B.JULY 11, 1925 IN HELWAN,
EGYPT, D.MAY 10, 2004 IN
Interviewee: Karim Zidan
Facebook: The Art of Menhat Helmy
– Participated in most local exhibitions in Egypt from 1956 to 1995.
– Solo Show, Etchings at Akhnaton Hall, Cairo, Egypt, 1966.
– Solo Show, Etchings and Graphics, London, 1978.
– Solo Show, Etchings at Goethe Institute, Cairo, Egypt, 1979
– Solo Show, at University Austral of Chile, Chile, 1985
– Retrospective Show, Horizon One Gallery, Cairo, Egypt, 2005
– Participated at the Venice Biennale, Italy, 1980
– Participated at the Third World Biennale of Graphic Art, 1980, Iraqi Cultural Center, London.
– Participated in many biennales between 1961 and 1997, including in Alexandria, Ljubljana Krakow, Frechen (West Germany), Tokyo, Fredrikstad (Norway), Dublin, and Bradford.
– Participated at the Contemporary Arab Artists exhibition in London, 1982
– Participated at the India Triennale, 1981.
– Slade School of Fine Arts Prize for Etching, 1955.
– Salon Du Caire Prize for 1959 and 1960.
– Cairo Production Exhibition Prize, 1957.
– Ljubljana Honorary Prize, 1961.
– Honourary Professor at the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, 1963 for works exhibited at the Ljubljana Biennale for Graphics.
– National Merit Prize for Etching, Egypt, 1981.
Books Menhat Helmy is cited in:
– Ahmad, Fathi (1985). Egyptian Graphic Art (Arabic). Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation.
– AlSaady, Hoda (2008). Female Pioneers of Egyptian Art. Cairo: The Women and Memory Forum
– Gharib, Samir (1998). One Hundred Years of Fine Arts in Egypt. Cairo: Prism Publications.
– Kanafani, Fatenn Mostafa (2020). Modern Art in Egypt: Identity and Independence, 1850-1936. London: I.B. Tauris
– Takesh, Suheyla (2020). Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s-1980s. Munich: Hirmer
– Videkanic, Bojana (2020). Nonaligned Modernism: Socialist Postcolonial Aesthetics in Yugoslavia, 1945-1985. Montreal: McGill- Queen’s University Press.
– Zuhur, Sherifa (2001). Colours of Enchantment: Theater, Dance, Music, and the Visual Arts of the Middle East. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.
– Engraved on the Heart: Remembering Menhat Helmy, Egypt’s forgotten pioneer (Manazir)
– Menhat Helmy: Reclaiming the Legacy of an Egyptian Modernist (Art & Objects)
– Menhat Helmy: Uncovering the Legacy of an Egyptian Pioneer (RAWI Magazine)
– Artist Spotlight: Menhat Helmy and the Path to Space (Grey Art Gallery)
Articles written by others:
Rediscovering Menhat Helmy, Egypt’s pioneering printmaker (Sekka Magazine)
Remembering Menhat Helmy: My beloved, progressive grandmother (The National Newspaper)
*Egyptian artist and notable critic Mostafa Al Razzaz wrote a longform essay about Menhat Helmy in 2005, shortly following her passing.
Biography of Menhat Helmy
Menhat Helmy (1925-2004) was a pioneering artist in the world of Egyptian etchings and printmaking.
Born in Helwan, Egypt, Helmy graduated from Cairo’s High Institute of Pedagogic Studies for Art in 1949 before continuing her education at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art between 1952–55. Her time at the institution culminated with her winning the Slade Prize for Etching in 1955.
Upon her return to Egypt, Helmy participated in most local exhibitions, winning the Cairo Production Exhibition prize in 1957, as well consecutive Salon Du Caire awards in 1959 and 1960. Helmy was then invited to participate in over a dozen biennales around the world during the 1950s and 1960s, including the Venice Biennale in Italy. She was awarded a prize for her etchings at the 1961 Ljubljana Biennale for Graphic Arts and was later made an Honorary Academic at the prestigious Accademia delle Arti del Disegno for her body of work. She held her first solo show at the Akhenaten Gallery in 1966.
Helmy’s early work was marked by socialist undertones and revolutionary themes. She frequently painted and etched workers, peasants, women, as well as elaborate urban and rural scenes in Cairo. Later, she turned to abstraction and employed geometry to create works inspired by the exploration of space and technological advancements such as the computer. While Helmy’s earlier work was representative of this political style, her later abstraction stepped far outside its bounds and into new frontiers that were yet to be extensively explored in Egyptian art.
Interview with Karim Zidan
I am a journalist and I write for major outlets like the New York Times, The Guardian. As Menhat Helmy’s grandson, I have been involved in the artist’s estate since early 2019, when I took over from my aunt. My mother, Sara Khallaf, also supports our work. Since 2019, we have advanced a lot but we’re still in what I would call the early stages compared to other estates. We haven’t turned the estate into a legal entity yet but that is something my mother and I have been discussing.
Growing up, I was very close to my grandmother. I lived in Bahrain at the time and she would call me twice a week to check up on me, but I would also spend the summer with her in Cairo. I have so many fun memories. I won’t pretend to say that I knew her as an artist. At this point she had completely retired and was not participating in the art world beyond teaching at the University of Helwan in Zamalek. I have found two of her former students, who have wonderful stories to tell. I am excited to hear more about the teacher side of her, as this is an aspect of her life that I have yet to discover.
My grandmother’s story is quite interesting: at the height of her career, in the 1980s, she retired as the chemicals that she had worked with as a print maker had affected her lungs. She spiralled into depression and anxiety, and hadn’t really prepared for the next step of what would happen to her art. A lot of it went into storage, which got flooded while she was still alive. She was terrified to go and inspect the damage. At that point, around the year 2000, we were very lucky that my aunt, my mother’s sister Nihal, took the lead and managed the estate until Nihal tragically passed away in a car accident in 2007.
In 2019, when I took over, I unpacked all the paintings and the etchings, documenting as much as I could. I used the documentation that my aunt had left behind for the artwork that she had selected for a major retrospective exhibition that happened in 2005. That was the only inventory that we had. Part of why I enjoy managing this estate so much is because I feel close not only to my grandmother, who passed away when I was 13, but also to Nihal because I get to see her process. When I was going through Nihal’s files, I found her notes on what she planned to do with the estate. She wanted to create a full inventory, to archive it and expand the network, to sell to specific museums and to large estates. These are exactly the same things I have managed to do, and it was an emotional moment to know that I am on the right path and following in her footsteps.
The only thing on her list I haven’t achieved is the book, as the pandemic slowed things down significantly. I am working with a couple of researchers, including Dr Patrick Kane, who are going to produce essays that I want to include. We are at a stage where we need funding because I don’t want to resort to having to sell off artworks to produce the book. Whatever funding I can achieve outside of selling of parts of the estate would be wonderful, as I want this to be a quality book and it will play a valuable role in securing my grandmother’s legacy.
I have shifted the focus to expanding the inventory and the archive as much as possible. I have created sections for the archive: Menhat Helmy the artist, the mother, the grandmother, and I have sections reflecting the different periods of her art. She never left a journal and that’s one of the things that broke my heart. However, our family is large, so stories about her still exist. My great grandfather was very progressive. He had seven daughters and forbade them to marry until they had finished their education. Some of them finished university, married and settled into a traditional life, whereas my grandmother worked before getting married and having children, so she was by all accounts very untraditional. I am currently in the process of finding all the letters she wrote. A collection of letters between her, my mother and my aunt gives me a way to document everything that she was doing in the 1970s, but I haven’t been able to do that for the 1950s. This is why I am visiting all my cousins’ homes to see what I can find. My discoveries include a booklet of photos that document her time as an art student in Cairo.
In terms of the inventory, one of the hardest things is that I can still not say for certain that I have found all my grandmother’s works. We are in the range of 300 works when we combine both the paintings and the etchings. The paintings are far fewer in number than the prints. She didn’t do too many oils on canvas; she saved that for the pieces she believed were exceptional. The emotion, the history and the stories that went into her paintings are phenomenal. That’s why some of them will never leave the family, no matter how much money is offered. They are just too precious in that sense. Her prints were phenomenal and that’s what she loved. She viewed herself as a pioneer and her true avant-garde skills showed in her prints.
I am not too concerned about forgeries yet, although I would take it as a major compliment, as it would be a sign that they think that there is value to the work. We produced certificates of authenticity for the works that were acquired by Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi for the Barjeel Art Foundation. These are some of my personal favourites and they represent my grandmother very well. The piece called “Space Exploration” that is currently on display as part of the travelling Arab Abstract exhibition that Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi initiated a few years ago in New York is genuinely one of my favourite artworks by my grandmother. I consider it a masterpiece from her oeuvre. It is very reflective of who she is, her abstraction, her love for space, her meticulous style when it comes to painting, the geometric synergy that is always present in her work. When we compare the “Outpatient Clinic”, which she did in 1950, with “Space Exploration”, which was produced in the 1970s, it really shows a distinction in her styles. In the 1950s, she was trying to discover who she was as an artist in this ever-changing country. Nasser was in power, there was no longer an Egyptian monarchy and there was this new social mobility. She chose to reflect this by focusing on what I like to call the silent majority, which is the downtrodden or impoverished class. A lot of her etchings depicted parliamentary elections in which women voted for the first time. The “Outpatient Clinic” is one of the rare pieces in Egyptian art, especially at that time, that depicted breastfeeding. The only other artist I know of who was doing that back then was Gazbia Sirry, who was a very good friend of my grandmother.
It is almost as if every time my grandmother mastered a certain style of art, she got bored and moved on to the next thing. I have artworks by her all over the house. I love when people come over and tell me which they love the most; there is never a uniform answer. She was able to capture people’s attention using different emotions and styles.
The 100-year anniversary of my grandmother’s birth will be in 2025. By then, I would hope to have had a book on her published and to be gearing up for a major retrospective. This time we will encompass the majority of her work, including a lot we have uncovered. I would like to work with Ihab El Labban, who did the retrospective for my grandmother in 2005. That was the first major retrospective of his career and now he’s the lead curator for the Egyptian government. Working with him again feels like this is coming full circle. So much of my grandmother’s career was rooted in London both in the 1950s and the 1970s. I don’t think that she would have fallen in love with printmaking had it not been for her time there, so it would be fair to split the retrospective between Cairo and London.
My dream is that the estate will become self-sustaining. I envision managing the estate and taking it forward for the rest of my days. I haven’t been popular amongst private collectors because I have refused to sell a lot of my grandmother’s works. I am far more interested in placing them at museums. I would like to work with major museums on exhibitions, publish books regularly, and have a website, which we are working on right now. The Instagram account I created has been incredibly useful to expand our reach. Lots of people have reached out, including collectors and scholars. I would also like the estate to start selling small prints. My grandmother got into printmaking because she wanted her art to be more accessible, so selling prints of her work is worth doing for this reason.
Images courtesy of Karim Zidan
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS #59 MODERN ART AND ARTIST ESTATES: WAYS, WORKS AND ARCHIVES – VOL I