Gazebia Sirry was born in 1925. Following her graduation from the faculty of art education, she quickly became an artist to be reckoned with. Art critics have attributed this to her passion for life and art. She has to feel strongly to be able to paint. She is either moved by a deep emotion, a scene, or an idea, but (which ever) one it is, the feeling is the catalyst for her painting.
In his introduction to the book Gazebia Sirry Lust for Color, Mursi Saad Eddin writes: "I first met her in London in 1954, a youthful, petite, enthusiastic Egyptian, with a challenging look and absolutely oozing with energy. Gazebia was there to participate in a collective exhibition by the London Group, held at the prestigious New Burlington Galleries," Saad Eddin continues, "I had the pleasure of visiting the exhibition, and immediately realized that I was facing a budding genius, an artist with a message. She was not just another dabbler with ambitions. It was evident that she had something special to say."
For the past forty or fifty years, the original and rebellious painting of Gazebia Sirry has enhanced the Egyptian and international art scene. It was fitting that a beautiful big book should be devoted to her by (AUC) Press: a work which was presented to the public the day after her last exhibition at the Centre of Arts at the Akhenaton Gallery closed. From her first portraits of women, suave, static, to her great impulsive and agitated compositions, the book allows us to contemplate her passage from youth to maturity.
Her inventiveness appeared very early. The young artist participated in the Egyptian Art Group founded in 1952 at the same time as the Group of Contemporary Art which, with Gazzar and Nada, revolutionised art in Egypt by its recourse to the symbolic and to popular reality. A humanist painter, Gazebia Sirry tried to portray the life of the people and denounce inequality, in the footsteps of Uwais and Efflatoun, to achieve an uncompromising art, the reflection of her quest for the unattainable.
The People’s Art
Even in her very first paintings in the early 1950s depicting the Egyptian people, especially women, with highly figurative figures, her exploding talent comes through, yearning to shock and to break the rules. Her figures then were flat, two-dimensional. This gave her paintings an almost ancient quality, as if they were temple drawings, or folkloric appliqués. Was she trying, while still so young, to draw attention to the fact that both the ancient artist and the folkloric one were able to achieve much more than many a modern artist?
As an artist Gazebia felt she had a social role and thus made the human condition her principal subject. At a time when hopes were raised by the Revolution and the social struggle, witness to major political events such as the nationalisation of the Suez Canal and the flooding of the Nubian lands, Gazebia made herself the spokes-person of the deprived, above all women.
Gradually, Gazebia found herself needing less and less brushstrokes to convey her passionate, highly expressionist messages. Gazebia’s career is packed with successful experiments in many techniques and styles, and with messages of hope. Her bleakest and strongest work, though, came following the 1967 defeat. Few can forget Gazebia’s tiny, disintegrated houses, conveying the loss and loneliness of defeat.
Strength and Love
Things have changed, though. Today, the houses have been replaced by people. Groups of people bound by love populate her works. You feel that these people are standing together, taking a unified stand against something. Sometimes, you feel that they are simply socializing. They are a happy bunch, and populate her canvases that seem to have grown larger in size. As the amount of passion and love inside her grows, Gazebia now needs a lot of canvas space to work. One can only imagine the freedom this gives her, allowing her the opportunity to give full rein to her feelings as she paints with long, strong brushstrokes. Her colors have never been stronger or brighter. In this current exhibition entitled Time and People, her subjects appear to be moving from one place to the other. According to Gazebia, they are moving in time.
Again, she is trying to portray the universality of time and space. But the passion Saad Eddin detected in her back in 1953 seems to have quadrupled. Looking at her new works, you cannot help but be carried away with a surge of happiness and hope.
The works of her first period: In the Kitchen (1951), Swing (1956) sensitively depict women at work and children at play. In a figurative but very expressive style and with the use of lively colours, Gazebia shows her pre-occupation poverty and injustice, going so far as to confront current events in Nubian Dreams (1962) or Racial Discrimination (1963). These simple, linear, immediately perceptible compositions, were to become more complex, more expressive, indeed more ambigu-ous.
Towards the end of the 60s, Gazebia broke out of the narrow bounds of figurative realism. In order to get away from it, she turned her attention to urban subjects, but still the people get mixed up with the houses: it is a metamorphosis; the houses are like faces marked by time.' In her series of blocks of flats: Disintegrated Houses (1967), Metamorphosis (1968), an overlapping of geometric forms helps her to broaden her scope
wider than her immediate subject matter .Her more modern aesthetic research still mirrors the life of the people, the promiscuity in soulless tower blocks. Gazebia's favourite themes are always intimately humanist while her style develops and her touch is liberated .
Progressively , Gazebia draws away from perceptible reality to devote herself to ideal subjects where her freedom of expression explodes. Always a lover of rich colours - yellow, red, blue, shades of pink in Desert Compositions (1975) - she seeks to capture the imperceptible in Peace (1978) or Love (1997), without abandoning the reality of her people and her city, People of Cairo (1983). Still profoundly attached to the human figure and to expressionism, she never ceases to buttress her work by her talents as a portrait-ist: Mon Man (1974) or her numerous self- portraits.
She abandons traditional colour harmonies for clashing blues and oranges, greens and pinks, which are more in tune with her sensibility. In The Stranger (1984) she does not hesitate to use black to anchor her forms in a reality which she had let slip for some time.
Gazebia's touch becomes more and more nervous and passionate, she plays with the thickness of the material or sometimes outlines a token subject.. the painting takes a shape released from all contours in Fille-Fleur (1984). Often her canvas, scarcely skimmed with colour, or left completely blank, is like a hiatus inviting meditation, A Lake in the Desert and the Sea (1985), while in others the space is filled with ardor. High Seas (1986) and Storms (1988) are no more than the reflection of an impression.
With Human Compositions from the 90s, the body melts and fuses: the corporeal escapes. These last canvases, which we had the opportunity to view recently at the Akhenaton Gallery, are the crowning glory of this research into the impalpable. The subject exists for itself alone, bodies fade away and meld into each other. For several years Gazebia has laid claim to "a shorthand language" in which well-defined patches of colour act as a background for sketchy unfinished scenes. In Interior Migrations (1997) there would be nothing but spirit if Gazebia had not taken the trouble to indicate the weight of the body by cursive lines like cryptic signals.
But Gazebia's true self shines through this spiritual quest, restoring honour to the life of the people in the beauty of her classically peaceful aquarelles: a Cafe in Tunisia (1985), A Peasant Family from Luxor (1996) This balance between an art perfectly mastered and a thirst for liberation from all constraints, this play of emptiness and plenitude, of depth and surface, of line and colour appears to be a quest for the human essence beyond the formal. The lines of the horizon vanish, bodies are kindled into flame and unite in grave communion.