The late artist Inji Efflatoun’s work reflects a passion for social justice that remains relevant today.
By Farah El Akkad
The exhibition “Inji’s World,” showing at Safarkhan Gallery through February 14, is not only a testament to one of Egypt’s contemporary art pioneers, but to the enduring love she held for the people and the villages of the land she refused to leave, even in the face of imprisonment.
Inji Efflatoun was “strong willed [and] a great listener,” recalls her nephew Hassan Galal El-Din. Efflatoun was born in 1924 to one of the aristocratic families of Egyptian society. She spoke perfect French, English and Italian, yet was ashamed of her weak unskilled Arabic. When Efflatoun first started mixing with the peasants and workers in her countryside home in Kafr Shokr, she was greatly tormented because she could not fully express herself through her weak Arabic.
Efflatoun, who passed away in 1989, referred to her high society life in a December 1985 interview in Literature & Criticism Magazine, saying “18 years have slipped from my life in this secluded society. Even my native language — I could not speak it to the extent that when I began really visiting the people of my country I couldn’t communicate with them in their language. What misery I felt to be unrooted.”
Recalling a lifetime of family stories, El-Din explains that his aunt rebelled against rules since she was a child, and her earliest paintings reflected her feelings about being a captive of rules, her anguish and agony. “She was a freedom seeker,” El-Din says. Trees were a recurring symbol in many of her paintings, and “sometimes the tree would appear as a monster or an ugly creature with disheveled hair.”
In 1938, artist Mahmoud Saeed was visiting the Efflatoun family at their home in Zamalek when he saw the paintings of the 14-year- old Inji. “Art is in her blood,” he told Inji’s mother Salha Efflatoun, whose own creative instincts won her a place as fashion stylist for Egypt’s royal family. At Saeed’s urging, Salha, a divorcee raising two daughters, encouraged Inji to pursue her talent and arranged for her to study under artist Kamel El-Telmesani, one of Egypt’s leading Surrealists.
El-Telmesani was also a communist and the one who opened Efflatoun’s eyes to the poor and marginalized society that she had been sheltered from. “She drank in the love of the poor and oppressed from him,” recalls Cherwat Shafei, owner of Safarkhan Gallery in Zamalek and Efflatoun’s friend since 1962. Shafei, also an art critic and former state TV presenter, says not only did she represent the poor and oppressed in her paintings, but she would always take their side. “She was greatly attached to the people of her village since she was a young girl.”
In the run-up to the 1952 revolution happening around her, Efflatoun became immersed in the nations’ social and political issues, and she developed a strong passion for the poor, whom she referred to as “the others” — those who are left behind, particularly women. Also a writer, Efflatoun wrote three books between 1948 and 1952: 80 Million Women With Us, with preface by Dr. Taha Hussein; We the Egyptian Women, with a preface by Abdel Rahman El Rafe, and Peace and Evacuation.
But by the late 1950s, then President Gamal Abdel Nasser was cracking down on leftists and communists. For a long time, her family had been repeatedly urging her to leave Egypt and carry on her art studies aboard, but she refused to leave. Eventually, Efflatoun was caught in the round-up and imprisoned from 1959 to 1963. While she was granted permission to paint, she had to hide some paintings from her jailors, as they represented the views she was being jailed for.
“Nature and trees were an almost permanent element in Efflatoun’s paintings,” El-Din says. “At that time, the tree in her paintings was one seen through prison bars.”
The four years of Efflatoun’s imprisonment were considered the height of her artistic career, and she greatly developed as an artist in this period. The deep anguish and longing for freedom illustrated in her prison paintings made Efflatoun one of the most popular Egyptian modern artists. As an art critic, Shafei notes, “Some artists would follow a specific pattern of another artist. Efflatoun did not imitate any other artist — she honestly expressed her surroundings and emotions, following only her own pattern in the most outstanding way.”
After her release from prison in 1963, Efflatoun’s paintings took on a new tone. “There were constant white lines in her paintings,” El-Din says, explaining that these white highlights were a reflection of her freedom, compared to the dark paintings she created while in jail.
As the artist explained in her 1985 interview, “I was fully indulged with life in the countryside and my village to the extent that my eyes became blurred and I felt I am seeing all the colors in one. I was about to faint from the movement and the colors. I began a period from 1964 to 1973 that carries a strong feeling bursting with vivid colors and movement and some white lines that penetrates through the canvas of the painting.”
Women were one of the most important elements in Efflatoun’s paintings, and she often presented female peasants in traditional clothing such as the colorful chiffon veil, proudly walking among the trees in countryside and happily bringing in the harvest. The artist believed that the peasant represented the true origin of the Egyptian people, even the high aristocrat society were originally peasants who planted this land. A fan of Upper Egypt in particular, Efflatoun traveled around Egypt visiting villages from Sinai to Aswan to Siwa and Alexandria.
“Efflatoun’s paintings portrayed so clearly the genuine character of the Egyptian woman, who was proud of herself and her land,” Shafei says.
Resistance was another theme of Efflatoun’s work, and the artist portrayed the Denshway Massacre and other events from the Egyptian resistance against the British occupation, as well as episodes of the Palestinian resistance.
Efflatoun had been exhibiting regularly at home and abroad before her imprisonment, winning the Salon du Cairo prize in 1957. After her release, she continued to showcase her work internationally and increasing the already wide reach and prominence of her works in the eyes of European collectors.
She was named Art Commissary for “Contemporary Art in Egypt” exhibitions three times: 1971 at the Paris’ Galleria Museum, 1974 in Belgrade, and 1974 for a special Egypt pavilion at 87th Salon of the Independents at the Grand Palais in Paris. She also showed her works in Moscow, Dresden, East Berlin, Kuwait, Prague, Sofia and twice at the Biennale of Venezia.
In 1984, Efflatoun was recognized by the French Ministry of Culture, with a letter from then-Minister Jack Lang saying she had been nominated as Chevalier dans L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres — though she ultimately did not get the award.
After her death in 1989, Egypt’s Ministry of Culture promised the family it would establish a museum in her name, but El-Din says that contract was broken in late 1990s, accusing the Culture Ministry for reneging on its promise. He was the one who collected Efflatoun’s work from storage in the government premises, and he recalls, “Many of the paintings were badly neglected and some had to be restored.”
In 2013, Safarkhan Gallery exhibited Efflatoun’s oil collection to the public for the first time. The current exhibition features some of her water colors on canvas. Shafei, who spearheaded both shows, feels the artist is even more relevant now than ever: “Inji Efflatoun was and still is an icon of freedom, dignity, honesty and rebellion.” et