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Dalloul Art Foundation

GAZBIA SIRRY, Egypt (1925 - 2021)


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...


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.


Selected Solo Exhibitions 


Gazbia Sirry, Retrospective of Watercolor, Intaglio and Sketches, Zamalek Art Gallery, Cairo, Egypt


Gazbia Sirry, Art is my Life, Zamalek Art Gallery, Cairo, Egypt


The Lust for Color, American University of Cairo, New Cairo, Egypt
Gazbia Sirry & Hope... Always, Zamalek Art Gallery, Cairo, Egypt


Time and Place, Zamalek Art Gallery, Cairo, Egypt


Gazbia Sirry, Incarnation, Zamalek Art Gallery, Cairo, Egypt


Gazbia Sirry-Paintings, Zamalek Art Gallery, Cairo, Egypt


Gazbia Sirry, Fantasy of Metamorphosis, Zamalek Art Gallery, Cairo, Egypt


Gazbia Sirry, Time and Place 2002-2003, Zamalek Art Gallery, Cairo, Egypt


Akhenaton Gallery, Cairo, Egypt


Space and Time. Gazbia Sirry: A Retrospective (1951-1996),Akhenaton Gallery, Cairo, Egypt


Akhenaton Gallery, Cairo, Egypt


Akhenaton Gallery, Cairo, Egypt


Akhenaton Gallery, Cairo, Egypt


Galerie El Médina, Tunis, Tunisia


Retrospective (1951-1984), Akhenaton Gallery, Cairo, Egypt


Goethe Institute Gallery, Cairo, Egypt


Gazbia Sirry. Peintures. Le Désert, Centre Culturel d’Égypte, Paris, France


Galerie Neuer Berliner, Kunstverein, West Berlin, RFA


Goethe Institute Gallery, Cairo, Egypt


University of California, Los Angeles, United States


Akhenaton Gallery, Cairo, Egypt


Gazbia Sirry, Galerie Marcel Bernheim, Paris, France


Gazbia Sirry, Zaydler Gallery, Londres, Royaume-Uni
Gazbia Sirry, Galerie la Palette Bleue, Paris, France


Gazbia Sirry, Galerie la Palette Bleue, Paris, France


Akhenaton Gallery, Cairo, Egypt


Gazbia Sirry, Brinken Galery, Stockholm, Sweeden


Atelier du Caire, Cairo, Egypt


Egyptian Culturel Centre, London, UK


Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, Cairo, Egypt

Selected Group Exhibitions


Masterpieces XVIII, Zamalek Art Gallery, Cairo, Egypt
The Collector’s Eye VI, Ubuntu Art Gallery, Cairo, Egypt


A Century of Flux, Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah Art Museum, Sharjah, UAE
Masterpieces XVII, Zamalek Art Gallery, Cairo, Egypt


Modernist Women Of Egypt, Green Art Gallery, Dubai, UAE
Mathaf Collection, Summary, Part 2, MATHAF (Arab Museum of Modern Art), Doha, Qatar
The Collector’s Eye IV, Ubuntu Art Gallery, Cairo,  Egypt
Masterpieces XVI, Zamalek Art Gallery, Cairo, Egypt


The 37th General Exhibition, Palace of Arts, Cairo, Egypt


Sajjil : A Century of Modern Art, Mathaf, Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar


Egyptian Artists, Masterpieces IV, Zamalek Art Gallery, Cairo, Egypt


23rd Alexandria Biennale for Mediterranean Countries, guest of honor, Alexandria, Egypt
Inaugural Exhibition of the Jordan National Gallery Complex, Under the patronage of Their Majesties King Abdullah and Queen Rania Al – Abdullah, Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, Amman, Jordan


The Short Century. Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945-1994, curated by Okwui Enwezor Museum
Villa Stuck, Munich, Germany
House of World Cultures, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, Germany
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago,USA
PS1 Contemporary Art Centre, Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA


Artistes Contemporains Égyptiens, Institute of the Arab World, Paris, France


Preserving the Past, Securing the Future. Donations of Art, 1987-1997, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, USA


The Right to Hope: One World Art, Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, Amman, Jordan


Arab Eyes. Women Artists from Arab Countries, Sharjah Art Museum, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
Egyptian Women Artists, curated by Nazli Madkour, Beijing, China


Forces of Change: Artists from the Arab World,curator: Salwa Nashashibi Mikdadi, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, USA
Université Harvard, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
Miami Dade College, Floride, USA
Gwinett Fine Arts Center d’Atlanta, Georgia, USA


Baghdad International Festival for Plastic Arts, Saddam Arts Centre (museum of Modern Art), Bagdad, Iraq


41st Biennale of Venice, Italy


Exhibition of three Egyptian artists, Mtkel Art Gallery, Abidjan, Ivory Coast


Second African Art Festival, FESTAC77, Lagos, Nigeria


Ten Egyptian Women Painters Over Half a Century, Gallery of the Arab Socialist Union, Cairo, Egypt


Visages de l’Art Contemporain Égyptien, Galliera Museum, Paris, France


1st edition of the International Festival of Painting, Château-Musée Grimaldi, Cagnes-sur-Mer, France
1st Pan-African Festival, Hall of City Hall, Algiers, Algeria
General Exhibition, Cairo, Egypt


7th Biennial of Sao Paulo, Brazil
5th Biennial of Alexandria for the Mediterranean Countries, Alexandria, Egypt


3rd Biennial of Alexandria for Mediterranean Countries, Alexandria, Egypt


29th Venice Biennial, Italy


28th Venice Biennale, Italy


London Group , New Burlington Galleries, London, UK
Huit peintres d’Égypte, André Maurice Gallery, Paris, France


2nd Biennial of Sao Paulo, Brazil


Italian-Egyptian Exhibition, Cairo, Egypt
Venice Biennial, Italy


Annual Exhibition of Workshop Members, Cairo Workshop, Cairo, Egypt         


Azar, Aimé. Femmes Peintres D’Egypte. Cairo: Imprimerie Française, 1953.

Azar, Aimé. La Peinture moderne en Égypte.Cairo :Les Éditions Nouvelles, 1961,

Bassiouny, Farouk. Gadhabeyya Serri wa rehla bein al-zaman wal-makan. Cairo: State Information Service, 1984

El-Din, Mursi Saad. Gazbia Sirry: Lust for Color. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1998.

Winegar, Jessica. Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt. Stanford: Stanford Studies in Middle Eastern and Islamic Societies and Cultures. Stanford University Press, 2006.

Hamdy, Mariam. The Female Pharaoh : Gazbia Sirry. Canvas Magazine, vol. 5, n° 4, p.102-107.2009

Okeke-Agulu, Chika, « Politics by Other Means : Two Egyptian Artists, Gazbia Sirry and Ghada Amer », NKA Journal of Contemporary African Art, pp. 117–149, 2009.

Atallah, Nadine, « Les femmes, l’art et la nation. Histoire des expositions de deux artistes égyptiennes, des années 1950 à nos jours : Inji Efflatoun et Gazbia Sirry », Master’s thesis by Nadine Atallah in 2016 at Paris 1 University, Panthéon-Sorbonne. 2016

Abstract available online:[03.07.2019]. 

Awards and Honors 


The fourth grand prix of International Contemporary Art, Monaco


Top prize for painting from Alexandria International Biennale, Egypt


Second prize for print from Alexandria International Biennale, Egypt


Honoring prize for oil painting from Venice International Biennale, Italy


Rome prizes for painting, Italy 


Museum of Modern Egyptian Art, Cairo, Egypt
The Fine Arts Museum, Alexandria, Egypt
Museum Of Modern Art, Alexandria, Egypt
American University of Cairo, New Cairo, Egypt
Faculties of fine arts and art education in Cairo, Alexandria and Menia, Egypt
Collection Al-Ahram newspaper, Cairo, Egypt
The Egyptian National Bank in Cairo, Egypt
The Grand Conference Hall at Cairo Opera House and Cairo, Egypt
The Supreme Council of Culture, Cairo, Egypt
Press Syndicate, Cairo, Egypt
Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar
Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah, UAE
Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, Amman, Jordan
Ramzi and Saeda Dalloul Art Foundation, Beirut, Lebanon
Al Sharekh Art Collection, Kuwait
Living Art Museum in Tunis, Tunisia
National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, USA
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA
Arts and Sciences Museum, Evansville, Indiana, USA
Vincent Price Art Collection in Los Anglos, USA
The Egyptian academy of Fine Arts, Rome, Italy
Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, France
Josef Museum of Unaligned Countries, Belgrade, Yugoslavia



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