Artist Spotlight: Menhat Helmy and the Path to Space
April 23, 2020
By Karim Zidan
As in the rest of New York City, the crowd at the Grey Art Gallery was dense and tightly packed, a mixture of ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities gathered together at the opening reception for the exhibition Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World 1950s–1980s, which took place on January 30, 2020. Drawn from the collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah, UAE, this historic show explores the evolution of abstraction in the region through nearly 90 paintings, prints, and sculpture by leading Arab artists. Among the works on view is a painting by my grandmother, Menhat Helmy (1925–2004), a pioneering printmaker who belonged to the “golden generation” of modern Egyptian artists.
Spotting her painting from across the crowded room, I squeezed toward it through throngs of connoisseurs. Titled Space Exploration/Universe (fig. 1) after her fascination with technological advancements in the 1960s and ’70s, the painting stands unaccompanied against the gallery’s rear wall, its placement modest yet central to the installation. The work’s dark-blue tones contrast markedly with its milky frame and the pearly white wall, amplifying its enchanting complexity.
Attending the Grey’s reception was the culmination of my year-long effort to revive my grandmother’s legacy and restore her name to its rightful place in the annals of art. I watched as people took selfies with my grandmother’s painting and congregated around it to discuss their personal interpretations of it: a depiction of the night sky; constellations in perfect formation; a universe in flux; electrons flowing through a circuit board in perfect synergy. Witnessing their curiosity felt surreal, as it was the first time in 15 years that Menhat Helmy’s work had gone on display in a public institution, and in 33 years since any of her art had been seen internationally.
Born in 1925, Menhat Helmy graduated from Cairo’s High Institute of Pedagogic Studies for Art in 1949 before earning a government scholarship in 1953—one year after the July 1952 military coup that overthrew Egypt’s monarchy—and continuing her education at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art in London. According to my research, she was the first Egyptian woman to study at the Slade, closely followed by well-known Egyptian painter Gazbia Sirry in 1955. During her three years at the Slade, Helmy studied design, painting, and printmaking. Eventually settling on etching as her preferred medium, she experimented with using zinc, copper, and wood. This period culminated in her winning the Slade prize for etching in 1955—the first of her many awards and accolades.
Upon Helmy’s return to Egypt in 1956, she found her country engulfed in socio-economic upheaval, geo-political tension, and revolutionary fervor. Armed with her newly developed skill in etching, she documented the societal changes taking place around her, including the Suez Canal crisis, the historic 1957 parliamentary election, and the building of the Aswan High Dam. In her work, she captured the country’s unseen majority: fishermen on the Nile, laborers in brick factories and animal markets, farmers working the fields. She was one of the first artists to capture the rapidly changing Egyptian State through the eyes of women—whether campaigning to vote, breastfeeding in newly erected outpatient clinics, or as prominent members of society working on par with their male counterparts (Ahmad, 1985). Her work during this time cemented her reputation as a pioneer of Egyptian printmaking (Gharib, 1998).
During the 1970s, Helmy’s began to pivot toward abstraction. She grew fascinated with technological advancements such as computers, modern vehicles, and space exploration. In place of her former black-and-white figurative etchings of realistic scenes, she transitioned to conceptual graphics with complex geometric structures and bright colors. Freed from the confines of representational art, Helmy became inspired by the ever-changing world around her. It was during this period that she painted Space Exploration/Universe, a geometric masterpiece that opens a window into the night sky and the universe beyond. This painting and Helmy’s later etchings are among the finest and most important pieces in her oeuvre, and they perfectly encapsulate the final years of her artistic career. In 2019, Space Exploration/Universe was acquired by renowned collector Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi for the Barjeel Art Foundation.
Space Exploration/Universe has been exhibited three times. The first was in 1973—the year my grandmother painted it—at the Fifth General Exhibition of Plastic Arts, Cairo, under the title Broadcast from the Moon. The second was at a 2005 memorial retrospective held the year after her passing. The third is at the Grey Art Gallery in 2020, in Taking Shape.
While I cherish my vivid memories of my grandmother and her gentle nature, few revolve around her art. By the time I was born in 1991, she had been forced to retire from printmaking and painting due to a chest infection she had contracted from the corrosive materials she used during the etching process. Deprived of her creative outlet, Helmy absorbed herself in the role of grandmother. Every now and then, I would ask her questions about her work: Why are those people naked? Why do those people not have faces? Why did you make this in black-and-white? Despite my never-ending childish curiosity, my grandmother never lost her patience, carefully explaining herself in the calm, soothing voice I can still recall.
Though Helmy’s career was cut short by illness, she continued to live her life by the same principles that characterized her geometric works—a penchant for precision, a deep sense of curiosity, and a self-sufficiency that remained steadfast until she departed from our world. I will remember her not just as my grandmother and a role model for my life, but also as a pioneering Egyptian artist who distinguished herself during an extraordinary era in our country’s history.
Karim Zidan is an investigative journalist, creative writer, and translator. His work has appeared in the Guardian, Foreign Policy, OpenDemocracy, and World Literature Today. He manages the estate of Egyptian printmaking pioneer Menhat Helmy.
Ahmad, Fathi. Egyptian Graphic Art. Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organization, 1985. In Arabic.
Gharib, Samir. One Hundred Years of Fine Arts in Egypt. Cairo: Prism Publications, 1988.
Zuhur, Sherifa. Colors of Enchantment: Theater, Dance, Music, and the Visual Arts of the Middle East. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2001.