[expositie] Inji Efflatoun – Tarqab (expectation)

Inji Efflatoun: Tarqab (Expectation)
by Emilie Sitzia (based on Filippa Ruiter’s analysis)

Inji Efflatoun was born in Cairo, Egypt in 1921 to a traditional muslim, wealthy family. Her parents were divorced; her mother was unusually independent for women of that time, owning her own textile shop, and her father was a scientist. Efflatoun went to catholic school, which she referred to as her first prison, and then to the French Lycée in Cairo, where she learned about marxism. She began painting at a young age and her private art tutor, Kamel El-Telmissany, was one of the founders of the “Art et Liberté” (“Art and Freedom”) movement. This movement had a communist and anti-imperialist perspective that colored their surrealist creative processes. El-Telmissany taught Efflatoun about Egyptian surrealism as well as the struggles of Egyptian peasants. 

In the early 1940s, Efflatoun showed her political commitment, as she became involved in militant activities. She also was one of the first women to study art at the University of Cairo, and was a founding member of the League of Young Women of Universities and Institutes, which campaigned for left-wing anti-colonialism and gender equality. Due to her political paintings and activism, Efflatoun went into hiding during Nassar’s rise to power but was caught during a roundup of communists in 1959, and was eventually released in 1963. During her imprisonment, she continued to paint. She described her time in prison as an “enriching experience for [her] development as a human being and artist.” She then worked as a teacher, journalist, and activist, promoting women’s rights and peace until her death at age 65.

Efflatoun’s works were influenced by surrealism and cubism. Before her imprisonment, Efflatoun’s work was deeply political, calling out the failings of Egypt and the horrific impact of colonialism. These artworks are potentially what landed her in prison, where Efflatoun created her most well-known body of work. Efflatoun’s early prison works were portraits that serve as a tribute to the oppression and struggle Egyptian women face. Efflatoun painted her fellow women prisoners and the tragic stories they carried with them, but rendered these works in bright colors, geometric forms, and bold outlines. Efflatoun’s later prison works were landscapes, typically the view outside her prison window, as for Efflatoun nature represented freedom. These works all shed light on the lived reality of women’s prisons during the Nasser regime. Efflatoun’s time in prison impacted her painting practice. Before prison her works had a purely revolutionary aim, to make a change, but in prison they depicted what felt like a never-ending present. Efflatoun carried on with both approaches as she continued to paint for the rest of her life. Her illustrations use black ink crosshatching to build movement and emotional intensity.  She is remembered as a rebellious spirit that overcame her sheltered upbringing to explore the complex themes of poverty, imprisonment, women’s rights, and political dissent.