Written by Arthur Debsi

Born in 1924 in Shubra district in Cairo to a wealthy and francophone family of landowners, Inji Efflatoun received a Christian and French quality education. First, she went to the Collège du Sacré Coeur before integrating into the Lycée Français both in Cairo. There, she studied literature, philosophy and expressed particular interest in Marxism theory to the extent that she joined a communist organization called Iskra (al-Sharara) in 1942. When Efflatoun was young, her mother showed her drawings to the Egyptian painter Mahmoud Said (1897-1964), who encouraged to get the girl a tutor. She consequently started taking courses under the supervision of Kamel El Telmissany (1917-1972) at the age of 15. In 1945, she was the first woman enrolled at the Faculty of Arts at Cairo University. In parallel, Inji was a political activist dedicated to different causes, such as feminism. In essence, she co-founded, in 1945, with the novelist Latifa Al-Zayyat (1923-1996), the League of University and Institutes’ Young Women, a leftist organization against British occupation and for Egyptian women rights. Therefore, Efflatoun traveled to Paris to attend the First Women International Congress and represent Egypt’s Women’s Democratic International Federation. She is also known for some publications, namely Eighty Million Women with Us (1948), We, The Egyptian Women (1950), and Peace and Evacuation (1951), addressing political and sociological problems in modern Egypt. Inji Efflatoun kept an intensive exposure to the Egyptian political scene and its severe criticism, she stopped painting from 1946 to 1948 and got married to a leftist lawyer Mohammed Abdul Elija (1923-1957). In the late 1940s, she continued her formation under teachers like the Swiss painter Margo Veillon (1907-2003), Ragheb Ayad (1892-1982), and Hamed Abdalla (1917-1985).

In March 1959, Inji Efflatoun got arrested during a roundup of Communist intellectuals and sent to jail in June. While in detention, she kept on producing her art with the help of her sister Gulperie (Boulie), who provided her with supplies and smuggled the paintings out. The artist was released in July 1963.

The work of Inji Efflatoun is the reflection of her strong personality, as a free and rebel woman. When she trained under el-Telmissany, she detached herself from the academic rules of painting and took more liberties in her practice. Simultaneously, she was introduced to the Egyptian surrealist movement Art et Liberté (Art and Freedom) and contributed to its elaboration. The impact of the group manifested in her early works: she depicted a torturous and imaginary world like Al-Wahesh (The Monster) painted in 1942. These works immerse the spectators in intriguing scenes with dark tones of colors and even sometimes in black and white, specifically in her paper creations. She combined in a surrealist manner several elements like frightening characters with enchanted creatures to create gloomy atmospheres. From that time, the tree became a recurrent motif where Efflatoun registered its similarities with the human being. She imagined that the tree also suffers and could symbolize the human dream spirits. The comparison is such that she gave the trees a human-like appearance as if the branches were arms and the roots were legs, moving in every direction. At that time, Efflatoun conveyed a strong sense of torment in her compositions because she refused to paint superficial themes for the bourgeoisie. Therefore, producing these images was her way to express the unconscious, the irrationality, and to access spiritual liberation.

The next year, her style moved from surrealism to realism, depicting more outdoor scenes like peasant life by the Nile that she notably discovered while traveling to Upper-Egypt and the rural region of Nubia in the mid-1950s. Encouraged by Hamed Abdalla, she decided to illustrate this connection between the farmer and his land as well as the physical efforts of the laborers, which is evident in the paintings The Worker (Hamel al-Tawb) and Construction workers ('Amel al-Bina') both dated from 1950. Applying a thicker paint and warm colors, she showed collective activities insisting on the light effect given by the Egyptian sun. The political message is apparent in these works since Efflatoun aimed to reveal the labor men's life and work conditions, with their misery, dreams, and also their exploitation by the powerful. She also produced some portraits such as Portrait of a Girl (1950) trying to catch the emotions of the individuals that she often drew with a static position and deep gaze. Facing the lives of underprivileged people, the painter became aware of social injustices, the result of Western imperialism. This awareness strengthened her attachment to her country and culture: “Now I began to understand my roots, to be Egyptianized, which was important for my future. In addition, it also meant to speak Arabic rather than French”[1].

Inji Efflatoun's imprisonment was undeniably the defining moment that marked her career and her oeuvre. During this time, she felt the need to paint the harsh reality that she experienced in jail with thieves, dealers, sex workers whom she portrayed as in Portrait of a Prisoner (1963) highlighting the idea of pain and disarray. However, this was too overwhelming for the artist, as she recalled: ‘After some time, I lost the desire to paint the prison and its inmates – the whole place disgusted me’[2].

Later, she stopped portraying the inmates,  and came to realize the importance of nature that she was able to see from behind the bars of her cell: for her, the trees and flowers were symbols of freedom. After her incarceration, Efflatoun acquired a mature style characterized by vibrant colors and joyful compositions. The elements of flora are frequent motifs that the artist treated through an idyllic vision of the outside, visible in the following examples Banana Trees (1967) and Flowers (1971). Efflatoun's recurrent subjects remained mostly the countryside's life with people taking care of their daily chores such as in Street of the Village or Washing (Al-Ghassil), both executed in 1968. She optimized the entire space of the canvas and created a dynamic rhythm between the shapes and colors. Her brushstrokes were very delicate and formed a sort of arabesques as they appeared in Akhmeem Roofs (1971), where the drawing lines were so discrete and the pictorial features shaped by the colors.

In Efflatoun’s post-incarceration pieces, the light occupied a central place, it represented liberty and evasion to an artist dazzled by the outside light. This period known as her white light period started in 1974. She could render the light using colors but also and mostly with white (al-daw al-abyad). In later paintings, landscapes, or portraits such as Guard of the Farm (1974), Efflatoun would effectively leave some blank spaces surrounding the different patterns, giving an impression of lightness and inserting movement and air into her canvases.

Coming from the upper-class of the Egyptian society, Inji Efflatoun had this inner feeling to change the previous notions which had persisted for a long time. And through an original artistic style, she manifested her insatiable appetite for freedom.

Inji Efflatoun died in April of 1989 in Cairo. 



[1] Inji Efflatoun quoted in La Duke, Betty. “Egyptian Painter Inji Efflatoun: The Merging of Art, Feminism, and Politics” in NWSA Journal 1, n°3, 1989. [P. 478]

[2] Translated from Arabic by Sarah Dorman in Lenssen, Anneka, A. Rogers, Sarah, and Shabout, Nada. Modern Art in the Arab World, Primary Documents. New York, USA: The Museum of Modern Art, 2018. [P.195]. From the memoirs of Inji Aflatun (excerpt); repr. in Sa’id Khayyal, Mudharkkirat Inji Aflatun, Kuwait: Dar Su’ad al-Sabah, 1993. [PP. 236-244]

Sources

Bardaouil, Sam, and Fellrath, Till. Art Et Liberté, Rupture, Guerre Et Surréalisme En Égypte (1938-1948),[Exhibition Catalogue, ‘Art Et Liberté, Rupture, Guerre Et Surréalisme En Égypte (1938-1948)’. Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, October 19th 2016 – January 16th 2017]. Paris, France: Skira, 2016.

Eigner, Saeb. Art of the Middle-East, Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World and Iran. London, UK: Merell Publishers Limited, 2011.

Karnouk, Liliane. Modern Egyptian Art, 1920-2003. Cairo, New York, Egypt, USA: The American University in Cairo Press, 2005.

La Duke, Betty. “Egyptian Painter Inji Efflatoun: The Merging of Art, Feminism, and Politics” in NWSA Journal 1, n°3, 1989.

Lenssen, Anneka, A. Rogers, Sarah, and Shabout, Nada. Modern Art in the Arab World, Primary Documents. New York, USA: The Museum of Modern Art, 2018.

Lenssen, Anneka. “Inji Efflatoun: White Light.” in Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry 42 (2016): 84–95. https://doi.org/10.1086/689806.

Sharobeem, Heba. “When the Personal Becomes Collective: A Study of an Activist’s Memoir.” Accessed April 17, 2020. http://www.ll.ac.me/ll 3(2)/Heba 113-130.pdf.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ulTAQaffIBU (viewed April, 17th 2020)