Baya Mahieddine: An Arab Woman Artist
` Makhoul Sana
In 1947, Picasso took the sixteen year old Baya by the hand to his country home at Vallauris to watch her knead the clay and bring to life child-like shapes and figures. (1) Picasso, who stated that he spent his entire life learning how to paint like a child, was fascinated by the art and spontaneity of the Algerian woman artist, Baya Mahieddine. However, later on, in 1954, Algerian women became his exotic subjects in his series, Women of Algiers. I chose to undertake my research on Baya Mahieddine, an Arab woman artist of the twentieth century, for several reasons.
Baya was born at Bordj el-Kiffan in
Baya, a poor servant and self-taught artist, produced a body of work that can be understood both from the perspective of class and her lack of formal education. Western colonizers directed art schools in Arab countries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the early stages of modern Arab art movements, to aspire to become an artist was to learn the vocabulary of forms taught by Western artists who were the principal teachers in these schools. Despite the Arab world’s own multi-layered artistic heritage and traditions, this faculty consisted of European artists who taught the history of Western art beginning with the Renaissance. Students enrolled in these schools were taught by their European instructors to recognize and emulate the different styles of Western art, such as the Algerian artist, Mohammed Racim, who studied at L’Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts d’Alger. Some Arab artists went to
At age five, Baya lost both her parents, and her grandmother took care of her. In 1936 Marguerite Benhoura, (2) a French woman, fled to
Baya started making animals and human figures out of clay before joining Marguerite’s household. Marguerite was fascinated by Baya’s art, and introduced her to gouache and watercolors. Baya spent most of her time painting with colors. In 1947, sixteen-year-old Baya mounted her first solo exhibition which was arranged by Marguerite. The exhibition took place at the Galerie Adrien Maeght in
At the time of her exhibit in
attraction to the “exotic.” This was quite obvious in Breton’s essay on Baya’s exhibit: “there is far away from this old world so-called civilized, this world running out of breath, this dragon with a hundred dried up breasts, this knocked down moster whose scales are decomposing... races, castes were pitted against oneanother, and the dragon could not stop vomiting the carnage and the oppression.” (6) In addition to the national crisis of devastating war was the crisis of European colonialism and imperialism on a global scale, specifically the colonization of
The misinterpretation of Baya’s art by Western and Arab art critics is another point that I would like to discuss here. Some Arab art critics echoed and followed Western interpretations of Baya’s art as surrealist. Algerian art critic Benamar Mediene writes “...she stands at the heart of surrealism,”(7) and Jordanian art critic Wijdan Ali notes that “Baya’s style, based on childhood dreams and imagination, incorporated naïve, surrealisticforms.” (8) The use of Western definitions and terminology by Arab art critics to interpret art production by Arab artists demonstrates the colonized minds and thinking in a Neo-colonial (9) period.
Other art critics classify Baya’s work as naïve art. Naïve art is defined as an art produced by self-taught artists who lack formal training. The popularity of Henri Rousseau as a naïve artist refutes this definition because he had some formal art training. We may need to redefine naïve art. Naïve painting may appear to be innocent and childlike, a deceptive perception because Western naïve artists borrow conventional composition and techniques from the history of art. Western modern artists’ interest in naïve art stems from their fascination with “primitive”(12) cultures and the unconscious states of mind. Naïve painting is a by-product of “individual psyches rather than communal history.”(13)
I argue that Baya’s artwork, like Frida Kahlo’s, expresses the richness of her own “native”(14)culture and art. Baya’s paintings express the world around her, as she sometimes admits.(15) She is grounded in an Arabo-Berber culture in
Baya’s depiction of human figures in her painting challenges the preconception of a Western onlooker, who assumes that images of human figures are forbidden in ‘Islamic art.’ (16) I argue that this is a false Western myth about ‘Islamic art.’ Since its beginning ‘Islamic art’ depicted human figures, including nudes, in the secular realm, yet in the religious domain human figures were forbidden. Many religions prohibited the depiction of human figures in their religious sanctuaries, but for some reason, this idea is correlated only with Islamic art and became stereotypical of all art production by Muslims. In my opinion, this myth came into existence in order to ostracize the Other, in this case Islam. Even the term ‘Islamic art’ was invented by nineteenth and twentieth century Western historians.(17) Western thought has replaced restrictive geographic or ethnic terms, which had been previously thought distinct, as “Turkish,” “Indian,” “Arab,” “Persian,” “Maghrib,” and so forth, with all-embracing homogeneous terms such as “Islamic” or “Muslim/Moslem.”(18) Islamic art, as a global term, encompasses hundreds of years and a geographical reach extending at different times from
Between 1952 and 1967 Baya stopped painting. These years she spent bearing and raising children at
Note: I delivered this paper at the Women’s Caucus for Art session –“Crossing Borders, Mapping Boundaries; Exploring Issues of Culture and Context in Women’s Art,” at the College Art Association 86th annual conference in
1. Benamar Mediene, “
Publishing Ltd., 1989), 19.
2. Marguerite Benhoura was working as an archivist at the Muslim Bureau of Charities in
3. Améziane Ferhani, “Interview de Baya,” Algérie Actualités, no. 852, 17 février 1982.
4. André Breton, “Baya,” catalogue d’exposition, coll. Derrière le Miroir, (Paris: Edition Adrien Maeght, 1947).
5. Jean de Maisonseul, “Baya L’enchanteresse” in Baya, a catalog on her exhibition at
6. Breton, “ Baya.”
7. Benamar Mediene, essay on art in Algeria, in Contemporary Art From the Islamic World, 19.
8. Wijdan Ali, “Modern Arab Art: An Overview” in Forces of Change: Artists of the Arab World, ed. Salwa Mikdadi Nashashibi et al. (Washington D.C.: The National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1994), a catalog for a traveling exhibition in the United States of Arab women artists, 92.
9. I use the term ‘Neo-colonial’ instead of ‘Post-colonial,’ because I consider the term ‘post-colonial’ problematic as an indicator to this period. In my opinion, colonialism did not end. Today, it conveys new forms and ways of Western imperialistic hegemony by monopolizing the global economy and knowledge, therefore I call it a Neo-colonial period.
10. Robert Atkins, Art Spoke: A Guide to Modern Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords, 1848-1944 (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1993), excerpt from the Surrealist manifesto, 203.
11. Atkins, Art Spoke, 203-4.
12. Using a term such as “primitive” implies a bipolar, adversely hierarchical relationship between “primitive” and “civilized.” Nevertheless, I use it because I want to address certain commonalities that arise from the impact of essentialized discourse within colonialist discussion. To convey my continued discomfort with the terminology, I awkwardly use this term in quotation marks in order to point it out and question is validity, but it does not mean that I agree with its use.
13. Atkins, Art Spoke, 144.
14. Words as “native” or “indigenous” create problematic categories, as I indicate further, the complex history of traditions in alteria blurs the original meaning of the word “native.” But this blend of multicultural tradition is very specific to
15 In an interview by Lazhari Labter in Révolution Africaine, no. 1199, 20 février 1987, p.61, Baya replies to what do her paintings reflect: “My painting is not areflection of the outside world, but of my own world within me...” In another interview by Moulay B., she replies that her paintings come “from things that surround me, from music, ...from things in life...”
16. I use the term ‘Islamic Art’ in quotation marks in order to point it out and question its validity that will discuss further in my discussion.
17.Mohammad Al-Asad, “The Re-invention of Tradition: Neo-Islamic Architecture,” Proceedings of the XXVII International Congress of the History of Art (
18. Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom, The Art and Architecture of Islam: 1250-1800 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994), 303.
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