Baya Mahieddine’s Artful Expressions of Intersectional Identity

Baya, “Femmes attablées” (Women at table), 1947. Gouache on board, 19 1⁄2 x 25 7⁄16 in. (49.5 x 64.6 cm).
Collection of Adrien Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France. Courtesy of Grey Art Gallery.

Pablo Picasso is attributed to have said “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” The renowned modern artist was referring to the fluidity in which children, when given materials, begin making marks and communicating symbolically. When considered alongside experiences related to artistic development, Picasso’s Cubist compositions align with some of the ways in which children begin to represent figures by utilizing geometric shapes and conceptualizing abstract thoughts into concrete visual narratives.

Cubism emphasizes a multidimensional way to visualize objects so that they express the various ways we would realistically encounter them. The manner in which Cubists represent components of subject matter from multiple angles, provides us with a sense of what the object is via its core geometric forms. Art historians Charles Cramer and Kim Grant (2020) explain that “Cubism was often seen as an art of conception rather than perception. Cubist paintings represented the composite idea of objects that we have in our heads, rather than rendering objects from one point of view, at one moment in time, and in one kind of light.”

This conceptual outcome is not that dissimilar to how children choose to communicate symbolically. From the very beginning, whether using precut shapes for collage or making liberal marks with paint, children’s art exemplifies ample exploration with materials and perspective. Child artists explore the ways in which they can utilize media and techniques to concretely express what is in their heads and how that impacts their personal and collective experiences with the world around them.

We learn to depict our environment and express our human condition through a combination of lived experiences, exposure to cultural history and the type of resources and educators we are exposed to. Our conceptual understanding of representation and the development of artistic skills is a nonlinear process, which is why trained artists like Picasso and more recently, Michael Scoggins and Brian Belott, consciously sojourn back and forth and in-between the various phases of artistic development in order to rekindle their creativity and find new means of communicating symbolically (for details about theories and the pedagogy of artistic development, see: The Fein Art of Artistic Development and Attention to Details: Noticing Deeply Through Art). This type of flexible development is necessary in order to construct compelling visual narratives that shape the social, emotional and cognitive understandings of viewers. Art’s ability to transcend time and space, makes it a powerful means for communicating personal and collective narratives, and giving a voice to underrepresented individuals. While the academic and institutional art field has been frustratingly slow in inching towards equal and equitable coverage of women identifying and BIPOC (black, Indigenous and people of color) artists, there are many ongoing efforts to establish credit where credit is due.

In addition to Cubism’s theoretical connection to the multidimensional phases of artistic development, Picasso and his cohort of modernists were clearly drawn to the uninhibited styles and compositions of diverse groups of artists, especially the art of the youth and non-European cultures. They were particularly inspired by the work of an adolescent artist named Baya Mahieddine. Mahieddine’s graceful gouache paintings of communal Algerian women that she recalled from observation, experience and imagination, provided Picasso with a notable secondary sourced foundation for his own explorations into Algerian culture (notably, his Femmes d’Alger series).

Baya, Femme robe jaune cheveux bleus (Woman with blue hair in a yellow dress), 1947, gouache on board. Collection Jules Maeght, San Francisco. Photo © Galerie Maeght. Courtesy of Grey Art Gallery.

Baya Mahieddine (née Fatima Haddad) was born in Bordj El Kiffan, a beach front suburb located in Algiers, the capital of Algeria. Her family was part of a small rural community of Kabyle and Arab heritage. She was orphaned at the age of 5 and was initially fostered by her grandmother. When she was 11 years old, Mahieddine was adopted and mentored by a Frenchwoman named Marguerite Caminat who had significant connections to the French art community. She was given a healthy supply of art materials and created a painterly world with women at the center. Their bold eyes and powerful curvilinear bodies embellished with motifs of flora and fauna, exhibit authority and sublimity all at once. In 1947 at the age of 16, she had her first solo exhibition at Galerie Maeght, a renowned Parisian gallery. Her largely autodidactic artwork caught the eyes of France’s cultural establishment, which afforded her experiential learning and exhibition opportunities associated with the avant-garde French modernist art scene. Although she was exposed to the work and conversations of the most influential artists of Paris, she steadfastly maintained her own visual vocabulary, which reflects Berber culture and the vibrant nature of North African women.

Surrealist poet and writer, André Breton, championed Mahieddine’s work in the essay for her Galerie Maeght exhibition: “I speak not as others have, to deplore an ending, but rather to promote a beginning, and at this beginning, Baya is queen. The beginning of an age of emancipation and of agreement, in radical rupture with the preceding era, one of whose principal levers for man might be the systematic, always increasing impregnation of nature. The beginnings of this age lie with Charles Fourier, the new impetus has just been furnished by Malcolm of Chazal. But for the rocket that launches the new age, I propose the name Baya. Baya, whose mission is to reinvigorate the meaning of those beautiful nostalgic words: happy Arabia. Baya holds and rekindles the golden bough” (Breton, 1947). In Breton’s essay, he cites Fourier and Chazal, as a way to signify the progression of liberal thought and activities within French society. His assertion is that Mahieddine’s visionary art, depicting celebratory multicultural imagery of Algerian women, should be considered to dismantle the prevailing white male depiction of cultural identity and demystify the work and identity of ‘the other’ in European-centrist narratives. Although his framing of France’s cultural landscape as a diverse social atmosphere was true, the marginalization of women artists and non-European artists within the scene continued, even within the Surrealist movement which supported feminist ideals far better than other modernist art modes (see: Brown, 2020). Baya’s work is still overshadowed by Picasso et al. Her influence on their ethnographic interests into non-White and non-Christian cultures is still a footnote (if anything) in their biographies. Outside of Algiers and France, notoriety of her work largely remains a rarity. A 2017 exhibition, curated by Natasha Boas at New York University’s Grey Gallery, called Baya: Woman of Algiers, was the first time her work had been featured in the United States.

Mahieddine’s paintings are a prime example of art’s educational and therapeutic benefits on our development and wellbeing. Despite her own difficult upbringing, art provided her with a vibrant mechanism to cope with grief and express her intersectional identity (see: Futamura, 2010). Although her childhood and connection to her familial and cultural heritage had been unexpectedly fractured, she retained and nurtured her self-assurance and lineage by portraying images that reflected her experiences, understandings and emotional yearnings for a woman-centered world.

Baya’s paintings are a living legacy, representative of a sophisticated fusion of personal histories with new and acquired skills and knowledge. They assert important self and collective expressions of Arab and Berber women and defy the canonization and tokenism of these cultural themes by non-Arab cultures. Artists of her era learned a lot from her unique incorporation of European and North African aesthetics and cultures. Mahieddine also benefited from the support of the artistic establishment. Today, as the study and presentation of art history becomes more inclusive, Baya Mahieddine’s work is viewed through a holistic lens. We honor her commitment to forging her own authentic space within the Global artistic discourse by challenging the Western canon’s fake supremacy. Her paintings resist the categorization of ‘otherness’ that had initially been ascribed to it by her contemporaries and critics. Mahieddine’s trajectory as an artist reflects the multidimensional phases of artistic development. Her propensity for exploring materials and themes, employing pictorial strategies for her work to be understood and communicating a critical dialogue for the expression of multicultural identity; was fundamental in her presentation of compelling visual narratives and symbols that impact the emotional, critical and creative responses of those who experience her art.


Addendum:

Often times, the most profound examples of artwork expressing geocultural concerns, come from young artists. I have previously featured and discussed some of these instances in the following posts, The Past, Present and Future of Art, Creating Refuge by Living, Loving and Learning Artfully and Conference of the Animals & 120 Years of Children Drawing New York City. Additionally, the Children’s Museum of Art in New York City has an incredible collection of children’s artwork from different eras and geographical locations, many of which signify the multifaceted personas of the artists from early childhood through adolescence.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Boulbina, Seloua Luste. “Meet Bazaar Art Cover Star: The Iconic Baya Mahieddine.” Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, 20 June 2019. https://www.harpersbazaararabia.com/art/artists/meet-bazaar-art-cover-star-the-iconic-baya-mahieddine

Boas, Natasha et al. 2017. Baya: Woman of Algiers. New York: Grey Art Gallery, NYU. (eBook) https://greyartgallery.nyu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Layout_Baya_20171206_lores.pdf

Breton, André. ‘Baya.’ In the exhibition catalogue, Derrie`re le miroir, Paris: Editions Aime Maeght, 1947.

Brown, Kate. “Surrealism Was a Decidedly Feminine Movement. So Why Have So Many of Its Great Women Artists Been Forgotten?” artnet, 18 February 2020. https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/kunsthalle-schirn-surrealist-women-1779669

Cramer, Charles and Grant, Kim. “Cubism and multiple perspectives,” Smarthistory, 7 March 2020. accessed January 19, 2021, https://smarthistory.org/cubism-and-multiple-perspectives/.

Futamura, C. Wakaba. “Baya Revisited: Identity Expression and the Insights of Art Therapy.” The International Journal of the Humanities, vol. 8, no. 6, 2010.

Samuels, A.J. “Baya Mahieddine | The Young Artist Who Inspired Picasso.” Culture Trip, 12 April 2017. https://theculturetrip.com/africa/algeria/articles/baya-mahieddine-the-young-artist-who-inspired-picasso/

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