Never neglected again: Inji Efflatoun, Egyptian People’s Artist


This article is part of Overlooked, an obituary series about notable people whose deaths, from 1851, were not reported in The Times.

It was while in prison that Egyptian artist, feminist and political dissident Inji Efflatoun painted her best work.

Her portraits of imprisoned women – prostitutes, thieves, murderers, even activists like her, incarcerated as communists by the autocratic regime of President Gamal Abdul Nasser – are rendered in vivid colors and thick outlines that capture her subjects’ sense of isolation. .

Her empathy was particularly pronounced in her painting of a woman whose death sentence had been postponed for a year so that she could breastfeed her newborn baby.

“I felt the enormous tragedy of her story,” wrote Efflatoun in her memoir, “From Childhood to Prison” (2014), “as she had killed and robbed under the pressure of extremely harsh conditions and ‘overwhelming misery. “

Efflatoun’s paintings during his imprisonment from 1959 to 1963 are among his most powerful works – “a window to a world that had been hidden from sight”, Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, guest instructor in the civilization program and Islamic companies at Boston College, said in an e-mail.

But Efflatoun had painted for many years before. In fact, his art, deemed subversive by the authorities, had been instrumental in his incarceration – paintings of orphaned children lying next to their murdered parents and of enraged women with arms raised, calling for the abolition of the Egyptian autocracy.

One painting, “We Cannot Forget” (1951), most directly took her to prison. It showed a sea of ​​faces in the middle of a row of coffins, a commentary on Nasser’s handling of Egypt’s bloody nationalist struggle against British control of the Suez Canal. Nasser had cracked down on criticism of his regime, forcing Efflatoun into hiding. She veiled herself, dressed as a peasant and lived alone in close quarters, where she continued to paint. Yet she was arrested by police in 1959 and jailed for her communist activities.

The roots of her activism and feminism run deep.

Inji Efflatoun was born on April 16, 1924, the younger of two daughters from an aristocratic family. His father, Hassan Efflatoun, was a scientist who established a department of entomology at the University of Cairo. Inji had been inclined towards the arts from a young age and was encouraged by her parents.

“The girls accompanied their father on field visits,” said Hassan Mahmoud, a distant relative, in a telephone interview. “Inji was good at drawing, so much so that he asked her to draw insects for him.

Inji’s mother, Salha, was exceptionally independent for the women of her time. She divorced her husband at 19, went to Paris to study fashion, and opened her own boutique, Maison Salha.

Inji was enrolled in the prestigious College of the Sacred Heart, a French Catholic institution in Cairo known for disciplining its students. She called it “my first prison”. The school’s strict rules and overt discrimination – Egyptian nuns were delegated more work than their foreign-born counterparts – fueled her rebellion, leading her to defiantly read books the school had banned. . She then attended the more liberal Lycée Français in Cairo, where she learned from Rousseau, Voltaire, the French Revolution and Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt.

Marxist theories inspired her to reject her elitist background and stand with working class Egyptians. And she began to see art as a form of liberation.

Efflatoun studied with Kamel El Telmissany, an artist and filmmaker who founded the leftist group Surrealist Art and Liberty.

“The group spoke out against colonialism, denounced nationalism and worked for the emancipation of women and the elimination of classes,” said Sam Bardaouil, who organized (with Till Fellrath) the traveling exhibition ” Art and Freedom: Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938-1948) ”, which debuted at the Center George Pompidou in Paris in 2016 and included the work of Efflatoun. “These would become causes that Efflatoun would champion for the rest of his life.”

El Telmissany also introduced her to surrealism and cubism.

“She had an anger and a compelling need to be released because of her protected and privileged upbringing, wrapped in cellophane,” Fatenn Mostafa, art researcher and founder of the Cairo Art Talks gallery, said via email. “El Telmissany helped her translate this anger into powerful surreal and imaginary worlds that defy time and space.”

In 1942, Efflatoun joined Iskra, a group of young Marxists, and participated in the annual Art and Liberty exhibition at the Continental Hotel in Cairo. Images of frightened women, strange landscapes and twisted trees filled his canvases. For her, the tree has become the symbol of the human condition.

“Trees are like people – in pain – and represent our dream spirits,” she told artist and writer Betty LaDuke in a 1989 article in the National Women’s Studies Association journal. She added: “People wondered why a girl from a wealthy family was so tormented, so unhappy and refused a lot of things.”

She began to feel a growing gulf between herself and her aristocratic upbringing and yearned to explore her roots. She traveled to Nubia and the Nile Delta to paint farm workers and scenes from everyday life. In vivid paintings like “Fourth Wife” (1952) and “Ezba” (1953), men and women work hard – plowing, harvesting, weaving and selling their wares.

Her political beliefs were also reflected in her art as she painted the plight of Egyptians suffering from despotism. She was appointed a delegate to the First International Democratic Women’s Federation in Paris in 1945 and wrote political brochures dealing with issues of class, gender and imperialist oppression.

In 1948, she married lawyer Mohammed Abdul Elija, who shared her beliefs; he died in 1956. His art was then exhibited in Egypt and abroad, notably at the Venice Biennale in 1952 and at the São Paolo Biennale in 1953. In 1952, Nasser led the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy and, in 1959, his crackdown on the Communists led to Efflatoun’s imprisonment.

Behind bars, painting in cramped conditions, she created a side business, tipping prison officials to pack her canvases and smuggle them to her sister, who then sells them.

“Prison has been a very enriching experience for my development as a human being and an artist,” she told LaDuke in the newspaper article. “When a crisis or a tragedy arises, one can become stronger or be destroyed. I became more open to people, to life. Before, I didn’t compromise. Now if I see someone’s weakness, I accept it.

Under Nasser’s orders, Efflatoun was released in 1963 along with other political prisoners before a visit to the country by Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev.

A year later, Efflatoun organized a solo exhibition at the Akhenaton Gallery in Cairo and received a grant from the Ministry of Culture. Exhibitions in Rome, Paris, Dresden, Warsaw, Moscow and several other European cities followed.

She died in Cairo on April 17, 1989. She was 65 years old.

Boston College researcher Al Qassemi called Efflatoun “a great artist who gave us a glimpse into worlds we might otherwise have overlooked.”

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