Sirry seemed like an icon from another, much richer and more fecund time.
Indeed like two other woman artists of her generation, Tahia Halim (1919-2003) and Inji Aflatoun (1924-1989), Sirry was a public intellectual, an Arab pioneer whose contribution went beyond the artistic sphere and who confronted the social taboo on a public role for women to leave her mark on society at large.
Unlike the other two artists, in fact, Sirry who lived for nearly a century and gave over 75 solo exhibitions believed in formal art education, receiving scholarships to various capitals and ultimately studying in London and living in Paris.
Born in the Cairo neighbourhood of Boulak, she attended the Higher Institute for Woman Teachers – the basis of what would later become the Faculty of Art Education, Helwan University, with which she remained affiliated all through her life and whose students competed for an annual award in her name – earning diplomas in art education and fine art in 1948 and 1949, respectively. She continued her education in Paris, where she studied painting in 1950, moving to Rome in 1950 and Slade School, London in 1954. On her return she eventually became a professor of painting at the Faculty of Art Education, a position she maintained until 1981, teaching at the American University in Cairo in 1981 and 1982.
Expressing his grief at her loss, the former president of the Egyptian Art Academy in Rome Ashraf Reda said her long career documented Egyptian history from her own viewpoint and quoted the Italian critic Carnmine Siniscalcoas saying she was a landmark of women’s art in Egypt, choosing to keep her paintings two-dimensional and using a soft, subdued palette with dark outlines and in this way balancing an outward image with a hidden meaning.
Considering how prolific she was, Sirry’s varied and widespread oeuvre would be difficult to survey, but the Zamalek Gallery retrospective of her work four years ago, which included works representing various stages of her career, gave an idea of the range and power of her achievement. It included sketches, water colours and graphic works as well as oils that demonstrated her ability to respond to the evolution of Egyptian painting with the realist character that the nationalist commitments of the late 1950s and early 1960s gave her work giving way to surrealism (she was influenced by the Egyptian surrealist Samir Rafi’) as well as a cubism deeply influenced by Islamic design and later an expressionism all her own.
Born of the 1952 Revolution and initially devoted to social justice and engagement, she belongs in a generation that includes such towering (male) figures as Abdel-Hadi Al-Gazzar, Hamed Nada and Hassan Soliman, and enjoys the same stature.
That generation moved from impressionism, which had reached its apogee with Ragheb Ayyad, to an expressionism building on the achievement of such early pioneers of modern Egyptian painting as Mahmoud Said. Relying on state patronage, notably under the legendary minister of culture Tharwat Okasha, though their work never devolved into propaganda, they sought to produce an accessible and politically committed art. They expressed both nationalist concerns and folk culture, the latter especially evident in Al-Gazzar’s pseudo-mythical paintings of folk-inspired scenes. Like many of those artists, Sirry was also commissioned to document life in Nubia prior to the building of the Aswan High Dam (which inundated much of that part of the country).
Rather than moving from nationalist realism into a fantastical mould, interacting with grassroots culture, Sirry employed what the critic Farouk Bassiouni calls “a conscious modernism” to create “an Egyptian expressionism” – evident in her famous series on children’s street games including The Kite (1960), a particularly well-known painting acquired by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bassiouni stresses Sirry’s drawing on the art of arabesque, her deep understanding of architectural rhythm and her connection to nature.
The observer will trace in Sirry’s development a movement from human faces and figures increasingly abstracted through geometric patterns to houses – perhaps her richest period – and from houses to the quietude and stillness of the desert.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.