The life of Inji Aflatoun, an artist and a rebel

Menna Taher, Sunday 18 Sep 2011

Ahram Online examines the life of Egyptian artist and activist Inji Aflatoun upon the opening of her permanent exhibition last month

The girl and the monster

“I, who speak French, have wasted eighteen years of my life in this cellophane-wrapped society. Until the age of 17 my language was French and even when I started dealing with the people I couldn’t get rid of this complex,” writes the artist and activist Inji Aflatoun in a sincere and confessional tone in her memoirs.

A permanent exhibition has been recently opened for the artist, who is identified with her political activity as much as her art. The exhibition is located in Amir Taz Palace, and displays around 60 pieces of her artworks as well as photographs of hers, autographs by people commenting about her exhibitions, newspaper and magazine articles about her as well as her paintbrushes.

A short documentary, that follows her through the countryside in her old age, can also be watched.

Aflatoun, born in 1924 has weaved her path in life through breaking well-established orders. Her outlook was that of displeasure to society at large and her own upbringing.

Her family is of the bourgeoisie class and through the early part of her life she was living like many of that class, sheltered and detached from the Egyptian society.

Themes of confinement and rebellion have been showing from her earliest works. She was being mentored by the Egyptian artist Kamel El-Telmesany, who had later confessed to her that at first he was not very eager to teach a girl from the bourgeoisie class, who only learned painting as part of a package of learning knitting, piano and cooking. However, she surprised him with her bold paintings that screamed out with striking colours.

The first oil painting she ever drew depicted a girl trying to run away from a raging fire, while snakes were surrounding her trying to eat her. The second was of a girl running in a storm over rocks to escape from a bird of prey. This picture is displayed by the entrance of the exhibition at Amir Taz Palace and catches one’s attention immediately.  Another one was of a man killing a tree. Its blood was sneaking up upon the man to choke him and get its revenge.

Aflatoun was imprisoned for four years during the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser for her involvement in the communist movement. However, that was not the first prison in her life. Her first prison in life was the strict catholic school that she was enrolled in until the fourth grade, the Sacred Heart.

The school, which infused in the girls a sense of alienation from Egyptian culture, had very ardent rules that Aflatoun rebelled against from a young age.

Owning a personal book or reading a book in private was forbidden, as was making friends with other girls, chatting in the break and even looking in the mirror.

What also repelled her greatly from the school was the noticeable class structure. The mother nun, who came from a wealthy family received all the privileges within the convent, while the sister nuns, who came from poorer backgrounds did not receive the same privileges. She wondered how such an injustice could be seen in a place dedicated to asceticism.

Not abiding by these rules, Aflatoun was expelled starting her long history of rebellion.

In 1944 she joined the communist movement Eskra and started learning Arabic in what she called a rigorous process towards getting in touch with her Egyptian roots and identity.

During that time she had moved on from the surrealist style since it no longer expressed her thoughts and leaned towards realism.

“My main desire during that time was to express the reality and the dreams of the working man that toils under horrendous working conditions without a law that protects him,” she writes “I wanted to reveal the exploitation of man to man.”

 “Many talk about Inji Aflatoun as an artist first and foremost, but this is not true. Her political activism was the more important aspect,” said the artist Ezzedine Naguib, who had known her personally.

“She was a very humble and genuine person,” he continued.

She held her first exhibition in March 1952, which had a revolutionary air. Four of her important paintings of that exhibition were Roohy enty Taleka (Leave, you are free), El-Zawga El-Rabaa (The fourth wife), Yaamal Kalregaal (They Work like Men) and Lan Nansa (We won’t forget), in which she has drawn upon the mass demonstrations that took part on 15 November 1951.

Lan Nansa was photographed by students and used as a political flyer, which led the authorities to take it down and return again later.

In 1953, 1954 and 1956, the main subject of her paintings was the countryside and the lives of women there.

When she thought she was about to get arrested, she held an exhibition and then disappeared completely.

When the order was out to arrest her, she moved to Suez for 45 days, then lived undercover in an apartment in Shubra owned by an old couple dressing up as a peasant.

However, this did not take long as she was arrested and taken to the Qanater prison. In her memoirs she describes her stay in prison in a very poignant manner.

She describes her exposure to a different side of the society that she did not know much about as she talks about women getting imprisoned to cover up for their husband’s dealing in drugs or a woman who killed her father for forcing her to marry a much older man.

In the prison no newspapers or books were allowed. Painting was of course not allowed either.

“When I first entered the prison I had a strong urge to draw and not to give in to the reality,” she writes in the memoirs. With time, she made a deal with the head of the women’s prison, who liked drawing as well, that she would paint on condition that it would become the prison’s property.

At first she wasn’t allowed to paint the prison but when an officer came in and asked what she drew and she replied that she is not allowed to draw the prison, the officer told the head of the prison: “You have Inji Aflatoun here. Let her draw whatever she wants.”

Since then her brush captured grim pictures of the women in prison and the solitary mood of the confined space. The paintings in prison are the most captivating and the portraits of women inside the prison have the most expressive face with eyes full of horror.

Other moving paintings are those that capture scenery outside the prison walls through the bars. In her memoirs she writes about a tree that she always drew from behind bars and her inmates called ‘Inji’s tree’.

It is in prison that Aflatoun came to appreciate nature very much. One can see that in her later paintings. She not only portrays the fields but leaves a lot of white space in the painting, unlike her previous paintings.

In the short documentary at the exhibition, Aflatoun recaps her life during her old age as she walks through the fields in the countryside and draws the little children. One can get a sense of the serenity that she was experiencing there. She even confessed in the documentary that she wants to get away from the artificiality of the city life, before riding on a donkey and leaving.

The exhibition is open every day from 10 am till 4 pm except on Friday at Amir Taz Palace located in 27, Al-Syoufiya Street, Al-Khalifa district.


Short link: