Mahieddine, Baya (1931–1998)

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Mahieddine, Baya

Algerian artist Baya Mahieddine (Madiedine, Mehiedine; born Fatma Haddad), known simply as Baya, illustrates an imaginative world of fantasy through her semifigur-ative, semiabstract approach to painting. Using gouache (a medium resembling watercolor) Baya portrays women, animals, and floral motifs with decorative patterns and vivid colors that seem to blend ancient Islamic art with modern occidental abstractionism. Her distinctive style has attracted the attention and inspired the commentary of such figures as Pablo Picasso, André Breton, ASSIA DJEBAR, and Jean Pélégri.


Born on 12 December 1931 in Bordj-el-Kifan near Algiers, Baya was orphaned five years later. Her grandmother cared for her until 1942, after which Marguerite Caminat Benhoura became her adoptive parent. Raising Baya in Algiers, this French surrogate mother encouraged Baya to pursue art as a means of developing her imagination and self-expression. In her gouaches of persons, animals, and landscapes, Baya demonstrated an original talent.

While visiting Algiers, the Parisian gallery owner Aimé Maeght perceived Baya's gift for art and decided to show her work in his gallery in 1947 in Paris. The following year, Baya traveled to the French pottery center Vallauris, on the Riviera, in order to study Madoura-style ceramics. During this time, she found herself in a studio next to Picasso, who noticed her ability and spoke with her. After returning to Algeria, however, Baya chose to work exclusively in painting.

After marrying the musician El Hadj Mahfoud Mahieddine in 1953, Baya adopted a more "traditional" Algerian Muslim lifestyle (Pélégri, 1987, p. 12). She moved to Blida with her husband and raised six children. During these initial years of marriage and motherhood, Baya temporarily abandoned her art. Although critics can only speculate on the significance of this detail, the decade of Baya's break from painting corresponds with the years of the Algerian war for independence (Khanna, 2003, p. 261). The Algerian author Assia Djebar observed that Baya appreciated the "protected" environment of her "sanctuary-home" (Djebar, 1990, pp. 17-18; author's translation for all quotes).

Shortly after the "euphoric days" that followed the independence of Algeria in 1962, the artist Jean de Maisonseuil found a way to get Baya to recommence her art. The Musée National de Beaux-Arts of Algiers, where he was a curator, put together a show of her older work in 1963, inspiring her to pick up her brushes and paint once again. She resumed her work at home, where she listened to her husband playing his lute every evening (Djebar, 1990, pp. 17-18). In her postmarriage work, she displayed the same youthful imagination and talent as she had initially.


Name: Baya Mahieddine (Mahiedine, Mehiedine)

Birth: 1931, Bordj el-Kifan, Algeria

Death: 1998, Blida, Algeria

Family: Husband, El Hadj Mahfoud Mahieddine (dec.); six children

Nationality: Algerian


  • 1947: First show, Galerie Maeght, Paris
  • 1953: "Traditional" marriage to El Hadj Mahfoud Mahieddine, thirty years her senior
  • 1953–1963: Bears six children, abandons painting
  • 1963: Exhibition of early work, Musée National de Beaux Arts, Algiers; resumes painting
  • 1960s–1990s: Successful exhibitions in several countries
  • 1970s: Husband dies

In the mid-1970s, Baya faced an overwhelming hardship rivaling that of her orphanhood: the death of her husband, who was of a "mature age" when he married Baya (Djebar, 1990, p. 17). In despair, she exclaimed, "I thought I might die!" Yet for the sake of her children and her "friends from all over who fill up their eyes with [her] watercolors," she perseveres (Djebar, 1990, p. 18). Almost twenty-five years after her husband's passing, Baya joined him on 11 November 1998 in Blida, following a long illness.


The premature death of Baya's biological parents undoubtedly left a deep mark on her. With regard to her orphanhood, she admitted, "When I was little, I was always sad. I lost my parents when I was five" (Djebar, 1990, p. 17). Although she barely elaborated on her bereavement, she discovered comfort through her art. In describing the exhilaration that she felt while painting, she explained that she entered "another" world and discovered happiness by "forget[ting] everything" (Ferhani, 1990, p. 19).

Specific works such as "Femme et enfant en bleu," "Personnage et oiseau rouge," and "Femme et oiseau bleu," shed light on how Baya's painting brought her joy. In these three works of 1947, the same subjects reappear: a woman, a child and a bird. Each picture portrays the woman cuddling the child in her arms with an exotic, feathered creature looking on from the side. "Femme et enfant en bleu" differs slightly from the other two by showing the mother affectionately peering into the face of the baby cradled in her arms. In "Personnage et oiseau rouge" and "Femme et oiseau bleu" the maternal figure has the infant tightly clasped against her breast. In these scenes, Baya re-created an ideal world in which the infant would never fear leaving the secure embrace of the parent: a peaceful depiction that compensates for the traumatic loss that Baya remembered from her childhood.

While Baya owed her survival of loss to her artwork, she blazed a unique trail of North African feminine creativity through her paintings. She demonstrated creative sensitivity that surpassed the social boundaries of her cultural background by removing the veil of invisibility that typically shrouds women in her country. Experiencing the world of Baya resembles crossing through a "feminine Algerian desert," in the words of Djebar (p. 17). Moreover, by illustrating a feminine perspective and ingenuity, Baya unintentionally led a fight: a "woman's battle." For her women contemporaries, she modeled a way of building a name and an identity (Djebar, p. 18).

Baya became an inspiration not only in her homeland, but also around the world. From her first show at Galerie Maeght, her art has circulated internationally. Institutions in Cuba, France, and Japan own her work. Regarding the allure of her art, Pélégri asks, "What therefore is the secret of Baya?" (Pélégri, p. 12). This open-ended question indicates something of her perpetual fascination.


The issue of Derrière le miroir (the Galerie Maeght's own magazine, which served as a catalog of its exhibitions) devoted to Baya's 1947 show contained commentaries on her work by André Breton, Émile Dermenghem, and Jean Périssac. Breton shared his admiration of Baya's in novation and her consequent impact on the public. "I speak, not like so many others in order to lament an end, but to promote a beginning, and of this beginning, Baya is queen." Baya represents the start of an "age of emancipation and harmony" that breaks away from the "systematic" condition of convention. Breton believes that Baya characterizes the spontaneity and "revolutionary" freedom with which art should be pursued (Breton, 1990, p. 16).


When asked why she prefers certain subjects for her works, she explains that she simply paints what she feels: "Why birds?", they ask me. Well, I like birds. Why butterflies? Well, because I like butterflies. For all this, I do not give a theme. I feel it and I put it onto paper. I take pleasure in that, but I cannot say why my painting is like this or like that. When I paint, I am happy, I am in another world, I forget everything. People tell me: "Why [do you paint] the same thing?" I find that if I change, I will no longer be Baya.


Baya introduces newness through her artwork by her unique approach to painting. Throughout her career as an artist, she incorporates shapes and designs with "pure" form and bold colors that evoke the tones of Fauvism, the short-lived early twentieth-century art movement. At the same time, she maintains figurative distinctiveness as she depicts scenes ranging from outdoor landscapes to ornate interiors, where each picture is filled with women, exotic vegetation, or imaginary creatures in harmonious camaraderie. Although Baya never completely dissociates herself from such concrete imagery, her art shifts toward abstraction in the mid-1970s, coincidentally around the time of her husband's death. In "Les poissons" (1976), undulating shapes and lines combine with a striking array of circular forms that vaguely resemble the outlines of fish. From a Eurocentric perspective, this use of pure color, geometric representation, asymmetry, decorative lines, circles, and dots, bring to mind compositions of contemporary occidental artists such as Henri Matisse, as Pélégri suggests (Pélégri, p. 10).

In addition to exemplifying these technical artistic qualities, the paintings of Baya also reflect her sociocultural context. Breton famously refers to her imagery, with its nostalgic content, as "happy Arabia" (Breton, p. 16). Based on her birthplace and the decorative Kabyle designs that she incorporates, Baya most likely came from an Arab-Kabyle background (Pélégri, p. 12; Maisonseuil, 1987, p. 14). Through representations of imaginary animals, Baya visually narrates fictional tales like those told by Scheherazade in Arabian Nights, according to Pélégri (p. 10). Moreover, her use of detailed vegetal ornamentation suggests "arabesque" motifs of a kind visible in ceramics, tiles, textiles, and miniatures typical of Islamic art (Arabesques et jardins, 1989, p. 26). For this reason Frank Maubert finds that these paintings evoke "North African folklore" while preserving a "Muslim aesthetic" (1998, p. 8).

Rather than simply admiring the gouaches of Baya in the way that they illustrate an idyllic image of Arabia, Djebar identifies a "frail and strong" woman behind the scenes. Baya prevails against the "grayness of the foggy halftones of daily life"—the monotonies of household chores—and faces the difficult loss of her husband with the resilience of her creative spirit. "[Y]ou are there: [T]he original eye of your liberated women smiles at the sky of birds, at the guitar, at the repopulated world of your heart," declares Djebar (p. 18). Instead of mourning her misfortune, Baya overcomes her tribulations by joining the people, animals, and instruments that she paints in her multicolored cosmos.


Combining characteristics of ancient Islamic art with the dynamic form and color of modern occidental painting, Baya demonstrates creativity that establishes her place among Algerian painters. For the people of Algeria, she preserves a nostalgic "happy Arabia" while for her international public she depicts an equally captivating and magical haven (Breton, p. 16). The imaginative stories that she tells through the vibrant scenes of her works will continue to mystify and attract individuals globally. Finally, by securing a lasting name for herself—a major accomplishment for an Algerian woman—she has made a path for others to follow.


Arabesques et jardins de paradis: collections françaises d'art islamique. Musée du Louvre. Paris: Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1989.

Bouabdellah, Malika. "Baya." In La peinture par les mots. Algiers: Musée National des Beaux-Arts D'Alger, 1994.

Breton, André. "Baya." In Trois femmes peintres: Baya, Chaibia, Fahrelnissa. Paris: Institut du Monde Arabe: EDIFRA, 1990.

Djebar, Assia. "Le combat de Baya." In Trois femmes peintres: Baya, Chaibia, Fahrelnissa. Paris: Institut du Monde Arabe: EDIFRA, 1990.

Ferhani, Améziane. "Interview de Baya." In Trois femmes peintres: Baya, Chaibia, Fahrelnissa. Paris: Institut du Monde Arabe: EDIFRA, 1990.

Khanna, Ranjana. "Latent Ghosts and the Manifesto Baya, Breton and Reading for the Future." Art History 26, no. 2 (2003): 238-280.

Maisonseuil, Jean de. "Afterword." In Baya, Issiakhem, Khadda: Algérie, expressions multiples, edited by Michel-Georges Bernard, Benamar Mediène, Jean Pélégri, et al. Paris: ADEIAO, 1987.

Maubert, Frank. "Lumineuse Baya." In Baya: Gouaches 1947. Paris: Galerie Maeght, 1998.

Pélégri, Jean. "Baya l'oiseau mauve." In Baya, Issiakhem, Khadda: Algérie, expressions multiples, edited by Michel-George Bernard, Benamar Mediène, Jean Pélégri, et al. Paris: ADEIAO, 1987.

Sénac, Jean. Visages d'Algérie. Paris: Paris-Méditerranée, 2002.

                                              C. Wakaba Futamura