, Sirry donated the three works to the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Furthermore, in 2008, she granted a set of paintings to the American University in Cairo, and the following year she donated The Kite (1960) to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Following the 2011 Revolution and the 2013 coup, the octogenarian artist launched two solo exhibitions at the Zamalek Gallery in Cairo titled Time and Place (2012) and Hope ... Always (2014). Here, she presented new minimalist paintings, where colorful figures emerge on a white background. A key figure in Egyptian modern art, Sirry enjoys local renown, although she remains less known beyond her country's borders. Gazbia Sirry passed away in 2021.

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