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‘A Life in Struggle’ by Inji Efflatoun at Safar Khan Art Gallery

Safar Khan Gallery: ‘A Life in Struggle’ by Inji Efflatoun

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reviewed by
Tanya El Kashef
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Safar Khan Gallery: ‘A Life in Struggle’ by Inji Efflatoun
More than a remarkable artist, Inji Efflatoun was a remarkable person.  Her life story is one of faith and the courage she possessed to remain loyal to what she valued. Exhibiting at Safar Khan in Zamalek, the collection of her life’s work is simply an admirable story told through the eyes of the artist herself.

The collection, though not strictly in chronological order, certainly flows in terms of periods.  Efflatoun’s painting started at a young age and came to develop through several styles; her surrealist work is her earliest and is hung at the start of the exhibition. Two large pieces are dark in subject matter and in colour palette, showing decapitated heads and bleeding bodies, painted in dark purples, reds and greens. However, it’s in her later periods that the extent of her talent truly begins to show.

Being born into an aristocratic family in the 20s, Efflatoun grew up in a sheltered society, detached from true Egyptian people and their way of life. Travelling around the country in the late 40s, and witnessing the real Egypt for the first time, the artist’s inspirations were rejuvenated and it marked the start of her expressionist work that largely focused on rural scenes. Her colour usage during this period is potent and thick and her subjects large and prominent. One piece shows two women sitting facing each other, intertwined, with their pink and green galabeyas meshed together to create a single entity.

With time, the artist became more and more politically inclined, feeling socially responsible towards the average Egyptian she’d come to know; this eventually led to her imprisonment and subsequently, some of her best artistic expression. Strongly influenced by pointillism, her speckled images strangely breathe a sense of peace. One image is of women in prison, some in cells and others separated by the bars. Despite the context, their faces are calm and serene; there’s a certain lightness to it. However, contrary to that misplaced feeling of freedom, other smaller works show a more confined mindset, with spotted trees painted from behind bars, as in ‘Tree of Life’ (1963).

As a definite highlight of the collection, ‘Row of Prisoners’ (1968), shows a row of women, sitting one after the other, intrinsically waiting. The brushstrokes of this painting are mesmerising; they swirl and as a result, the whole picture moves, almost caressing your vision. Similar brushstrokes can be seen in ‘The Queen of the Village’ (1973), where the image dances with movement.

In her later work, Efflatoun integrated more empty space in her pieces and an example of this is Collecting the Oranges (1989). A group of villagers are painted collecting the fruit and it’s her quirky depiction of their arms that brings back some of her older surrealism tendencies. The colour palette is also a lot brighter and less dense, different from most of her previous work.

There are a couple of self-portraits among the rest of the pieces, but the one that drew more attention – perhaps because it hangs on its own – was the portrait done in 1958. Highly expressionist and easily likened to Van Gogh’s structure and palette choice, she paints herself with a certain power that is rather engaging.

Overall, the exhibition is well rounded and the pieces balanced; it depicts the life of a very special Egyptian artist and revolutionary.  Ultimately, Efflatoun’s life and art speak for themselves and all the red ‘sold’ tags will attest to that.

360 Tip

The artist's family urged her to study abroad, but she refused, reluctant to leave behind Egypt and her heritage.

Best Bit

The story behind the art & 'Row of Prisoners'.

Worst Bit

The high prices.

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