Inji Efflatoun- the great Egyptian painter, activist and feminist (1924-1989).

Inji Efflatoun was one of the most famous modern Egyptian painters and women’s rights activists. She was born in Cairo on 16 April 1924 and died on 17 April 1989, a day after her 65th birthday.

Efflatoun came from a bourgeois francophone family. Her father Hassan Efflatoun was an entomologist who established the first Department of Entomology at the University of Cairo. Her mother Salha divorced her husband and was the first woman in Cairo to own a fashion boutique, which secured her financial independence and allowed her to raise Inji and her older sister Gulperie on her own. [1] (p.475-476)

Inji liked to draw and paint from a very young age, which was encouraged by her family. Her private art tutor was the Expressionist painter Kamel El-Telmissany (1915-1972) who introduced her to Cubism and Surrealism. [1] (p.476) El-Telmissany was one of the founders of the avant-garde group Art et Liberté (Art and Liberty) established in 1939. The group promoted modern Egyptian art; among its members were painters, art critics and writers. In 1942 eighteen-year-old Inji was invited to exhibit at Art et Liberté’s annual exhibition Salons des Independents. Efflatoun’s works of this period show the influence of Surrealism (see Surrealist Composition, 1942). This puzzled the contemporary viewers who wondered ‘why a girl from a rich family was so tormented, so unhappy… and refusing a lot of things.’ [1] (p.477) Early in her life the artist became unsatisfied with her privileged life and took interest in Marxism, social issues and women’s rights in Egypt.

Inji Efflatoun Surrealist Composition 1942 private collection, photo Viken Seropian
Inji Efflatoun, Surrealist Composition (1942) oil paint on canvas, 71 × 60.5 cm (Private collection, photo © Viken Seropian) link to image source

After her success with the Art et Liberté group, Efflatoun became one of the fist women to study in the Faculty of Art at the Cairo University. She later studied under Margo Veillon, Hamed Abdallah and Ragheb Ayyad. [2] (p.213)

Between 1946 and 1948 Efflatoun temporarily stopped painting. She returned to art after several trips to Ancient Egyptian sites, such as Luxor, and rural Upper Egypt. Her works post-1948 were influenced by Egyptian rural landscape and rich folk traditions. Aside from her work as a painter she became a vocal social activist. She was particularly concerned about social conditions of the lower classes, and the problematic legal status of women in Egypt. In 1945 she attended the First Women’s International Congress in Paris, as a delegate representing Egypt’s Women’s Democratic International Federation. She was also among  the founders of the Women’s Committee for Popular Resistance established in 1956. [1] (p.478)

 

In 1959 Efflatoun was arrested. She was one of many women imprisoned for their subversive activities during Nasser’s presidency. [3] (p.20) Prior to her imprisonment she painted several socially engaged works, such as We Cannnot Forget (exhibited in 1952) a dramatic scene of a crowd commemorating victims of Egypt’s nationalist struggle against British control of the Suez Canal. The image was later replicated on posters used by students for protest campaigns. By the time of her arrest Efflatoun was already an acclaimed painter, and she managed to get permission to paint in prison. [1] (p.479-480)

During her imprisonment she created a series of portraits and scenes from prison life. An example of this is In the Women’s Prison (1960) depicting four female inmates sewing, or mending clothes. All are dressed in identical green striped clothes and wear white headscarves. Their faces show expressions of dejection and lack of hope.

Inji Efflatoun In the Women's Prison 1960 1
Inji Efflatoun In the Women’s Prison (1960) oil on wood (58 x 52cm) sold at Safarkhan Art Gallery, link to image source

Near the end of her prison sentence the artist turned to more neutral subjects such as landscapes, trees and sailboats. After her release in 1963 (having spent four and half years in prison) Efflatoun focused mainly on landscape painting. Characteristic feature of her works of that period are large white areas of unpainted canvas left between brushstrokes, which gives a vibrating effect, likened by the painter to the Egyptian sunlight. [1] (p.482-484)

An example of her later works is Boats on the Nile (painted in 1984). Scenes of Egyptian rural landscapes and boats on the Nile were among the most popular subjects for Egyptian modernists such as Hamed Abdallah (1917-1985) Ragheb Ayad (1892-1982), Tahia Halim (1919-2003) or Gazbia Sirry (b.1925), but Efflatoun’s vibrant style makes this simple scene stand out from her contemporaries.

Inji Efflatoun Boats on the Nile 1984 2
Inji Efflatoun Boats on the Nile (1984) oil on board (32 x 58cm) sold at Bonhams, link to image source

During her lifetime Efflatoun became one of the most often exhibited Egyptian modern artists. In recent years her art became a subject of much interest in the art world. Several of her works from her early Surrealist period were displayed at Tate Liverpool’s exhibition Surrealism in Egypt: Art et Liberté 1938-1948, which ran from 17 November 2017 until 18 March 2018. Her social activism and involvement in women’s rights struggle are also an important part of her legacy. On 16 April 2019 Google Doodle commemorated the 95th anniversary of Efflatoun’s birthday. [4]

 

Sources:

[1] LaDuke, Betty. “Egyptian Painter Inji Efflatoun: The Merging of Art, Feminism, and Politics.” NWSA Journal 1, no. 3 (1989): 474-85. Accessed April 8, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/4315927.

[2] Art et Liberté. “Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938-1948)”, ed. Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, Skira, Paris (2016)

[3] Eigner, Saeb. “Art of the Middle East. Modern and Contemporary art of the Arab World and Iran.” Merell Publishers, London and New York, (2010, 2015)

[4] https://www.google.com/doodles/inji-aflatouns-95th-birthday

 

All image sources are also provided in the links.

 

Inji Efflatoun, Surrealist Composition (1942) oil paint on canvas, 71 × 60.5 cm (Private collection, photo © Viken Seropian) https://www.tate.org.uk/tate-etc/issue-41-autumn-2017/surrealism-egypt-long-live-degenerate-art-clare-davies

Inji Efflatoun Boats on the Nile (1984) oil on board (32 x 58cm) sold at Bonhams https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/23219/lot/107/

Inji Efflatoun In the Women’s Prison (1960) oil on wood (58 x 52cm) sold at Safarkhan Art Gallery http://safarkhan.com/Artist-Details2.aspx?artistid=213&Year=1960&type=current

Read more:

Exhibition Guide: Surrealism in Egypt https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-liverpool/exhibition/surrealism-egypt-art-et-liberte-1938-1948/exhibition-guide

https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-liverpool/exhibition/surrealism-egypt-art-et-liberte-1938-1948

Article by Clare Davies: Surrealism in Egypt ‘Long Live Degenerate Art’ published in Tate Etc. (13 November 2017) https://www.tate.org.uk/tate-etc/issue-41-autumn-2017/surrealism-egypt-long-live-degenerate-art-clare-davies

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