Gazbia Sirry began the 1950s with portraits of everyday Egyptians rendered in black outline and filled in with bright, even colors. The Fortune Teller (1959) represents a shift in her style toward abstraction, with gestural scratches replacing thick contour lines and symbolic shades drowning naturalistic color. Eventually her subject matter turned inward and took on an esoteric essence, a shift attributed to her need to explore Egyptians’ socio-political experiences beyond their domestic spaces. She became increasingly disillusioned with the Egyptian government for its non-democratic silencing of dissidents, and in 1959 both the artist and her husband were imprisoned for supposedly participating in anti-establishment activities.
Like many Arab artists reacting against rising authoritarian regimes, Sirry funneled her lamentations into the human form and used it to carry transcendent messages. In The Fortune Teller, two nude figures with heads in profile ‒ one male, one female ‒ flank a large central figure who gazes out just to the viewer’s left, indicating an unsettling foreknowledge that is beyond the viewer’s sight. Her face is painted in gold and blue, colors used on ancient royal sarcophagi, but her rounded belly and swollen breasts instead indicate nascent life. By contrast, the arms of the mud-red male figure on the right are crossed over his chest, a traditional burial pose, suggesting death. The painting’s title prompts the viewer to contemplate that which is forthcoming; yet the future is uncertain and this only emphasizes the anxieties so powerfully expressed by Sirry’s brush.
Over a wide-ranging and prolific career, Gazbia Sirry has painted strong Egyptian women. She graduated from Cairo’s Higher Institute for Arts Education for Women in 1949 and completed further studies in Rome, Paris, and London. In her painting she sought to blend the traditions of Egypt with European modernism. Politically, she was influenced by the socialist politics of President Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Egyptian Revolution of 1952. Sirry continuously innovated and experimented in her artistic style. Her early work resembled naïve illustration, evolving into Expressionism with thick, forceful applications of paint, and in the aftermath of the Six-Day War of 1967, Sirry’s former realism became abstraction. Also in 1967, Sirry’s work was exhibited at the Brenken Gallery in Stockholm, leading to international recognition. She was an active contributor to Cairo’s Contemporary Art Group. Sirry was a professor in the painting department of Jamieat Hulwan (Helwan University) and the American University in Cairo. She received the Prix de Rome for painting in 1952. Among other exhibitions, Sirry has shown in four editions of the Venice Biennale (1952; 1956; 1958; 1984), two editions of the Bienal de São Paulo (1952; 1963) and three Alexandria Bienniales (1959; 1961; 1963).