Discovering Baya Mahieddine’s iconic art

As I write this I am grateful for friends of a kindred spirit like Leigh, especially at a time of extended isolation and where friends I thought were friends have all but slipped away. This form of imposed isolation has shone a light on what is true and important, false and unnecessary, genuine and, well, what isn’t.

“Thought you’d love this,”my friend Leigh wrote, tagging me in a post on Instagram about Baya Mahedienne yesterday, and boy was she right! It was indeed love at first sight, as they say. I could almost call it a pre-valentines gift! How is it I’d never heard of her before?! But I’m sure there are many more amazing artists I haven’t heard of yet, especially women. Women who have been marginalised in a predominantly male dominated profession.

Immediately I had to do some research on her, as is my way when I discover a new and inspiring artist. I am hungry to know more about them. Their background, their life and reason for why they create what they create. Their point of view. Their loves and dislikes.

Invariably, reading through articles related to an artist’s life and work I am overwhelmed by the amount of information and detailed analyses of their work. I find myself having to decipher and sift through the abstract explanations in these essays. I have to wonder how much of these details was uppermost in [any of] the artists’ consciousness while creating their art. Weren’t they just creating for the joy of it? Wasn’t it instinctual and not as well thought out as experts of the art world would have us believe? Wasn’t it just the way they saw the world and colour through their particular lens?

Anyway, I will provide some information for my own reference and anyone else who is interested as to what stands to be most significant for the artist’s ‘raison de creation’. Otherwise please feel free to scroll down simply enjoying some of Baya’s colourful and vibrant artwork that I have included here.

Femme au panier et coq rouge, 1947, Gouache on board, 72,9 x 91,4 cm. Collection of Adrien Maeght, Saint-Paul-de Vence, France

Baya was born Fatma Haddad in 1931 in a small, Muslim town in French-occupied Algeria and was orphaned at the tender age of 5 whereupon she lived with her grandmother who worked as a housekeeper in a colonial horticultural farm owned by the sister of French intellectual and art collector Marguerite Caminat Benhoura. In 1942, when she was 11 years old and having noticed this young, sensitive girl making “fascinating small animals and strange female figures” out of dirt and sand, Benhoura offered to adopt her.

Femmes attablées, 1947, Gouache on board, 49,5 x 64,6 cm. Collection of Adrien Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France

In her homes in Algiers and the south of France, Benhoura provided Baya with all the materials, education and mentorship she needed to develop her art, but also importantly she provided her with the priceless exposure and opportunity to learn and connect with the works of other famous artists of the time.

Benhoura was an avid collector and owned paintings by modernist masters, including Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Alberto Magnelli, and her lifelong friend Joan Miro.

 Femme assise fond vert. 1998. Gouache on paper. 75×100 cm

In 1945, Aimé Maeght, a prominent French art dealer discovered Baya, sharing his enthusiasm for Baya’s work with André Breton. Breton included one of Baya’s gouaches in the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme at Galerie Maeght in Paris in July 1947 and by November, Maeght was exhibiting the 16-year-old’s ceramics and gouaches.

Breton celebrated Baya’s work as the future of painting—a light in the dark aftermath of World War II, the start of an “age of emancipation and harmony” that broke away from the “systematic” condition of painting convention. He believed that Baya characterized the spontaneity and revolutionary freedom with which art should be pursued. Breton cited in particular her “childlike” and “primitive” style and her dreamworld depictions, so important to the Surrealist aesthetic.

Femme au paon. 1947. Gouache on paper. 62.8x 47.7cm

At this time, Breton was also collaborating with Jean Dubuffet who was fascinated with Baya’s art and acquired many of her works during his frequent visits to Algeria. The Art Brut collection, which would later become La Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, is home to several works by Baya. Thus she was labeled early in her career as an “outsider artist,” and to this day she continues to be associated with Dubuffet’s original definition of Art Brut—which translates as “raw art” and implies that the artist is self-trained. For Dubuffet, Art Brut—which includes graffiti and the work of the insane, prisoners, children, and primitive artists—was the raw expression of vision or emotions, untrammeled by convention, academia, or tradition.

Untitled, Gouache on paper, 65 x 100 cm

Baya’s 1947 exhibition at Galerie Maeght in Paris attracted the avant-garde intellectual elite, including François Mauriac and Albert Camus, as well as a popular audience. Baya found herself suddenly fashionable, featured in the February 1948 issue of French Vogue with a full-page portrait and a story by Edmonde Charles-Roux: “With her prodigious ability to invent images that do not belong to any culture, [Baya’s] innate sense of color finds its source in the depth of the ages.”

Thanks to her success in Paris, Baya was invited to become an artist in residence at the Madoura ceramic studio in Vallauris, in the south of France, and from 1948 to 1952 she spent summers there with Marguerite, working side by side with Picasso, who referred to her as “La Berbère.”

Jeune Femme, Gouache, 50 x 65 cm

Discussing her relationship with Picasso, Baya recalled: “We had adjacent studios. We would talk a lot. Sometimes we would eat couscous together. He was very nice and we spent delightful time together.”

Picasso cited his time at Madoura with Baya as one of the main inspirations—along with the death of Matisse, his lifelong friend and rival, and the advent of the Algerian War—for his series Les Femmes d’Alger (Women of Algiers, 1954–55), fifteen paintings and numerous related drawings.

Femme robe a fleurs blanches, 1947, Gouache on board, 99.1×76.2 cm. Collection of Adrien Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France

Baya never claimed to belong to any artistic tradition and always painted at home, mostly in the kitchen. She explained, “I started painting because Marguerite painted.” Although most scholarship on Baya refers to her as “self-taught,” Marguerite’s mentorship calls this into question.

Jeune musicienne, 1975, gouache on paper, 92×73 cm

Baya remained with Marguerite until 1953, when she returned to her turbulent homeland at the dawn of the Algerian War of Independence. There she married El Hadj Mahfoud Mahieddine, a traditional Muslim and an acclaimed “arabo-andalousian” musician thirty years her elder. As his second of three wives she stopped painting for ten years while she quietly and lovingly, raised six children.

Her son, Othmane Mahieddine, recalls that his mother attended to her wifely and maternal duties “entirely, meticulously and without a sound: cooking, baking, painting on satin, interior decorating, housekeeping and gardening as well as tending to our education. She was a fairy.”

Baya’s retirement from making art roughly corresponds with the Algerian War of Independence. At the time of independence, in 1962, the Musée des beaux-arts in Algiers had not yet acquired any of her work. The following year, after Jean de Maisonseul was appointed director and reopened the museum, he repatriated some of Baya’s gouaches and ceramics from France. He encouraged her to return to painting, and he included her work in Algerian Painters, an exhibition of emerging talent that he organized for the festivities of liberation of November 1. Maisonseul proceeded to organize a retrospective of Baya’s gouaches and went on to champion her work until the end of his career. Beginning in 1963, Baya—who had not shown her work since 1947—exhibited in Algeria and internationally nearly every year until her death in 1998.

Baya Mahieddine. Nature morte aux oiseaux. 1985. Gouache on paper. 65 x 49.8 cm

Staying true to her artistic self, Baya chose to go by her painterly name, Baya, and signed it in a personal and unknown scripture.

As the artist said later: “If I change my paintings, I will no longer be Baya. When I paint, I am happy and I am in another world.”

Baya’s work is predominantly a world full of women donning colourful traditional dresses, surrounded by flowers and rich vegetation. The women are always painted with almond eyes and fleshy red lips and surrounded by urns, flowers, fish, birds, musical instruments and, later in her life, representations of the Koran.

Art historian Mouny Berrah describes these pictures as harem-spaces. Baya usually depicted her female figures’ faces as flat, empty and white, using the canvas rather than paint and only via loose outlines floating in space, with eyes resembling the inverted Arabic character transliterated as “H”. A reason for this repetitive “one eye” is, as Baya herself explained in an interview, that when Marguerite was raising her, she took care that Baya retain her Algerian identity, insisting that she learn to write and speak modern Arabic, observe Ramadan, pray and wear a veil.

Musiciennes, 1975, Gouache on paper, 80,5×148,50 cm

To me it is as if Baya is rebelling against the social boundaries of her cultural background, removing the veil of invisibility that typically shrouds women in her country. She is depicting emancipated women wearing colourful clothes, enjoying freedom, music, nature and life. The fact that men are absent from her artwork enforces that attitude of freedom and women breaking free of a male-dominated society that imposed so many restrictions on women.

Femme robe jaune et panier, 1947, gouache on board, 64,6 x 49,5 cm

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