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Zooming Into Two Iconic Arab Female Artists

We need to talk more about Arab women in art and for that, we are circling back to key artistic voices that shaped contemporary art: Inji Afflatoun and Etel Adnan. Click through to get to know the monumental work

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Inji Efflatoun

Inji Efflatoun is a name that resonates in the art world as being a key figure of women painters in the region. Born into an aristocratic family in 1924 in Cairo, Efflatoun makes herself familiar with the Marxism and tackles a life of activism and painting as a form of emancipation. She takes on painting classes with Surrealist Egyptian painter Kamel el Telmissany, who integrates her in the artistic and intellectual movement called “Art et Liberté” following a Marxist and anti-imperialist ideology. Within this group of artists, Efflatoun reinforces her feminist stance and political believes, such as, injustices as well as class and gender inequality, and pointing out the repercussions of oppression.

Her paintings are reflective of her life as an Egyptian woman and citizen. She was imprisoned for her views under the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1959. Efflatoun did not stop her painting activism, even when she was in prison. Her prison paintings shed light on an aspect of life people did not openly know about, the reality of the prison life of incarcerated women. A famous series of paintings she took on were all titled “Portrait of a Prisoner”, depicting female prison detainees. One can sense a type of oxymoron between a state of anguish and power on the faces of the women depicted. She is liberated in 1963, and continued painting until her death in 1989, leaving behind a long-lasting legacy of women’s emancipation through art. 

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Etel Adnan

Lebanese poet, novelist and abstract artist Etel Adnan (1925-2021) once said: “Abstract art was the equivalent of poetic expression; I didn’t need to use words, but colors and lines. I didn’t need to belong to a language-oriented culture but to an open form of expression.”

She was born in Beirut to a Greek Christian mother and a Muslim Syrian father. She grew up exposed to different languages and cultures. She studied philosophy at the American University of Beirut before continuing her studies in Paris. As a poet Adnan chooses to write about identity, condemning war, exile, politics, love and nature. She writes in a way that the reader can very much understand that what she is conveying is captured from experience and observation of her life. A famous novel of hers is called “Sitt Marie Rose”, a story that takes place before and during the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990.

In most of her visual artworks Etel Adnan chooses to depict geometrical forms. She uses different tones of vivid yet soothing colors and a palette knife rather than a paint brush. Her depictions are mainly abstract landscapes, fields, sunsets and mountains. These factors are what makes up the quite distinctive aesthetic of Etel Adnan. She transcribes her art on different types of mediums and in some of her works she even merges her writing with paint. Etel Adnan has emerged as a prominent figure in contemporary art and literature due to her diverse and expansive artistic and literary career. Her distinct approach, which seamlessly intertwines poetry painting and activism made her an influential figure. Her work will forever resonate with audiences worldwide.

If you want to discover more about Female Artists of the MENA and Arab region, I highly recommend you go check out the Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah. Something worth mentioning is that like no other art institution, especially in the region, Barjeel makes sure female artists and their work have an equivalent ratio and presence as male artists and their work.

Don’t hesitate to check up the foundation’s online archive to find out more about the art of Female artists of the region.

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