TAHIA HALIM, Egypt (1919 - 2003)
Written by Arthur Debsi
Born in 1919 in the city of Dongola, Sudan, Tahia Halim showed a keen interest in art at an early age while her father worked as the chamberlain of King Fouad (1868-1936) in Cairo. After finishing her secondary education in the privacy of the royal palace, she enrolled at Cairo’s Academy of Fine Arts. She joined the ateliers of the Lebanese painter Youssef al-Traboulsi and the Greek artist Alecco Jerome. Through her postsecondary education, her exposure to fine art was mainly limited to works in academic or impressionist styles, a product of the Euro-centric curriculum of the Academy, and the influence of her instructors. In 1940, Tahia Halim met the avant-gardist artist Hamed Abdallah (1917-1985), whom she married five years later and followed to Paris in 1949, where they both joined the Julian Academy from 1949 to 1951. Halim is also known to be the first woman awarded the Guggenheim International Prize, an honor she was awarded in 1958.
Although she was taught to assiduously produce work on traditional topics of the European Academy, such as nudes or genre scenes, Tahia Halim didn’t retreat from her personal roots or the fraught political environment in which she came of age. Egypt had formally won its independence from Britain in 1922, but British troops remained in the country until 1956, and in the 1940s, continued to occupy it effectively. The British retained control of the army, police force, railways, and communications networks, as well as territory, including Sudan and the Suez Canal, and the period surrounding World War II saw Egyptians agitating for their freedom and territorial integrity. Watching the scenario develop from abroad, Halim was inspired by the explosion of popular independence movements to paint memories of her homeland, nostalgically illustrating the daily life of Egyptians in the capital city.
Upon returning to Cairo from France in 1951, however, Tahia Halim became aware of the seriousness of the internal situation and began exploring new ways of addressing it through her art. Rather than painting scenes from home with blithe nostalgia, she decided to honor the emotional impact of these scenes within the painting itself, using an expressionistic technique to depict physical reality as filtered through her feelings. Ongoing dialogue with her husband, who worked mainly in abstraction, and exposure to a broader spectrum of art practices abroad had expanded her visual vocabulary, and beginning around 1953, her work demonstrated significant formal shifts. One of those transformations was the introduction of a deep, earthy color palette, heavily featuring blue, ochre, grey, sienna, and umber; this is notable in her painting Ella al-Souq fi al-Nuba (To the Marketplace in Nubia), executed in the 1960s.
The region of Nubia, located between Aswan in southern Egypt and Khartoum in central Sudan, played a significant part in Halim’s compositions as a fundamental source of inspiration. Though she was technically born in the region, she had spent most of her life in Cairo, and she was not ethnically Nubian, the area remained somewhat mysterious to her until a highly influential trip in the late 1950s. Before the construction of Aswan High Dam between 1960 and 1970, she traveled to this region. She discovered the richness of its environment, climate, and people, whose simple way of life seemed to embody centuries-old traditions. This trip marked the beginning of a new stage in her oeuvre, characterized by a mystical, somewhat primitivist fascination with symbolism. Struck by the “character” of Nubian women, which she found to be humble, serene, and generous, she delighted in portraying their beauty and grace. Though she certainly felt an affinity for Nubia and a connection to the women who called it home, the history of exoticism in perceptions of the region should not be discounted. As an Arab Egyptian of relatively high social standing, Halim observed Nubia through a lens of privilege that positioned her as the “evolved” or “civilized” urbanite and the Nubians as “primitive.”
In her artistic fascination with Nubia, Tahia Halim participated in a nationalist discourse that had been established during the initial push for Egyptian independence in the early 20th century, seen in the work of artists like Mahmoud Mokhtar. The Nubian people are almost sanctified in her artwork, which glorifies “ordinary” people like peasants or sailors to emphasize their significance to Egyptian identity. The prominence of rural farmers in the cultural imaginary of Egyptian independence evolved, firstly, because of their connection to the land; they literally reaped the harvest of the homeland, and thus symbolized the inalienable connection between the land and the Egyptian people. Secondly, these people, including Nubians, were idealized because of their purported “distance” from colonialism. If cultured city folk had been unduly influenced by the British and corrupted by their Western ways, many nationalists problematically saw peasants as the “pure” Egyptians. The traditions of the latter remained unadulterated by outside influence.
One painting from this period, Three Nubians (a non-dated work at DAF collection), depicts three girls occupying the middle of the composition, implied to be sitting by a source of water. The colors of the characters’ clothes and their dark complexions contrast with the background, painted in muted whites, to the extent that they appear to be floating. The central woman holds a plant in her hands, signifying the fertility and abundance of rural life along the Nile, which bisects the length of the region. Here, Halim’s passion for Egypt’s cultural heritage is as evident as her aesthetic interest in Nubia, showing influences from a diverse selection of Egyptian sources. The figures in Three Nubians show serene faces. Their hieratic and solemn position reminds the viewer of the soothing aspect of the Coptic icons, source of inspiration for the painter.Further, the use of broad color fields and a two-dimensional plan evokes the bas-reliefs ornamenting the walls of tombs and temples in the Pharaonic era.
Proudly attached to her homeland, the artist went so far as to experiment with ancient materials and methods, emulating ancient Egyptians by working with papyrus and creating pigments by mixing oxides with gum Arabic or bone marrow.
Tahia Halim derived symbolic force from this artistic heritage, which rendered her art legible to a general public even though it was far beyond the bounds of the academic painting expected in the salons.
Tahia Halim passed away in May 2003.
Abaza, Mona, and Sherwet Shafei. Twentieth-Century Egyptian Art: the Private Collection of Sherwet Shafei. Cairo, Egypt: American University in Cairo Press, 2011.
Dr. Al-Sharouny, Sobhy. T. Halim, Mythical Realism [English Translation Al-Waqa'iyah Al-'Astouriya by Ramadan Abdul Kader]. Cairo, Egypt: Al-Shourouk Press House, 1999.
Karnouk, Liliane. Modern Egyptian Art, 1920-2003. Cairo, New York, Egypt, USA: The American University in Cairo Press, 2005.
Razzaz, Mostafa El, Sonia Farid, and Ashraf Reda. Inji, Tahia, Gazbia: a Lifes Journey. Cairo, Egypt: Gallery Picasso, 2014.
“Tahia Halim.” Art Talks. Accessed September 25, 2019. http://arttalks.com/artist/tahia-halim-2/.
“Tahia Halim.” artnet. Accessed September 25, 2019. http://www.artnet.com/artists/tahia-halim/.
Selected Solo exhibitions
Tahia Halim Retrospective, The Egyptian Modern Art Museum, Cairo, Egypt
Selected Group exhibitions
55 Years of Art, Khan al-Maghrabi Gallery, Cairo, Egypt
The 35th Venice Biennial, Venice, Italy
The 30th Venice Biennial, Venice, Italy
The 28th Venice Biennial, Venice, Italy
The State Merit Prize
The State Order Medal for Science and Art
The Egyptian government’s National Encouragement Prize
The Guggenheim International Prize
Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar
The Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
The Alexandria Museum of Fine Arts, Alexandria, Cairo
The Museum of Modern Art, Cairo, Egypt
The Modern Art Museum, Stockholm, Sweden
Ramzi and Saeda Dalloul Art Foundation, Beirut, Lebanon