Baya Mahieddine was known primarily as Baya. She was born Fatma Haddad in 1931 (d.1998) in a small Muslim town in French occupied Algeria, and was orphaned at an early age. She was moved from home to home amongst her family members, and in 1942 was adopted by French painter, intellectual and collector Marguerite Caminat Benhoura (her grandmother’s employer). Baya never attended art school, but from the age of eleven she painted alongside Benhoura at her home in Algeria. She later studied ceramics and painting in Vallauris, France, where she met Pablo Picasso. After spending several summers working alongside Picasso at the pottery studio in Vallauris, she was said to have inspired his Women of Algiers series.
Benhoura played a large role in her success, and supported her in getting her first solo exhibition, when she was just sixteen years old, at the Galerie Maeght in Paris in 1947. Her work was selected by André Breton for the famed ‘Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme’ the same year. Jean Dubuffet began collecting her work, although he was grouping it in his Art Brut collection with artwork made by children and developmentally/mentally handicapped artists.
Unfortunately her work until recently was defined by her relationships with the male artists in her life. She has been described as an outsider, a child artist ‘discovered’ by the art dealer Aimé Maeght and taken ‘under the wings’ of intellectuals and artists such as André Breton, Jean Dubuffet and Jean Pélégri as well as Pablo Picasso. The truth may well be closer the the fact that she influenced their work considerably. She certainly resisted her male dominated surroundings as well as their want to categorize her work as primitive, naive and childlike.
Her subject matter was primarily expressive and assertive women (never men), birds, fish and vegetation. She painted bright colours using strong blues, reds and yellows, in bold strokes using much patterning in her work. As an example of the strength of her images is ‘Femme Robe Jaune Cheveux Bleus’ which she painted in 1947, when she was just sixteen years old. It is a radical piece. The image is a goddess or queen whose ovaries are represented by peacocks and her vulva a red butterfly. She has a tall crown decorated with flowers and she stands strong with a piercing gaze.
According to scholar Algerian writer Assia Djebar the fact that the eyes are a focal point of most of Baya’s work, are a key to understanding her artistic intentions. In Djebar’s opinion Baya’s rendering of the large open eye (or the “liberated eye” as Djebar refers to it) represents a reversal of the male gaze, which was a prominent theme in Western figurative art then as it is now. Djebar also felt that her stylistic and conceptual representation of the large, open and uncloaked eye was a desire to liberate herself from the sexism of the Muslim society of the time.
“Baya’s woman is equipped with a giant eye, which, agape, avidly desires flowers, fruits, sounds of lutes and guitars. Baya, the first chain of sequestered women, whose blindfold has, all of a sudden, fallen to the ground” – Assia Djebar.
Baya’s work celebrated the power and delights of freedom and femininity. Her life did not appear to mimic this. She remained bound to tradition and the patriarchy that surrounded her. She returned to Algeria to become the second wife of a traditional Muslim man and stopped painting during his lifetime.
When Baya did return to painting after her husband’s death she said this:
“If I change my paintings, I will no longer be Baya. When I paint, I am happy and I am in another world.”