Belatedly published memoirs of Efflatoun, a famous rebel painter

Hesham Taha, Thursday 23 Oct 2014

The memoirs of famous Egyptian painter Inji Efflatoun reveal the secret behind her family name and shed light on her political sensibilities and artistic production

Book Cover

Muzakarat Inji Efflatoun: Min Al-Toufoula ila Al-Sign (Inji Efflatoun's Memoirs: From Childhood to Prison) by Inji Efflatoun, published by Dar Al-Thaqafa Al-Jadida, Cairo, 2014. pp.247

The recently published memoirs of Inji Efflatoun, edited and introduced by Saeed Khayyal, come rather late, as the famous painter having died in 1989.

Efflatoun opens on the secret behind her family name. Her great-great grandfather was named Hassan Al-Kashif-Efflatoun (an Arabised form of the name of Greek philosopher Plato) due to his constant questioning. When Mohamed Ali Pasha came to know and learn the reason behind the name of this army cadet he smiled and remarked: "There is no problem in having an Efflatoun."

Efflatoun was born in an aristocratic family, where her father and mother were cousins. After her mother Salha gave birth to her, she was divorced and left with Inji and her elder sister Goulbrie. It is hard to imagine how this lady managed, bringing up two daughters alone in 1924. Afterwards, Salha became the first Egyptian woman fashion designer to have a store in her name. 

It was evident that Efflatoun inherited her mother's strong will, determination and independence. All these qualities were to put her on a collision course with the College du Sacré-Cœur where she rebelled many times and was almost expelled. One of Inji's early social remarks was to question how the foreign-born mother superior was enjoying privileges while the Egyptian sister was bearing the brunt of washing the floor and eating humble food?

In the first seventeen years of her life she didn’t speak Arabic at all, only French. Thus it was a strenuous endeavour not just to learn Arabic, but to belong and engage oneself totally in the issues of the marginalised, whether women, workers, or the impoverished at large. Inji began to express her love for art through drawing sketches to accompany the poems of her sister "Boulie."

Her meeting with Kamel El-Telmissany, the well-known Egyptian painter who was part of the “Art and Freedom Movement”, was fateful to say the least. He became her mentor. By 1942 she had participated with the “Art and Freedom” group and in a number of avant-garde exhibitions with elder contemporaries Ramsis Younan, El-Telmissany, Fouad Kamel and the distinguished Mahmoud Said. Efflatoun's family tried to persuade her to travel abroad, especially to Paris to learn art, but she insisted vehemently on staying in Egypt. Inji regarded her output in the 40s as her surrealist period. Following this, from 1942 to 1952, she worked and studied with Margot Veillon and Hamed Abdallah. She also joined the free section in the Faculty of Fine Arts.

As her mother was the first Egyptian woman fashion designer to take her designs to the street, Inji became the first Egyptian woman, in 1952, to have a solo show.

El-Telmissany's influence on Efflatoun wasn't restricted on art but extended to her view on life in general and on progressive ideas in particular. When she was able to read English books about socialism she immediately adopted it eagerly. She went to the extent of becoming a member of Iskra — a communist organisation — in 1944.  

Inji Efflatoun's efforts were also directed towards feminism, becoming an advocate of women's rights. She founded, with others, the Egyptian Female University and Institutes Students' League in 1945. She wrote three booklets, namely: "Eighty Million Women with Us," "We Egyptian Women," and "Peace and Evacuation." She represented Egyptian women many times in international conferences, starting in 1945 during the International Congress of Women, the first women conference after World War II, held in Paris.

One of the most influential figures in Efflatoun's life was her husband Hamdy. He was a prosecutor whom she met during a friend's wedding. Both felt attracted to each other almost instantly. It was Hamdy who convinced Inji to dress as she pleases not the old, rumpled dresses she used to wear. Contemporary newspapers also used to point out her aristocratic upbringing in contrast to her communist leanings. Two years of their eight-year marriage starting 1948 saw Hamdy in prison, accused of being a member in a communist cell. He died of a brain haemorrhage at 34. 

Both Efflatoun and Hamdy were members in Iskra which merged with the Egyptian Movement for National Liberation (HAMITU) to form the Democratic Movement for National Liberation (HADITU). Both also resigned from HADITU in 1952 after witnessing its blind support for Nasser's regime in spite of the execution of workers. They joined the Egyptian Communist Party. In early 1959, there was a huge arrest campaign against communists, and then a second wave in March. Inji anticipated that the police were after her, thus she escaped for a period of time, only to be arrested in the street following a fellow comrade's betrayal.

The prison experience for Efflatoun, which lasted for four years starting 1959, was a formative one. Relative to art, Inji went on to draw her finest works. Unlike Inji's mother, Boulie was supportive and her efforts in exerting pressure on the authorities led to Inji being permitted to draw, though ending up selling the drawings on behalf of the prison! Efflatoun was able to save some of the drawings via smuggling. Among the other prison inmates, Efflatoun's eyes were opened widely to the world of female thieves, prostitutes, murderers and narcotics smugglers, as well as the wardens and female jailers.   

The memoir includes 27 colour and 22 black and white paintings by Efflatoun printed at the beginning and end of the book. There is also a section that includes 13 letters written by Inji to her sister which are very moving, vivid and full of high spirits.

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