Musings of figurative artist Kathryn Kaiser
Musings of figurative artist Kathryn Kaiser

Baya Mahieddine

Date : 18 February 2017
Baya Mahieddine

Baya Mahieddine | Algerian Ingenue

Baya MahieddineBaya 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.


Her subject matter was primarily expressive and assertive women (never men), birds, fish and vegetation. Baya Mahieddine 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.

| Baya Mahieddine
Femme allongée au visage bleu (Reclining woman with blue face) 1947
Les Poissons – Baya

Unfortunately until recently her work 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 Baya 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.

| Baya Mahieddine
Pablo Picasso, Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) 1955
The Women of Algiers 1955 - Pablo Picasso
The Women of Algiers 1955 – Pablo Picasso

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 her rendering of the large open eye 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 representation of the large, open and uncloaked eye was a desire to liberate herself from the sexism of the Muslim society of the time.

Femme aux Trois Tapis – Baya

“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 - Femme Attablées
Femme Attablées – Baya

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.

art-et-musique- Mahieddine Baya - La harpe, 1974
Art et Musique – Baya 1974

| Baya Mahieddine

When Baya Mahieddine 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.” 

Untitled - Baya
Untitled – Baya

| Baya Mahieddine

Read more about Baya Mahieddine at DAF Beirut here.

Comments (2)

Janet Rady

Hi Kathryn

Just checking if you saw my previous email about the provenance of the Baya Poissons?

Look forward to hearing from you.

Thanks Janet

27 March 2024 - 9:02 am

    I did not see your previous comment/email Janet. Sorry I missed it. I am interested to know what you wrote, though.

    22 May 2024 - 12:18 pm

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