Remembering Menhat Helmy: My Beloved and Progressive Grandmother


I stood distraught in my old house in the leafy suburb of Maadi in Cairo. In the 10 years I had been away from the city, the apartment walls had developed cracks, mold had mushroomed in some places, and dust hid everything. I had never seen a piece of my childhood in such a state of disrepair, but I put my pain on the back burner and searched for why I was here: to save the work of my grandmother Menhat Helmy .

Something had clicked when I visited the house in 2019 – perhaps it was the cacophony of sounds from Cairene Street mixed with the ubiquitous songs of Umm Kulthum, the constant gaze of the Pyramids, the sweet taste of strong tea, the friendly faces of my childhood. Perhaps I had wrapped this painful longing in a tight cellophane wrapper that had come loose because it had to be felt. I knew I had to save Nanna’s job and I had to do it now.

My aunt, rest her soul, had done a great job of documenting her mother’s work in the early 2000s, but I knew, as a journalist, that it had to be digitized, shot in high resolution format, re- professionally cataloged and made accessible. For 10 hours, four movers climbed four flights of stairs, packed up 100 works of art and loaded them onto trucks.

Although I asked them to go 10 kilometers per hour, I held my breath as we drove through the potholes en route to my late aunt’s apartment (now the family home). Six flights of stairs later, I called my cousin Amr and together we unpacked, inspected and hung up all the paintings. Amid the melodious sounds of the street emanating from below, sheer awe consumed us as we sat and wondered how Nanna had done all this.

I spend hours looking at his abstract pieces and always identify new dimensions and a plethora of optical illusions. What looks like a green square at first glance employs dozens of shades of green and leaves you wondering how far she’s gone given her fascination with space, technology and spirituality.

Karim Zidan on the work of his grandmother Menhat Helmy

The familiarity of certain paintings felt like a portal to my childhood, triggering the memory of conversations with Nanna. My eyes fell on an engraving of a nude, and I smiled, remembering my teenage innocence when I asked her how she could draw a woman she didn’t know. It was only later that I learned that this print had received an award from the Slade School of Fine Arts in 1955, where Nanna had studied drawing, painting and printmaking.

She never mentioned that she was a skilled artist or renowned art teacher; it was always my mother and my family members who talked about his accomplishments. Nanna was far too modest and always eloquently suppressed any discussion of her success.

Helmy's 'High Dam: The Deal' (1964), a black and white zinc etching.  Photo: Domaine de Menhat Helmy

She lived in the affluent neighborhood of Zamalek in an apartment with a huge library (which I now own) and an engraving machine, which she donated to Helwan University, where she taught until her death, in part due to lung damage from the chemicals in his etchings.

I remember how her violent cough left her gasping each night, her body struggling to soothe her burning lungs as I massaged her back until she fell asleep. When morning came, I marveled at her precision at breakfast: a small piece of bread and cheese, which she would cut into small cubes and eat piece by piece, slowly and steadily.

I think that this serenity and this meticulousness that she applied to everything came from her childhood, when she had the right to be. Nanna’s father valued the education and independence of his daughters, and without a doubt, when you are given such respect and freedom, you thrive.

After graduating from the Higher Institute of Educational Studies in Cairo in 1949, Nanna enrolled at Slade in 1952 and the black and white prints she made later document life in Egypt: the construction of the High Dam of Aswan, workers in the suburb of Bulaq and the Parliamentary elections of 1957 marked the first time that women were allowed to vote or stand for office.

In 1957 she married my grandfather, Abdelghaffar Khallaf, a doctor whose progressive attitude towards women mirrored the traits of Nanna’s father. He became a Medical Attaché at the Egyptian Embassy in London, where Nanna studied Color Graphic Design at Morley College between 1973 and 1978. From her I know their marriage was a partnership bound by respect and love ; he encouraged her – you can see it in his beaming face in the photos from his exhibits.

His historically relevant works from the 1950s and 1960s speak of an Egypt that I cannot find in textbooks. I am impressed by the way Nanna perceives women in society and political life.

She was so ahead of her time that it almost hurt her – in a visitors’ book for an exhibition, an anonymous comment reads: “While this art is indeed impressive, it disappoints me to see that you have adopted a Western style instead of a nationalist fervor”. .” Too bad this person could not understand that Nanna’s abstraction was entirely influenced by Islamic art.

I spend hours looking at his abstract pieces and always identify new dimensions and a plethora of optical illusions. What looks like a green square at first glance employs dozens of shades of green and leaves you wondering how far she’s gone given her fascination with space, technology and spirituality.

Helmy during a personal exhibition in 1979 at the Goethe Institute in Cairo.  Photo: Domaine de Menhat Helmy

Nanna died in 2004, and three years later my aunt died in a car accident. My mother, my brother and I then moved to Canada to start a new life. I studied journalism, and Egypt seemed so far away, and so did Nanna’s art, until that fateful return all those years later.

Although I can hear her shutting me up and telling me not to fuss, it’s almost as if her legacy is telling me otherwise: months after saving her artwork, my mother returned to apartment and, as fate would have it, she has never been found before. -saw copper and zinc plates that Nanna used to create her etchings, as well as sketchbooks, exhibition catalogs and books.

I was thrilled and felt even more compelled to celebrate it. Now that we have formalized the succession, more articles are being written about her, institutions and researchers are reaching out and I think it is up to us to applaud a woman who has built an amazing legacy in a society and a patriarchal industry.

Nanna made me feel like the most special and brilliant person in the world. It’s funny, that’s precisely what I think of her.

Remembering the Artist is our series that features local artists

Updated: January 29, 2022, 12:17 p.m.


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