Maie Yanni on the Collages of Huda Lutfi at TACHE Art Gallery, Cairo

“The chief obstacle to a woman’s success is that she can never have a wife. Just reflect what a wife does for an artist.”
Anna Massey Lea Merritt , 1844-1930

My first meeting with Huda Lutfi took place under very unusual circumstances; I had come across an article written about her in an old issue of the local “Community Times” and it was really the photograph taken of her with a backdrop of “recycled artwork” in progress that caught my eye and prompted me to go see her show.

The year was 2003 and the show was entitled “Found in Cairo”.

As soon as I walked into the exhibition hall I felt the immediate tension; Lutfi took two steps back to have a better “perspective” on me and I decided to give her the space to be able to do so.

Man Ray Doll 2006

There we were, two women, standing on opposite sides of a silverpainted and calligraphically-inscribed shoe-lasts-mandala; I, a newcomer/ out-of-towner and her, an accomplished academic and artist with a solid body of work under her belt.

Slowly, and in a cautious behavioural pattern only found in the “female animal kingdom “ we approached each other and started talking. Her apprehension justified; she was just back from three hours of questioning at the local police station because she had inadvertently managed, through her work , to “ruffle up” the “establishment” .

Our paths would subsequently diverge; both getting lost in the Cairene metropolitan jungle only to cross over again a few years ago, by pure chance, and we have been in conversation ever since.

A lot has been written about Lutfi and a lot more will be written again. However, what I would really like to touch on are three important aspects that are reflected through her work: the fact that she is an academic and a self-taught artist, having straddled two careers simultaneously up until recently; the fact that she is a woman living and working in the Middle East and the fact that she adopted the Sufi faith.

In 1991 when Lutfi found herself confined to bed in Boston after a health setback, she picked up a pair of scissors and some old magazines with the same natural ease that a child picks up some pencils and starts scribbling on paper, and made her first collage: “ A Woman Cut in Half”.

This collage, now shown as part of her current twenty-year retrospective, was not only a reflection of her predicament at the time but acted also as the crucible into which she poured all her emotions and experiences that up to then were bottled up and eagerly awaiting a medium of expression.

The sheer delight and gratification of that first endeavour prompted her to do another one.

Soon after she found herself back on her feet and resuming her academic obligations, she started dedicating every bit of free time on her hands; evenings, weekends and vacations, to making collages.

Six years later, after returning to Cairo and having completed a body of approximately fifty works, she decided to show it to her closest friends who unanimously encouraged her to have her first exhibition.

Collage as an artform offers no boundaries to self-expression and technical experimentation. The sheer dynamics of this unique and exciting medium which has not yet found the attention it truly deserves in Egypt, demands continual expansion, research and exploration . Through a variety of techniques and approaches, collage imagery can be abstract, representational, semi-abstract or non-objective.

Collage is also the layering of thoughts, ideas and historical events as well as that of paper, fabric, metal, wood, glue, and paint. It is a laboratory of experimentation with new techniques and materials continuously transforming and leaping into new territory.

Collage artists are collectors and gatherers of all sorts of materials, they organize and store them for eventual use in their artwork. They see beauty in refuse and discarded scraps and give a second life to found papers and objects. As they work, the collage process itself is like laying down layer over layer of history and emotions and once the artwork is completed along comes the viewer and adds yet another layer of meaning.

Collage permeates all of Lutfi’s work, she considers herself a bricoleur using a multitude of images and objects amassed from different historical and cultural sources.

Aleph Movement 2010

Her training as a cultural historian and her keen interest in gender has greatly influenced her work; during the course of her research and studies on Medieval Arab history she came across the work of El-Sakhami, an Egyptian historian in the fifteenth century from Sakha in Upper Egypt, he had written twelve volumes on prominent male figures in history, one volume of which, though, was entirely dedicated to women.

Therein he mentions the important role they played as transmitters of “hadith”-the prophetic traditions, sayings, teachings and deeds – and the fact that they themselves were daughters of religious scholars and were trained by both men and women.

In these annals El-Sakhami also wrote about the important and significant role women played in politics; some were the wives of sultans and emirs and were involved in charitable work, some were engaged in trade or teaching girls about domestic life and others were strong-minded financially independent women who provided shelters and housing for widows or divorcees who couldn’t support themselves independently, and some were philanthropists who built schools, mosques and “Sufi zawyas” or boarding houses.

All of this sparked Lutfi’s interest in popular iconography which together with the insertion of text is quite ubiquitous throughout her oeuvre.

Two important icons she has used in her work are Um Kulthoum and Tahiyya Karyokka; the former issued from a poor background and rose to become the most important “cantatrice” the Middle East has ever known and the latter, the ultimate embodiment of grace and femininity in traditional “belly-dancing” was also a theatre and motion picture actor and was actively involved in the progressive politics of Egypt.

These two women are icons that people in this part of the world relate to very strongly; they were visible role models, strong-minded individuals, capable and gifted; hence Lutfi “mummified” Um Kulthoum in her work partly to preserve her memory and partly to preserve the mythical secret that surrounds all stars that rise to the firmament.

“Man Ray’s Doll” (2003, digital print on silk, 120 x 80cm) caught Lutfi’s attention about ten years ago partly because the doll was standing on one leg and partly because Man Ray himself was a bricoleur. By appropriating this image and recontextualising it, she wanted to show how society , through cultural ignorance, portrays women as inadequate and helpless. So, Lutfi introduced the paradox in the image and gave her two heads to prove that she is twice the thinker; bright and smart with intellectual capacities that were untapped. She also gave her six arms partly evoking Indian deity and partly evoking the germ of an idea reminiscent of Da Vinci’s man; that through balance and proportion we can reconcile the two parts of our being: the physical and the intellectual.

In the late 1980s while attending a seminar at McGill University, Lutfi came across the work of Ibn Arabi (1165-1240) an Andalusian Moorish Sufi philosopher. Through his writings she discovered another perspective as he wrote about human creation while equating between the two genders, he also spiritualized his teachings as opposed to making them parochial and formalistic rituals.“Quietening down”, she tells me, occupies much of the teachings: “it is about showing us the divine aspect of human beings and giving it attention without being distracted by material things around us”.

At a time when Lutfi found herself grappling with life’s day-to-day difficulties; as a single mother working in a foreign city, Sufism provided a steady anchor that stabilized her human interactions and harmonized them.

In “Movements of the Aleph”(2003-1010 ,Triptych, Acrylic and collage on wood panel, 254x130cm) Lutfi experiments with alphabetic abstraction. Inspired by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borge’s articulations of the infinite Aleph as a manifestation of an omnipresent player and the painterly possibilities of the first letter of the Arabic alphabet she evokes notions of beginnings of speech and creation and reflects on the spontaneous flow and forms of existence.

This exhibition also includes some of her current work in progress: a series of photomontages of which “Fragments of Street Life: Five Movements”(2010, mixed media photocollage , 43 x 100 cm) in which she focuses on capturing the body language of people in public spaces around Cairo. The focus is not on the urban space but on the people moving in it; their gestures, the way they walk, wait, stare, think, talk, their dress code and the way they react to the camera or show resistance to it.

Ultimately it is also about people’s reactions to a woman scrutinizing and studying them, shooting and freezing them with her lens and how much they are willing to share their “personal space” with her.

Regardless, she carries on searching, scouring and finding with her beautiful bright and sparkling eyes and, as the old adage goes : “Where there is a twinkle in the eye, there is a sparkle of heaven in the heart.”

Fragments of Street Life-Five Movements 2010

TACHE Art Gallery in Cairo opened its doors for the first time with a twenty-year retrospective of Huda Lutfi’s work. The show goes on until the 19th of February.

Huda Lutfi is an Egyptian visual artist and cultural historian based in Cairo. She received her Ph.D in Arab Muslim Cultural History in 1983 from McGill University and has been a practicing artist since the nineties . She works in painting, mixed media , installations, recycled and found objects and is currently venturing into Photography.

She received the second prize at the 1997 Biennale for Women Artists of the Mediterranean, Marseille and Arles.

Her work has been showcased in Copenhagen, the 2010 Dakar Biennale, at The Elysee Arts Gallery in Liege (Icons Reloaded 2009) at The Museum of Modern Art in Bonn and The Arab World Institute in Paris, among numerous other places internationally.

About the author

Maie Yanni is a Medical Doctor, qualified from The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and specialized in Anaesthesia, Intensive Care and High-risk Obstetric Anaesthesia. In 2000 , she took a sabbatical from medical practice and has since been managing art ventures on a project-management basis. She is also an artist and has a special interest in Sudanese Art and Art Brut. She is based in Cairo.


  1. John Rula says:

    As always Maie has put into words the essence of the IDEAS inside and behind the creation’s of the Artist. Her wondrous and moving telling of this
    Amazingly talented artist is like reading about a MYSTICAL JOURNEY someone has taken to a far off yet inner space of divine inspiration. Once again Maie has taught me of a fellow Artist and SISTER of this EARTH that works to move and reach out to the viewer to share her vision of this amazing thing called life.

  2. mira shihadeh says:

    Maie thanks for sharing with us your perspective on Hoda, one woman who truly has a twinkle in her eye…your writing as usual pulls me into the world of an artist who manages to ‘ruffle up the establishment” pretty relevant for these times!!!

  3. Doris Foerster says:

    Liebe Maie, Deine Beschreibung der Künstlerin ist so intensiv, ich wünschte, ich könnte selbst in die Ausstellung gehen. Allerdings ist Kairo mitsamt seinen immensen Problemen momentan kein Reiseziel für mich. Ich danke Dir, dass Du deine Eindrücke immer mit mir teilst und freue mich schon auf das nächste Mal.

  4. Zainab Othman says:

    Thank you Maie for platforming and giving such insight on a great Egyptian artist. I trust that Hoda’s voice will continue to be heard worldwide despite the current events in Cairo. From the few times I have met Huda, I have noticed her shyness and we will all make sure that her art is seen, heard and understood.

  5. Ann Stritch says:

    Inspirational artwork and hope it speaks through the carnage.
    As always inspirational words from our beautiful Maie .
    Strong,brave,inspiring women. Sending love and light to you all x

  6. Irena Lawrenson says:

    Art is nothing if it does not reflect what is in one’s soul. Yours does. Stay true to your self and keep expressing yourself through your art and your words. Thank you for your courage in these tumultuous times. And please know that the world is watching – from every corner.
    Irena, Canada

  7. Diane D'Souza says:

    Maie, thank you for giving us a chance to glimpse Huda’s work and know a bit of her life and inspirations. Huda, thank you for persevering in your art—alongside your academic career—for your work is captivating and deep. Blessings on you and your compatriots as you negotiate through a difficult time. May there be an abundance of good will, peace and clear-eyed thinking as you work for positive change. Be well!!

  8. Kate says:

    Happy to see this. Thought-provoking and ultimately hopeful. Thank you for sharing!

  9. May Abboud says:

    Dr.Maie Yanni nous donne un apercu detaille de l’oeuvre de l’artiste egyptienne Huda Lutfi. Il m’a semble que Dr. Yanni insiste sur le message humain que l’artiste nous transmet a travers ce croisement des differentes faces de sa vie en tant que femme, artiste, historienne de l’art et leur impact sur son oeuvre.C’est pour moi une reussite de la femme a part entiere.
    May Abboud

  10. Houda N. Abboud says:

    Recuperer du papier, conserver des materiaux, leur donner une seconde chance de servir eventuellement un jour… c’est donner a chacun d’entre nous la possibilite d’etre utile, de renaitre de nos cendres comme le phoenix et faire preuve d’une lecon de vie.
    Merci Drs Lutfi et Yanni
    Houda ABBOUD

  11. Rosy Courban says:

    Merci Dr. Yanni de nous faire connaitre l’artiste Huda Lutfi.
    Son collage ” Aleph Movement 2010″ resume a lui tout seul une fresque hiero glyohique de l’Histoire de l’Humanite.
    Rosy Courban

  12. Cheryl Rodgers says:

    What a beautifully written article. An art in itself! Thank you Maie. for introducing so many of us to Huda Lufti. Truelly a gift! It’s sad to see what’s going on in Egypt right now and to consider the effect, not only on a Nation and the world but on an individual living in it and through it.
    Blessings of Peace, Love & Light…………………………….
    Cheryl Rodgers, Canada

  13. Derek Chan says:

    Wow, very inspiring! Thanks, Maie, for introducing Huda Lutfi.

  14. nazli madkour says:

    Good article and interesting tour into Hoda Lutfi’s life and art.
    Presenting the major references on which her art is based magnify the effect of the works. A good show and a good article.

  15. Betsy McKenzie says:

    Thank you, Maie, for introducing me to Huda Lufti. An inspiring artist, now in a very dangerous place. We keep her in our thoughts and prayers, and hope the best for the Egyptian people in their struggle for their government.

  16. Janet Jones says:

    Maie, thank you so much for letting us see the work of this truly inspirational artist, and for the insightful discussion of her art. Truly she must somehow reach a wider audience!

  17. Hani says:

    Thank you for this enlighting article. I have really enjoyed it. Thank you very much

  18. Thank you for sharing this Maie. Compliments to Huda Lufti on such depth balance and vitality in these wonderful representations of what she has absorbed. Here’s wishing that her light shines on Cairo.

  19. Huda Lutfi is a fascinating artist, her world is deep and complex yet her visual expression is playful and attractive.
    Reading about her today gives me a breath of fresh air and a renewed drive to seek for balance (and peace).

  20. karma liess says:

    It really a great article not only giving us a fabulous insight about what seems like a great artist but somehow explaining to us what is happening in Egypt and the role of this young generation with Western cultural but also proud of their Egyptian and Arab roots

  21. К сожалению я не знаком лично с Худой Лютфи. Здесь нужно сказать спасибо Майе за то, что благодаря своей активности и доброй воле она знакомит нас с замечательными людьми. Спасибо! А талантливому художнику хочется пожелать успехов и удачи в жизни. Силы и твёрдости в преодолении всех жизненных трудностей. Так как сам я “человек Восточный”, то очень хорошо её понимаю, её поиски , её переживания.

  22. Jeannie says:

    Maie, thanks for shining the light on Huda Lutfi’s work and Cairo’s thriving and world-class art scene at this time.

  23. Layla says:

    What a wonderful article and an inspiring artist. God bless Egypt and the people who are helping to re-build it

  24. Rachel Lehmann says:

    It is so interesting to see that women are able to adapt and to search for the ‘real” in all cultures in different and yet the same ways. I loved reading about this exhibition ! I am sorry I can not see it….It defines for me the essence of great art. Understanding and knowing the past , present and trying to build a glimpse into the future.

  25. Nathalie says:

    A very interesting woman is writing about another interesting woman. Very interesting. Well written mai! Well done Huda!

  26. John Dennehy says:

    Thank you Maie for the superb and inspiring article. What an insight it gives us into the work of this truly remarkable artist. Wishing you and Huda Lutfi every success and good luck in the future. Things are looking better for the Egyptian people this evening and I hope that life returns to normal soon.

  27. Matti Sirvio says:

    Thank Maie, good job.
    This is a very interesting and fascinating article.
    Keep up the good work. May Egypt be free from
    all those who love only themselves.
    God bless you.

  28. sam berbatov says:

    Brilliant article maie , Amazing work Huda , insightful account of a great egyptian artist .
    – sam berbatov

  29. Costantino Pitzalis says:

    I Collages di Huda Lutfi sono affascinanti pieni di significato enigmatico con un fantastico senso artistico

  30. Costantino Pitzalis says:

    I Collages di Huda Lutfi sono affascinanti pieni di significato enigmatico e fantastico senso artistico.

    • Chiara Pitzalis says:

      I agree with you! the art work is just fascinating and the artical is very well writen! i will show this one to my art teacher, he will be inpressed!

      • Maie Yanni says:

        Chiarina , I’m so touched, THANK YOU my lovely niece ! I’d like the whole world to know that you are only thirteen and taking such an interest in the Arts ! Baci, Zia Maie

  31. Edith Binderhofer says:

    Dearest Maie,
    I hope so much that in the foreseeable future I will have a chance to see another exhibition with the work of Hoda Lutfi in Cairo.
    Your article really evoked my interest in her. And not only in her as an artist but also as a politically conscious being.
    If life in Egypt after all this turmoil it is going through right now will change to the better it will be thanks to the courage of people like Hoda Lutfi and the idealism of people like you with your tireless efforts to promote the art of others even in these days.
    With all my love. Edith

  32. i want to say this is so wonderfull !!!

  33. Mirvat says:

    Outstanding article in those historical moments we are witnessing the writing of Egypt modern history..Excellent informative article, Huda Lutfi a remarkabke artist, and Maie Yanni, a great writer and human being.. Maie I am so proud of you…Please do take care

  34. Fiona Fox says:

    Beautifully written article about an artist who I admire and respect enormously. Thank you Maie!

  35. Mairead Mc Govern says:

    Maie what a lovely insight into Huda Lufti, the person first and then leading naturally to her expression as an artist. As someone who is curious as to ‘how people tick’ you have a great ability to link the artist’s mind with their artwork.
    I think every art exhibition should be placed in such a context, not to narrow the viewer’s interpretation but to gain a greater understanding of the origins of the work, adding another layer to the tapestry. The gender issues strike me as particularly relevant to the Arab world especially in light of the current conflict and hope that the struggle for women to be seen as equal but different can be given new light by such artists as Lufti.
    The only fault is that I am curious to see more and cannot go to Cairo at this time ! Well done Maie-an artist in your own right-as usual.

  36. Ramy Kamel says:

    What a wonderful article.
    Really Greaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat:-)))))

  37. Thanks Maie for bringing back a friend of McGill days. Huda and I studied together at McGill and then lost contact with her. I am very proud of her accomplishments and am anxious for her safety as I closely follow the events in Egypt. Hoping and praying that the courageous movement of the Egyptians will bring freedom and democracy to the people.

    • Maie Yanni says:

      Andreas, it is so wonderful to hear that ; Huda will be delighted to reconnect after all these years ! Thanking you and each and everyone who has left a comment for your unflinching support at these very difficult and testing times .

  38. NOHA KHOURI says:


  39. Alia Ramez says:

    Another beautifully written article by Dr. Maie. I was taken away and immersed in the descriptive manner of the article and how Huda Lutfi’s work is displayed.

  40. Didi Khayatt says:

    So much I did not know about about Hoda Lutfi and found in your article Dr Maie. Thank you for being informative and interesting.

  41. Ramzi Karim says:

    Once again, Maie has shown us her great talent in the field of art criticism. I highly enjoyed reading the article and was blown away by the presentation and uniqueness. Huda Lutfi’s work is truly inspiring and shows how much talent there is in Egypt.


  42. mona says:

    I know and love Hoda Lutfi’s work, and I thought your article ,amazing. Very sad days for Egypt. I hope it will see a new dawn with its art shining through

  43. Laura Carderera says:

    A fantastic article, how I wish I was able to view this beautiful retrospective of Huda Lutfi, an amazing person and an artist I have been following and admiring for years. Do let us know if they print a catalog of the exhibition, I would love to get it!

  44. Michele Monahan says:

    Maie, thanks you for a wonderful and inspiring insight into Huda’s work.

    Hope you are all well and safe.

  45. Natalie Hesni says:

    Maie, your article is very engaging.. you superbly portrayed Huda Lutfi as a respectful artist with genuine intentions seen in her work.

  46. Muireann Brennan says:

    What a fantastic artist. I am not surprised that she had trouble with the authorities, many of the best artists have. This artist dererves an international audience for her work. Some day she she will be widely known. Muireann

  47. valerie donnelly says:

    A truly inspiring article Maie. about a truly inspiring artist I would love to see more of her work. Val D

  48. Laila M says:

    Another beautifull introduction to a form of art that mostly I usually pass by without much thought. An article that is about the person bhind the art which makes it so much more…
    Thank you Maie again…

  49. Geoff Haederle says:

    Maie, I am rendered speechless — again. A wonderful piece of writing and a fascinating arist. I can’t begin to tell you how much I enjoy reading your biographies on the artists you take under your wing, but one thing for sure , I am waiting with bated breath for the next dissertation.
    Our love and thoughts are with you and “da boyz” during these nervous times in Egypt and hope that the transition to full democracy is smooth and equitable to all Egyptian citizens.
    Stay healthy and happy !!

  50. Philippa Allen says:

    Thank you Maie for sharing your insights into this interesting and clearly highly talented artist in such a thought provoking manner. I see clear parallels between two academic and accomplished women and I wish you both the success you deserve.

  51. katrina says:

    Huda Lutfi is an inspiring artist who lives her principles in her work and in her life. Her commitment to challenging the status quo – in gender politics, regarding state oppression – is paired with a nuanced eye for combining imagery / narratives / cultural icons and references…to create beautiful AND challenging work. Thank you for sharing her work with us…

  52. Gloria Papastavros says:

    I love the piece Aleph Movement 2010. It has such great depth and texture, it appears to be made of of exoyic pieces of semi precious stones.

  53. Josette Safi says:

    Bravo Maie, la vie continue malgre tout, braver les circonstances avec l’art comme Huda lutfi le fait est tres inspirant.
    Bon courage.

  54. Mutaz Elemam says:

    great and modern vision ,realy happy to see and read this in this time , Is very similar to a warm bath after a day full of tired . thank u dr : Maie , thank you artist huda lutfi , and hope to be ther to see it .thank you both

  55. Karim Loza says:

    Interesting, informative and engaging.. I have the privilege of knowing Maie & Huda; thank you both for being “a la pointe de L’art Egyptien contemporain”

  56. Nour El-Sagini says:

    Yet another wonderful article, it is an absolute pleasure reading about Huda’s work.

  57. Shahira Fahmy Leemans says:

    A very grasping article..
    Amazing and inspiring how the artist started her art..
    Thank you Maie for such articles… Please keep it up

  58. Ursula says:

    Congratulations Hoda !
    And thanks to Maie for this inspiring article ! Hoda’s work deserves no less.
    Wish I could come to Egypt and see the work in person.
    Keep up the good work !

  59. Rosy Badr-El-Din says:

    This is the true spirit of art, the survival and the shining of great artists in peaceful and troubled times through the words and eyes of inspiring writers like you.
    Never give up!
    Rosy, Amman

  60. Amazing artist huda lutfi!! She really took me
    to a world of inpiration, as well as the written article
    is a real master piece!!

    thanks alot maie for introducing this artist to us.

  61. Myrna Kurdi says:

    I finally read your article on Huda Lutfi. My sister emailed it to me from London as the Saatchi website is banned in the UAE and unfortunately all pics are
    blocked!! C’est domage ! Collage is an art of its own. As usual, its very beautifully written. You are a born writer et tu as un
    don de communication . Well done Huda and MABROUK pour l’Egypte !!!
    Myrna Kurdi-Dubai-UAE

  62. Mamdouh El Rashidi, says:

    Though Hoda was a class mate of mine at college, I never new she possed such talant, thank you Mai for introducing me to that side of her, I will certainly make a point to attend her next exibtion.

  63. Nada Breidinger says:

    Thank you for a very interesting article about a wonderful artist!

  64. Dominic Jackson says:

    Thank You ! , At long last an article about collage , I love it !

  65. una bellisima exposición de Hoda Lutfi, que vale la pena ver

  66. bianca longhi says:

    Una bellissima retrospettiva che ci proietta nel mondo magico di Hoda Lutfi

  67. Yasmine El Rashidi says:

    A great article on one of the greatest Egyptian artists. So pleased to finally see Huda Lutfi getting the recognition she deserves.
    Thanks to the author for bringing us a nuanced, rich, article written with insight and expertise.

  68. Houri Karajerjian says:

    Maie Yanni writes in a very sensitive way. She percieves the soul of the artists she introduces. Her article analyses deeply the uniqueness of Huda Lutfi’s collages. Aleph Movement in particular expresses the intense power of alphabet, as Maie Yanni underlined so well as “speech and forms of existence”.

  69. kate coleman says:

    Huda Lufti is a wonderful communicator (like Maie). The pain of recent times might provide great fodder for such a voice. I hope Huda that your art has not being threatened by the uprising and that your passion for justice continues to resonate through your imagery. Thank you.

  70. Lisa says:

    Thank you Maie for an introduction to this fascinating artist working in collage. You write very perceptively about her work and are able to connect Huda Lutfi’s life to a cultural context that is unfamiliar to many of us outside the middle east. I look forward to reading more of your reviews and articles.

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