Menhat Helmy: Reclaiming the Legacy of an Egyptian Modernist

The Mahmoud-Khalil-Museum

The Mahmoud-Khalil-Museum
A grandson’s quest to preserve his grandmother’s artistic legacy offers an insightful and instructive look at how to manage the estate of an artist

A grandson’s quest to preserve his grandmother’s artistic legacy offers an insightful and instructive look at how to manage the estate of an artist

courtesy the estate of the artist

Advertisment for Menhat Helmy's 2005 retrospective

It was the first time that the vast majority of Helmy’s oeuvre had ever been on display in a single setting—a career spanning four decades laid bare for all to see.

 

The Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum was even more grand by night. Built in 1915 using elements of the Art Nouveau style of architecture, the four-story villa, once owned by politician turned art patron Mahmoud Khalil Pasha, was adorned with glass and metalwork fixtures at the entrance, while its eastern side faced the River Nile, glistening beneath the crescent moon. Spotlights and lampposts peppered the garden leading towards the entrance, guiding us towards a state-of-the-art exhibition hall—the largest of its kind at the time in Egypt—where a tribute was being held for my grandmother, Menhat Helmy.

The historic exhibition debuted in December 2005, eighteen months following the pioneering artist’s passing. The retrospective show, which brought together a career’s worth of artworks ranging from sketches, portraits, and paintings, to sculptures and abstract etchings. It was the first time that the vast majority of Helmy’s oeuvre had ever been on display in a single setting—a career spanning four decades laid bare for all to see. It was an unveiling that helped resurrect the career of an artist who was all but lost to the annals of old exhibition catalogues and cemented her status as a pioneer during the golden age of modern Egyptian art.

Though I was only thirteen years old at the time, I have vivid memories of the opening night. I attended the exhibition along with my mother, Sara—smiling from ear to ear as she took in her mother’s work, seeing some of the pieces for the first time in decades—and my brother, Rami. Many of Helmy’s brothers and sisters who had succeeded her were also in attendance. I recall the ribbon-cutting ceremony with then Minister of Culture Farouk Hosny and the endless sea of faces that filled the exhibition hall shortly thereafter.

My aunt Nihal, who was two years older than my mother, was responsible for the event and its eventual success. She worked with renowned sculptor and curator Ehab El-Laban to bring the retrospective to life, which included the Herculean task of archiving and cataloguing hundreds of artworks. As a successful businesswoman and art lover, she assumed the responsibility of managing the estate, and her first order of business had been the retrospective in tribute to her mother. Sadly, it was also one of the last things my aunt would do.

Nihal was killed in a tragic car accident in September 2007. Her loss devastated our family and dimmed any grand plans we may have had for my grandmother’s estate. My family, comprised of my single mother and younger brother, left Egypt and emigrated to Canada, taking with us only a handful of my grandmother’s works. The rest went into storage, and would not see the light of day for many years.

Then in 2019—seven years removed from my last trip to Egypt—I returned to Cairo with the sole intention of uncovering my grandmother’s legacy. Since then, my mother and I have been on a journey of rediscovery, slowly following in my aunt’s footsteps to form a complete archive of Menhat Helmy’s work. We removed the art from storage, documented the works in great detail, and tried to place it along a complete timeline of Helmy’s professional career. We digitized the missing parts of the collection and sought out her former colleagues, students, and mentees in order to reconstruct her life and legacy. Through this article, I hope to share with you some insight into managing art estates, with the hope that other families will find the inspiration and motivation to restore their own family legacies.

From England to Cairo in Etchings

Menhat Allah Helmy was born in 1925 as the middle child in a family of seven sisters and two brothers. As the daughter of a legal consultant in the Ministry of Education, she had limited exposure to the visual arts. And yet, she managed to distinguish herself through her artistic expression. She dedicated herself to the craft and later graduated with distinction from Cairo’s High Institute of Pedagogic Studies for Art in 1949. Her noticeable talent earned her a government scholarship in 1953—one year after the July 1952 military coup that overthrew Egypt’s monarchy—to continue her education at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art in London.

During her three years at Slade, where she studied under the likes of world-renowned sculptor Henry Moore and others like Graham Sutherland and William Coldstream, Helmy focused on painting and graphic printmaking, eventually settling on etchings as her preferred medium. She began to experiment with different plates, using copper, zinc and wood to produce black-and-white prints that distinguished her work at a young age. She journeyed across England during her three years at Slade, exploring London’s parks, churches, and rivers, and traveling to places like the Isle of Wight and to small towns along the countryside. She carried a small sketchbook, which she used to lay the foundations for her later prints. Her dedication to the craft of printmaking did not go unnoticed, as the Egyptian artist—one of the first to attend the prestigious school—went on to win the Slade Prize for Etching in 1955.

courtesy the estate of the artist

Menhat Helmy, River Thames

Upon Helmy’s return to Egypt in 1956, she found her country engulfed in socio-economic upheaval, geopolitical 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. Her work during this time cemented her reputation as a pioneer of Egyptian printmaking.

Helmy’s pioneering work did not go unnoticed. After participating in most local exhibitions from 1956 onwards, she won the Cairo Production Exhibition Prize in 1957 and the Salon du Caire Prize in 1959 and 1960. She was also made an Honorary Academic at the prestigious Accademia delle Arti del Disegno for her work displayed at the Ljubljana Biennale.

After establishing herself as an award-winning and acclaimed etcher both at home and on the international stage by the late 1960s, Helmy decided to pivot away from the black-and-white etchings that characterized her work, instead challenging herself to create powerful political paintings and abstract prints, the latter of which were ahead of their time in the Egyptian art scene. She returned to London in 1972—this time accompanied by her husband and two daughters, Nihal and Sara—and completed her pivot towards abstraction, and thus created some of the works that would become her signature pieces. Her black-and-white etchings were a thing of the past, replaced instead by conceptual graphics with complex geometric structures and bright colors inspired by her fascination with the universe, space exploration, technological advancements, and modern machinery.

courtesy the estate of the artist

Menhat Helmy, The Elections

Unfortunately, Helmy’s second stint in the United Kingdom, which ended in 1979, can also be viewed as the twilight of the artist’s career. She held a solo exhibition in London for her abstract work in 1978, which was met with critical acclaim, before returning to Cairo for another solo show the following year. Just 54 years old at the time, Helmy purchased a printing press and studio space in Cairo, where she planned to continue to produce more works. Then, her career came to an unexpected end. Helmy’s lungs began to suffer after years of inhaling fumes from the printmaking process. Then, in 1988, her husband of more than thirty years passed away. Torn from the partner she cherished and deprived of the art that brought her the most joy, Helmy decided to retire. Her final print is dated 1983–a full twenty-one years before her own passing in 2004.

The Legacy Lives On

In 1973, Helmy 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. It was then acquired by renowned collector and Arab art patron Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi for the Barjeel Art Foundation—an independent UAE-based initiative that houses one of the finest collections of modern Arab art—in 2019. Sultan acquired the work with the specific purpose of placing it in his historic exhibition titled, Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World 1950s-80s, which debuted at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery in January 2020.

The decision to part ways with Space Exploration/Universe was one of the most difficult decisions that my mother and I had to make. We cherished the painting—a masterpiece among masterpieces. But we also felt a sense of responsibility towards the art and knew it was better served on display to the public than in its continued existence in our family home, viewed only by a select few. As much as we wanted to keep it, we knew it would have been selfish to do so.

courtesy the estate of the artist

Menhat Helmy, Space Exploration/Universe

In 1973, Helmy painted Space Exploration/Universe, a geometric masterpiece that opens a window into the night sky and the universe beyond.

 

This is just one example of the responsibilities assumed when managing an important artist’s estate. While the art is technically in your possession, it should be interpreted as a public good and placed in collections that help ease its accessibility. This worked in our favor, as the Barjeel Art Foundation’s exhibition in New York was met with critical acclaim, including reviews in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and countless other notable mainstream outlets. The publicity brought attention to my grandmother, whose work had not gone on display internationally in more than thirty years. It also cemented her place alongside the other great Arab artists included in the exhibition, including the likes of Ibrahim El Salahi, Samia Halaby, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Samir Rafi, Hamed Abdalla, and Kamal Boullata. To this day, I am grateful to Sultan Al Qassemi for all the help and support he has shown my family.

While young artists tend to sell their works to the highest bidder, even if that means the work will disappear into a private collection, this is not necessarily the case for established artists, and certainly should not be the strategy that an art estate manager should pursue. While having some of your work in certain private collections constitutes a badge of honor for some, I believe it is far more valuable to have those works placed in museums around the world, where they would be appreciated for their value, their historical context, and their cultural significance. As such, I have made it a priority to place my grandmother’s work in internationally reputable museums—a Herculean task given the limited space dedicated to modern Egyptian or Arab art.

To date, my grandmother’s work has been acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts in Cairo, the Museum of Fine Arts in Minya, the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, and the Barjeel Art Foundation, which has its own wing in the Sharjah Art Museum. The next focus will be to place her in museums in the Western world.

In order to achieve this, my mother and I have taken up the task of uncovering and digitally archiving my grandmother’s collection of works, with the intention of producing the first monograph about her career. We have enlisted the help of several renowned scholars to contribute essays on her significance in the modern Egyptian art landscape, as well as the political context of her work. My hope is that the book, coupled with several international retrospective shows, will spark newfound interest in my grandmother’s work and pave the way for further acquisitions by prestigious museums.

Determined to achieve this ambitious plan, I traveled back to Cairo on three separate occasions during 2019, each time with a different purpose relating to my grandmother’s work. The initial trip was where I began the process of uncovering her work in storage, moving it back into our family home, and archiving as much of the documentation as possible, from letters to old catalogues, press clippings, and photos. Each of the following trips built on the foundation of the initial trip and allowed my mother and I to gather an exceptional amount of information on my grandmother, as well as help me identify and categorize approximately eighty percent of her oeuvre. We even discovered some previously unknown artworks along the way!

courtesy the estate of the artist

Menhat Helmy, Nude Woman with Red Drape

Since then, I have written articles recounting my experiences, academic pieces on my grandmother’s artistic endeavors, and established an internet footprint for Menhat Helmy’s work in English in order to ensure she is accessible to as wide an audience as possible. This included creating social media pages that are regularly updated with old photographs and artworks. I have also made myself and my resources available to researchers and scholars interested in learning more about her work.

The process of uncovering, archiving, and managing my grandmother’s estate has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my entire life. Not only did it introduce me to an entirely new world—that of modern Egyptian art and the industry surrounding it—it allowed me to reconnect with my grandmother, who had passed away fifteen years prior when I was only twelve years old. It is an experience that few ever get to enjoy, and I consider myself lucky to have had this opportunity.

And yet, there are plenty of renowned Egyptian artists whose legacies have not been well maintained. This is particularly true for female artists, most of whom were lost to history. From pioneering modernists such as Kawkab Al-Assal, Khadija Riyad, Sadeeqa Hassanein, and Ihsan Khaleel, to younger artists who followed a generation later like Wesam Fahmy and Laila Al-Sawi, there are countless Egyptian artists who have not gotten the long-lasting recognition they deserve. Only artists with dedicated families or estate managers, such as Hamed Abdalla (managed by his son Samir Abdalla), Effat and Mohamed Naghi (managed by art consultancy Art D’Egypte), Sobhi Guirguis (managed by ArtTalks) and Marguerite Nakhla (studied and protected by curator Helene Moussa of the Coptic Museum of Ontario), continue to thrive years after their passing.

During my journey managing my grandmother’s estate, I have come to realize that few families are capable of managing such important estates, whether because they lack the necessary resources, the education, or the interest in such a formidable task. Others are simply interested in the monetary value and choose to sell off the estate piecemeal. Yet, unless an artist’s work is properly catalogued, verified, and studied, their legacy will remain incomplete, which in turn means that Egypt’s history will also remain incomplete.

About the Author

Karim Zidan

Karim Zidan is an investigative journalist, creative writer, and freelance translator. His work has appeared on The Guardian, Foreign Policy, VOX Media, Open Democracy, among others. He is also Menhat Helmy’s grandson and the manager of her artistic estate.

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