Who was Inji Aflatoun? Everything You Need to Know about Egyptian Painter Inji Aflatoun.
“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.
“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.
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.
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