Game Changers The Arab Art Issue

Rediscovering Menhat Helmy, Egypt’s pioneering printmaker

Journalist Karim Zidan is preserving his grandmother’s legacy to inspire the next generation of female Arab artists.

.??????? ???????? ?????? ???

By Lara Brunt

?Egyptian artist and pioneer Menhat Helmy. Image: Courtesy.

At the end of January, Karim Zidan stood before a blue geometric oil painting by his grandmother, the late Egyptian artist Menhat Helmy, at the Grey Art Gallery in New York. The Canadian-Egyptian journalist was in town for the opening night of Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World 1950s–1980s, an exhibition of nearly 90 works drawn from the collection of Sharjah’s Barjeel Art Foundation.

Around him, art lovers converged to discuss their own interpretations of the artwork, painted in 1973 and titled Space Exploration/Universe. “I heard someone say it was electrical currents flowing through a circuit board; others said it was the night sky; others said it was planets, or the entire universe. There were just remarkable perspectives,” Karim says.

Despite Menhat’s renown in Egypt as a printmaker, it was the first time one of her works had been exhibited internationally for more than 30 years. The painting was acquired by Sheikh Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, the founder of Barjeel Art Foundation, in 2019 specifically for the exhibition. “Sultan Al Qassemi has been extraordinarily instrumental in helping revive my grandmother’s name,” Karim says.

Karim was just 12 years old and living in Bahrain when his grandmother passed away in 2004. “We’d spend the summers in Egypt, so I have tons of fond memories of her, but more so as my grandmother, rather than the artist. Her artwork was always everywhere in the house, but I didn’t make sense of Menhat Helmy, this pioneering artist, until just a few years ago,” he says.

Born in 1925, Menhat was the middle child in a progressive, upper middle-class family of seven daughters and two sons. Encouraged by her father to complete her education before marrying, Menhat graduated from Cairo’s High Institute of Pedagogic Studies for Art in 1949. Awarded a government scholarship in 1953 to attend the Slade School of Fine Art in London, she became the first Egyptian woman to study at the prestigious school.

Menhat studied drawing and painting, before specialising in etching, a method of making prints from a metal plate into which the design has been incised by acid. She experimented with engravings on copper, zinc and wood to produce black-and-white prints, and went on to win the Slade Prize for Etching in 1955.

Photos of Menhat Helmy taken in 1973-1979 in London. Images: Courtesy.

After graduating from Slade, she returned home to a very different country. Following the 1952 military coup led by Gamal Abdel Nasser that overthrew Egypt’s monarchy, women were granted the right to vote for the first time in March 1956. Later that year, President Nasser emerged victorious during the Suez Crisis, rebuffing the old colonial powers of Britain and France, backed by Israel, and heralding a new era of socialist reform and major modernization projects, such as the Aswan High Dam. 

Over the next decade, Menhat produced monochrome etchings inspired by Egypt’s societal changes, earning her a reputation as a pioneer of Egyptian printmaking. “She documented the first parliamentary elections from the perspective of women, and the building of the High Dam from the perspective of the workers,” says Karim.

Cairo’s historic Maspero neighbourhood was another rich source of inspiration. “In many ways, these etchings need to be in museums and be documented and studied. We’ve transcended the idea of visual art for the sake of visual art; this is now documenting Egyptian history and I think that’s remarkably important,” Karim says.

Various artworks by Menhat Helmy. Images: Courtesy. Click on each image to enlarge it and view its title .

After participating in exhibitions and biennials around the world, and winning a number of awards, by the late 1960s, Menhat dramatically switched styles to geometric abstraction. Inspired by her fascination with the universe, space exploration and technology, she created works that wouldn’t look out of place on a Pink Floyd album cover, says Karim. “It’s as though you’ve taken some acid and you’re viewing the world in an entirely different way,” he laughs.

While researching a forthcoming book about his grandmother, Karim spoke to eminent Egyptian artist, critic and scholar, Dr. Mostafa El Razza, who praised the incredible detail of Menhat’s earlier etchings and the colours she achieved in her abstract work. “He told me, ‘You have no idea, the level of complexity with your grandmother’s work. Few people have even tried to do that since in Egypt’,” Karim recounts.

Menhat returned to London in the 1970s with her husband, Abdelghaffar Khallaf, a medical attaché to the Egyptian Embassy, and two daughters, Nihal and Sara (Karim’s mother). After staging an acclaimed solo exhibition of her abstract work in 1978, she returned to Cairo.

The Market (1957) by Menhat Helmy. Image: Courtesy.
The Park (1959) by Menhat Helmy. Image: Courtesy.

Alongside her role as a lecturer at the Fine Arts Institute in Cairo and a Professor of Fine Arts at Cairo’s Helwan University, Menhat was made an Honorary Professor of Etching at Florence’s Accademia delle Arti del Disegno and a member of the Print Maker Council in the UK. She retired from printmaking in the 1980s due to a lung condition caused by inhaling chemicals used in the process, but continued to teach at Helwan University until her death at age 78.

“It was really a remarkable career, and an underrated one. It speaks a lot about the patriarchal system in Egypt, how we view the importance of women’s art versus men’s art, and the gender bias in the art world in general, which is evident to this day,” Karim says.

The themes of Menhat’s work remain profoundly relevant today and Karim is committed to preserving her legacy. The 28-year-old journalist has penned articles and essays, created a Wikipedia biography and set up Instagram and Facebook accounts, and plans to stage exhibitions and offer a scholarship for Egyptian artists.

“My grandmother is lucky in a sense that I’m here to take over this estate,” he says. “But there are countless incredible, pioneering females in Egypt that will not get documented.” While some works have been sold at auction in the past, Karim is determined to see his grandmother’s paintings and etchings acquired by cultural institutions, rather than personal collectors. “That’s the only way we’re going to revive them,” he adds.

Lara Brunt is an Australian-British journalist. She has previously written for The Telegraph, Lonely Planet and World Traveller.

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.