The Arab World Institute pays tribute to Baya, the most famous Algerian artist in the Maghreb. His pigmented canvases are to be admired until March 26th.
“Baya is one of the young colonized women who transcends all colonial, social and gender determinisms, to assert herself very young.“, describes Anissa Bouayed, historian and curator of the exhibition Baya, women in their garden at the Arab World Institute. This retrospective exhibition pays tribute to the work of Baya, a pioneer woman in Algerian painting propelled at the age of 16 to the height of notoriety, dazzling writers, artists and art lovers. His brightly colored and shimmering canvases warm the hearts of the public who discover the miraculous story of Baya.
It is this story that makes the richness of the exhibition: “With Baya, there is nevertheless an important intricacy of biographical questions in what she paints. The specific contribution of the exhibition is the rich documentary work that complements the works of Baya”explains Anissa Bouayed.
The IMA is showing for the first time some forty of his early drawings from 1944-45, when Baya was 13 years old. Unpublished historical documents, such as these letters from the National Overseas Archives in Aix-en-Provence are also unveiled. The exhibition is to be admired until March 26 at the IMA, then at the Center de la Vieille Charité in Marseille from May 11 to September 24.
The story of a child prodigy
The chronological exhibition scans the different stages of Baya’s artistic career, from her beginnings in the 1940s, to her meeting with Marguerite Caminat, her adoptive mother, through her stay at the Madoura studio in Vallauris where she met Picasso. The scenography makes it possible to understand the construction of Baya as an artist and a woman.
Bahia, pronounced Baya by the Kabyles, was an orphan and worked on agricultural farms with her grandmother when she met, at the age of 10, Marguerite Caminat: an artist, art lover and follower of free artistic education. children. She observes the young Baya drawing in the earth and creating small clay sculptures. Impressed, she offers Baya’s grandmother to adopt her, and takes her to her apartment in Algiers.
Baya learns on her own or by imitating Kabyle women who skillfully handle the art of pottery: “She was able to rely on the people who took her under her wing by safeguarding her cultural heritage and her personality.“explains Claude Lemand, collector-donor, researcher and co-curator of the exhibition.
Tribute to Arab-Kabyle culture
Baya values the richness of the Algerian popular arts, whether they are an oral heritage like the tales that Kabyle women told him in his childhood, or a plastic heritage like pottery, drawings or shapes. “In her first works there are women whom she calls women with talismans or pendants, with what looks like Kabyle jewelry. I also thought a lot about the Kabyle fouta for the dresses. But Baya does not make a strict transcription of a folklore: she values it differently“, says Anissa Bouayed.
Baya gave herself the right relatively early on to transcribe things with her uniqueness. “Instead of making flower patterns on the dresses as we are used to seeing in Kabylia, at Baya the dresses will be full of butterflies or birds mixed with dots and lines. She arrogates a great freedom of creation“, continues Anissa Bouayed.
Baya is the heiress of millennia of art. She is very influenced by the tales that Kabyle families told in her childhood. On an entire wall of the exhibition, small paintings are collected next to each other. “These are illustrations of Kabyle tales that Baya made around these 15 years. One of the paintings relates a well-known Kabyle tale, the goat and the orphans. Before dying the mother entrusts a goat to her children. The mother-in-law refuses to feed the orphans who, despite everything, remained beautiful and in great shape. When the stepmother discovers that they are drinking the goat’s milk in secret, she has her killed. The children go to pray at their mother’s grave and see her breast come out. They will go to nurse her every day, until the mother-in-law notices and decides to burn her“, says Claude Lemand.
Through her illustrations, Baya represents a filial and sisterly love that surpasses all trials. “In the tales she remembers there is always a mother who dies and a husband who remarries with a terrible mother-in-law who only wants to hurt the orphans. It’s often a boy and a girl who get along very well.“, adds Claude Lemand.
women or queens
Women have a central place in Baya’s work. She pays particular attention to very extravagant dresses and headdresses. “There is really a strong desire to show the world from a female perspective. I think that’s perhaps the crux of Baya’s message. There is an emancipatory side“, explains Anissa Bouayed.
Baya never puts women in the position of victim, harassed with work. She always shows them with great beauty and in majestic poses. “Many writers, including Assia Djebar, have said that she shows women as queens, those who order the world and protect animals and plants.“completes Claude Lemand.
Ideal, dream world
The lush landscapes of Baya’s works take us on a journey not to Algeria but to an idealized world close to a Garden of Eden. “André Breton had this intuition to consider Baya as the queen of happy Arabia. This queen is also the queen of Sheba. There is something mythical, marvelous about it. This is what Baya did in her work: she naturally created a dialogue between the woman and the birds as in the time of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba”reports Claude Lemand.
Ideal world, dream? Nature according to Baya makes us leave the Earth. She was Muslim and very attached to her spirituality: “Nobody said that there was not a religious but a mystical, spiritual and universalist aspect in Baya’s work. We must not follow the Algerian nationalists who want to monopolize it“, recalls Claude Lemand.
The omnipresence of the bird questions us: “We can think that for Baya the bird is also a metaphor for something inside that expresses itself. He is the messenger, I think, of the soul of the characters, of the soul of the musical instruments. The bird has the same eye as women and looks sideways. It is the symbol of vigilance, openness to the world, and transmission”performer Anissa Bouayed.
The butterfly, another signature animal of Baya, can refer to metamorphosis. “Plants can look like animals, animals look like musical instruments: metamorphosis is present in a world that retains unity and harmony, always very composed with a central element like a woman or an instrument “, continues Anissa Bouayed. The religious culture of Baya allows her to have an aesthetic vision in search of a primordial harmony.
Meeting with Picasso
In 1948, Baya accompanied Marguerite to the Madoura studio in Vallauris. She made many ceramics there and met Picasso there, who showed interest in her work. Baya will evoke this episode in his interviews, in 1982: “Our workshops were close and he came to visit me from time to time. We were discussing. He was very nice. People said he showed me how to work. No way. Everyone worked on their own“; and in 1993: “Our workshops were adjoining. From time to time, he came to watch what I was doing. We had lunch together, we ate couscous. He was a wonderful, wonderful man. I was going to see what he was doing.”
A mythology was born following this meeting. An Algerian critic will write that Picasso taught Baya the art of sculpture, which is false. “Picasso did not work the clay entirely alone. It was Madame Ramié (ceramist and owner of the Madoura workshop, editor’s note) who prepared things for him, deformed them and painted them. Baya was already a virtuoso, which justly surprised Picasso”. says Claude Lemand. Commissioner Anissa Bouayed adds: “maybe watching someone work is a form of learning, but you have to be careful not to extrapolate. For her, it is also rewarding to be able to say that she interested a painter who was already extremely famous.“
Baya, women in their garden to be admired at the Arab World Institute until March 26, 2023, and at the Center de la Vieille Charité in Marseille from May 11, 2023 to September 24, 2023, with additional works.