I stood distraught in my old home in the leafy suburb of Maadi in Cairo. In the 10 years that I’d been away from the city, the apartment’s walls had developed cracks, mould had mushroomed in some areas and dust masked everything. I’d never seen a piece of my childhood in such disrepair, but I parked my pain and charged ahead with why I was here: to save my grandmother Menhat Helmy’s artwork.
Something had clicked during my visit home in 2019 – maybe it was the cacophony of Cairene street sounds mixed with the omnipresence of Umm Kulthum’s songs, the constant gaze of the Pyramids, the sweet taste of strong tea, the friendly faces from my childhood. Maybe I had packed this sorrowful nostalgia in tight cellophane wrapping that had come loose because it had to be felt. I knew I had to save Nanna’s work and I had to do it right 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 ought to be digitised, shot in high-resolution format, re-catalogued professionally and made accessible. Over 10 hours, four movers walked up four flights of stairs, repacked 100 artworks and loaded them on to trucks.
Though I’d instructed them to drive at 10 kilometres per hour, I held my breath as we traversed the potholes en route to my late aunt’s apartment (now the family home). Six flights of stairs up later, I called my cousin Amr and together we unpacked, inspected and hung all the paintings. Amid the melodious street sounds emanating from below, the sheer awe consumed us as we sat back and wondered how Nanna did all this.
The familiarity of some paintings felt like a portal to my childhood, triggering the recollection of conversations with Nanna. My eyes fell on an etching of a nude, and I smiled, remembering my adolescent innocence when I asked how she could draw a woman she didn’t know. Only later did I learn that this etching was awarded a prize from the Slade School of Fine Arts in 1955, where Nanna had studied drawing, painting and etching.
She never mentioned that she was a skilled artist or celebrated arts professor; it was always my mother and family members who spoke of her achievements. Nanna was far too modest and always eloquently shushed any discussion on her success.
She lived in the affluent Zamalek district in an apartment with a massive library (which I now own) and a printmaking machine, which she donated to Helwan University, where she taught until her death, in part owing to lung damage that was brought on from the chemicals in her etchings.
I remember how her violent cough would leave her heaving each night, her body wrestling to quell her burning lungs as I rubbed her back until she slept. When morning came, I’d marvel at her precision at breakfast: a small piece of bread and some cheese, which she cut in small cubes and ate morsel by morsel, slow and steady.
I think that this serenity and meticulousness that she applied to everything stemmed from her childhood, when she was allowed to just be. Nanna’s father was keen on his daughters’ education and independence, and no doubt, when you’re given such respect and freedom, you flourish.
After graduating from Cairo’s High Institute of Pedagogic Studies in 1949, Nanna enrolled at the Slade in 1952 and the black-and-white etchings she made afterwards documented life in Egypt: the construction of the Aswan High Dam, workers in the Bulaq suburb and the 1957 parliamentary elections that marked the first time women were allowed to vote or stand for election.
In 1957, she married my grandfather, Abdelghaffar Khallaf, a physician whose progressive attitude towards women mirrored traits in Nanna’s father. He became medical attache to the Egyptian embassy in London, where Nanna studied coloured graphics at Morley College between 1973 and 1978. From her, I know that their marriage was a partnership bound by respect and love; he cheered her on – you can see it in his beaming face from the photos of her exhibitions.
Her historically relevant works from the 1950s and 1960s speak of an Egypt that I can’t find in textbooks. I am awed at how Nanna viewed women in society and political life.
She was so far ahead of her time that it almost hurt her – in an exhibition guest book, an anonymous comment reads: “While this art is indeed impressive, it disappoints me to see that you’ve adopted a western style instead of nationalist fervour.” Shame that person couldn’t grasp that Nanna’s abstraction was wholly influenced by Islamic art.
I spend hours staring at her abstract pieces and always identify new dimensions and a plethora of optical illusions. What looks like a green square at first sight employs dozens of shades of green, and leaves you wondering how far she went given her fascination with space, technology and spirituality.
Nanna died in 2004, and three years later, my aunt died in a car accident. My mother, brother and I then moved to Canada to start a new life. I studied journalism, and Egypt felt so far away, so did Nanna’s art, until that fateful trip back home all those years later.
Though I could hear her shushing me and asking me not to make a fuss, it’s almost as though her legacy tells me otherwise: months after rescuing her artworks, my mother returned to the apartment, and as fate would have it, found never-before-seen copper and zinc plates that Nanna used to create her etchings, alongside sketchbooks, exhibition catalogues and books.
I was elated and felt even more compelled to celebrate her. Now that we’ve formalised the estate, more articles are being written about her, institutions and researchers are reaching out and I feel it’s on us to applaud a woman who built an astounding legacy in a patriarchal society and industry.
Nanna made me feel like I was the most special and brightest person in the world. Funny, that’s precisely how I think of her.
Remembering the Artist is our series that features artists from the region