Racim, Muhammad (1896–1975)

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Racim, Muhammad

Muhammad Racim (also Mohammed Rasim, and "the Cantor of Algier") was a prominent Algerian artist whose career revived and reawakened the Arab, Islamic, and Oriental arts of his people. His dream was to revitalize the self-esteem and cultural patrimony of the Algiers that had been colonized by the French. His artwork formed part of the cultural renaissance that culminated in the Algerian revolution and independence. He significantly contributed to the documentation of Algerian history that the colonizers had distorted.


Racim was born in 1896 in Algeria, which formed part of the French colonized territories in the Maghreb (North Africa). He was born into a family of famous artists, illuminators, engravers, and woodcarvers. His grandfather and father had large art workshops that enjoyed unquestionable popularity in precolonial Algeria. As a young boy, he was initiated into the art of the miniature, of which he perfected the control of the technique. His entire life was devoted to the art that made him famous throughout the Middle East and the Western worlds. At the age of fourteen, after obtaining a certificate of studies, he joined the Cabinet of Drawing Professional Teaching. He further studied graphics. In 1914 he met the great Orientalist painter Nasreddine Dinet, who greatly influenced his professional life. Racim's first miniature in 1917 was titled "Dream of a Poet." With the scholarship of Casa Velasquez, he visited Andalusia, Spain, where he observed mosques, palaces, gardens, ceramics, music, and manuscripts. He also visited London, where he studied manuscripts and Arabo-Moslems miniatures of Bezhad and al-Wasiti. He visited the Museum of the Navy where he studied naval architecture. At the end of World War I in 1919, Racim's first exhibition took place in Spain and Algiers. In 1922 he settled in Paris. He became the editor of Art Piazza and illustrated twelve volumes of A Thousand and One Nights. After barely two years in Paris, the Company of the Painters French Orientalists awarded him a gold medal. In 1932, at the age of thirty-six, he married Karine Bondeson, a Swede, and returned with his wife to Algiers. In 1937 his works were shown at an international exhibition in Algeria. By 1950, he was elected honorary member of the Royal Company of the painters and miniaturists of England.


Racim was highly influenced by his family and the rich cultural heritage of Algeria, as well as the Islamic world. In addition, historically, Algerians have exhibited artistic skills in their rendering of images, famous persons, religious icons, and coin inscriptions. The origins of Algerian art history became closely associated with the rebirth of the miniature under the tutelage of Racim. He utilized his skills and professionalism to promote Muslim civilization and Islamic arts. He was proud of the rich Algerian tradition that he seemingly revived through his miniatures. His works were of high colors, such as the galere barbaresque sailing off Algiers, that evoked the glorious epoch of the Algerian corsairs. Another remarkable work was the splendid Arab rider and cavalry of the amir Abdelkadir that served as a reminiscence of customs and habits of the past. His works of arts profoundly contributed to the Algerian revolution and war of independence. He revived the passion and consciousness of nationalism in Algeria that helped in dispelling stereotypes of monolithic Orientalism. Racism contributed significantly to the revitalization of Algerian historiography that had been suppressed and distorted during the French occupation. In his formative stage, Racim interacted with the Orientalist artist, Étienne Dinet, whose life and work focused on Algeria. Racim and Dinet were active agents in the complex, fluid interaction of colonized and colonizer. Racim was among the first painters and artists to be recognized by the French from the 1920s. He was highly applauded by both the French and Algerians. Along with other artists, Racim claimed the aesthetics of a synthesis between the heritage of Arab-Muslim calligraphy and Western abstraction. The emergence of Racim as a renowned artist coincided with the period of French global imperialism and empire building in the Maghreb. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Racim had noted the representation of Arabs, Muslims, and Orientals in the Western visual and nonvisual culture. The Islamic or Oriental's image was a fantasy-based image and was highly stereotypical, and Racim set to rectify this image. Non-Western peoples, especially in the Middle East, were perceived to be exotic, erotic, pagan, lazy, dirty, and above all, the Other. Many Westerners were (and are still) ignorant of the Arab world and held misconceptions about Islam in the Middle East. Racim activated Algerian memory and history by bringing the past back to the present. He adapted the style of the Persian and Ottoman miniature to reflect his historical and figurative paintings. Racim


Name: Muhammad Racim (Mohammed Rasim, also known as The Cantor of Algiers)

Birth: 1896, Kasbah, Algeria

Death: 1975

Family: Wife, Karine Bondeson (m.1932)

Nationality: Algeria

Education: Algeria, Spain, London


  • 1910: Begins teaching at Cabinet of Drawing Professional Teaching
  • 1914: Meets with Orientaliste painter Nasreddine Dinet who entrusts the ornamentation of his book, The Life of Mahomet, to him
  • 1917: Creates first miniature, "Dream of a Poet"; visits Spain and the United Kingdom
  • 1919: Has first exhibition in Algiers
  • 1922: Named editor of Art Piazza, Paris
  • 1924: Presented with gold medal award by the Company of the Painters French Orientalists
  • 1933: Receives greatest artistic prize of Algeria award
  • 1934: Becomes professor at the School of the Art Schools of Algiers
  • 1937: International exhibition, Algeria
  • 1950: Named honorary member of the Royal Company of Painters and Miniaturists of England
  • 1960: Edits Moslem Life of Yesterday
  • 1972: Edits Mohammed Racim Miniaturiste Algerien
  • 1975: Dies along with his wife


Azouaou Mammeri (1890–1954) was another influential Algerian artist. Mammeri adopted the French traditions in painting and used them to create scenes in his own cultural environment without falling into the Orientalist trope of exploiting his subjects. Mammeri produced landscapes of Moroccan cities. He was promoted by the French colonial regime under Hubert Lyautey. The art critics in the French metropole equally glorified him. In the postcolonial period, however, Mammeri fell from the public eye. According to Benjamin Roger, Mammeri represents the grit of nascent resistance in the Maghreb. Mammeri's renderings of scenes from Muslim religious life, especially, his "Interior of Qur'anic School" in 1921, belied widely held European representations of Islam and Muslims at the period as fanatic, ignorant, and dangerous. Despite Mammeri's emulation of Western arts and co-optation by the French colonial regimes, he was among the subversive indigenous painters and artists. Mammeri's realist representation of Algerian subjects differs markedly from Racim's unique Persian and Ottoman miniature traditions.

developed indigenous neotraditionalism by forging his own unique genre of artistic representation. Even though the colonial authorities appreciated his works, they represented precolonial Algerian history and ancient Islamic art.

Beyond his art, Racim was a great Algerian intellectual. In 1930 the French established the National Museums of Fine Arts in Algiers that marked a period of artistic development in Algeria.

One of Racim's most famous works was his 1931 piece, "The Rais," designed in oil and gold leaf. In 1934 he was appointed professor at the National School of Arts, Algiers. He wrote several books, including Moslem Life of Yesterday and Mohammed Racim Miniaturiste Algerien. By and large, Racim could be regarded as the founder of the Algerian School of Miniature. He built a large following and his disciples further promoted his works. Racim remains the greatest miniaturist of the twentieth century. In many of the art schools located in the Middle East where Western artists taught the history of Western Art, students were also taught the styles of Racim. In the early twenty-first century, compared to other countries in the Middle East, there may not be many art galleries in Algeria but there are a prominent few that focus on contemporary art and museums. Algerian art now takes the form sculpture, graphic works, painting, and craftwork that may be found in markets and tourist centers.


Since 1917 when Racim launched himself into the world of art, he was considered to be a genius and an erudite researcher. In many of his works, he was perceived to have preserved in their entirety the aesthetic techniques specific to the miniature and also to have added value to them without undermining their authenticity. He was assessed to be meticulous, patient, and poetic. His skills are reflected in the directions of the decoration, his steadiness of hand, and his nuanced choices. According to Roger Benjamin in Orientalist Aesthetics: Art, Colonialism, and French North Africa, 1880–1930, "Muhammad Racim melded the Persian miniature with Western perspective." Additionally, Benjamin, in "Colonial Tutelage to Nationalist Affirmation: Mammeri and Racim, Painters of the Maghreb", Racim's work "provides a cultural focus that might outlast the reality of colonial occupation" (p. 74).


The legacy of Racim has endured for several decades. He was noted to have engendered artworks in the style of the Islamic miniature with Western arts. By the time he passed away at the age seventy-nine, Racim had left a lasting legacy in the world of art. Barely sixteen years into his career in 1933, Racim was presented the greatest artistic award of Algeria in 1933, and the medal of the Orientalists. In his fifty-eight-year career as an artist, his works were exhibited in all continents of the world. Some of his works are in the early twenty-first century part of the acquisition of several prominent museums. The National Gallery of Fine Arts in Jordan displays some of his brilliant masterpieces. His numerous paintings led to the flowering of Oriental art in France and the promotion of indigenous arts in the colonies. His artistic career brought interaction between the metropole and the Algerian colony. In 1992 the Musée de I'Institut du Monde Arabe Paris published Mohammed Racim, Miniaturiste Algerien: du 3 au 29 Mars 1992 in his honor.


Bellido, Ramon Tio. "The Twentieth Century in Algerian Art." Available from http://universes-in-universe.org/.

Benjamin, Roger. "Colonial Tutelage to Nationalist Affirmation: Mammeri and Racim, Painters of the Maghreb." In Orientalism's Interlocutors: Painting, Architecture, Photography, edited by Jill Beaulieu and Mary Roberts, et al. Durham, NC: Duke University, 2002.

Clancy-Smith, Julia. Review of Orientalist Aesthetics: Art, Colonialism and French North Africa, 1880–1930 by Roger Benjamin. H-France Review 3, no. 94 (September 2003).

Makhoul, Sana. "Baya Mahieddine: An Arab Woman Artist." Available from http://www.sbawca.org/.

"Mohammed Racim Miniaturiste Algerien." Available from http://members.aol.com/mracim/racimbio.htm.

Zarobell, John. Review of Orientalist Aesthetics: Art, Colonialism and French North Africa, 1880–1930 by Roger Benjamin. African Studies Review 46, no. 3 (December 2003): 172-174.

                                         Rasheed Olaniyi