In November 1947 a fifteen-year-old prodigy from colonial Algeria named Baya, described variously as Kabyle, Berber, Muslim, and Arab, exhibited her gouaches and clay sculptures at the Parisian gallery of the art dealer Aimé Maeght. Yves Chataigneau, the French governor of Algeria, and Si Kaddour Benghabrit, the rector of the Paris Mosque, were the sponsors of the exhibition, and the opening attracted some of the most influential cultural figures of postwar Paris: the writers Albert Camus, François Mauriac, and André Breton; the painters Henri Matisse and Georges Braque; the designer Christian “Bebè” Bérard.
Maeght was not a political man, but he understood that this exhibition was not just about art. There was trouble in Algeria. It had been three years since indigenous troops from North Africa were enlisted in the invasion of southern France and sent to die for a country that didn’t consider them citizens, and two years since a V-E Day demonstration in Sétif ended in a massacre of thousands of Algerians by the French army. Hundreds of men were in Algerian prisons for their participation in actions that are now acknowledged as a harbinger of the anticolonial revolution, which would break out seven years later. Cultural events like the Baya exhibition were bandages on a deepening wound.
“The Muslim community attaches great importance to this event, which it considers the equivalent of a cultural embassy,” Maeght had written to Michelle Auriol, the wife of the French president. “The community tells us that the signs of interest shown to the little orphan Baya give Muslim Algeria as a whole the right to be recognized.” With the letter he sent a statuette and a painting, gifts from Baya to President Auriol’s grandsons as representatives of all the children of France. Baya and her art, it seems, were sent to France on a mission: she as a representative of her people, and her art as a sign of, as Breton put in his catalog essay, “happy Arabia.”
Baya was born Fatima Haddad in 1931. Her father died in an accident when she was five; her mother remarried but died three years later of complications from childbirth. From early childhood she took the first name of her mother, Baya Abdi, as her signature and everyday name—a powerful creative gesture and homage.
She and her grandmother and brother worked as laborers on various colonial properties around Fort de l’Eau, near Algiers, until they found stable work on Henri and Simone Farges’s flower farm. The Fargeses cultivated bird of paradise flowers, whose rhizomes they imported from Martinique, another French colony. There were roses, too, and carnations, harvested for bouquets to sell in their florist shop near the university.
At the Farges farm, Baya met Simone’s sister, Marguerite Caminat, whose interest in the girl changed her life. Caminat, a librarian and amateur artist, had fled France in 1940 with her husband, the artist and curator Frank McEwen. In notes Caminat took many years later, she recalled that Baya first saw her through the window of the farmhouse as Caminat was arranging flowers in a vase. The scene is reminiscent of one of Baya’s most striking paintings, The Yellow Curtains (1947), in which a woman with rounded eyes and red lips pushes aside two yellow curtains—a gesture of welcome. Years later Caminat remembered that Baya saw her. But the painting tells us that she saw Baya.
The relationship of support and affection between the indigenous Algerian artist and her French mentor was fraught with ambiguity: Baya would be Caminat’s maid, her daughter (“my adoptive mother,” Baya called her), the celebrated artist she never became, and the subject of an archival passion. Baya was described by the French press in 1947 with all the predictable clichés: the orphan rescued by a white fairy godmother, the wild child civilized, the ignorant genius on display.
The first image in the Institut du monde arabe’s exhibition “Baya: Femmes en leur jardin” was a black-and-white photo that tells another story. The Farges family gathers with a few friends on Bastille Day. Baya kneels next to her brother Ali. Caminat stands behind her, dressed like a Bloomsbury artist in a white blouse with a tie dangling from her neck, shielding her eyes from the sun. Mireille, the youngest Farges daughter, stands on the far right, her hair braided with flowers pinned above her forehead. No flowers for Baya. She wears the maharma, a cotton rag intended to protect employers from finding their servants’ hair in their soup or, given the conditions in which they were made to work, from catching lice. Displaying this photo alongside Baya’s paintings at a time when the French are looking closely at their Algerian past set the tone for an exhibition in which Baya’s art would no longer be weighed down by the political symbolism of late colonialism.
Baya told her daughter-in-law Salima Mahieddine that she learned to draw by copying the patterns of skirts and dresses in the sewing magazines that Mireille, an expert seamstress, kept around the house. In any case, she was recognized as an artist from the time she was nine or ten years old. Among the highlights of “Baya: Femmes en leur jardin,” which opens at the Vieille Charité in Marseille in May, are the early childhood drawings that allow us to understand the evolution of a style unmistakably hers: a girl in a cloud of blue skirt throws open her arms as if she’s jumping out of a cake. McEwen sports a soul patch. A Janus mask shows a two-faced man. A woman caresses an enormous bird in her lap.
Long before she met the Fargeses, Baya had taken in a world of shapes and hues and crafts and stories that she brought to her art. The dresses of the Kabylia region are unique in Algeria, with harmonizing stripes in brown, green, and yellow, or in red and black. Her earliest paintings, from the mid-1940s, contain jugs and jars and pitchers seen in the region; the skirts she draws are filled with the checks and circles carved in wooden chests. In traditional Kabyle villages, she would have seen women making clay pottery and painting the walls of their homes. There are connections to be made, too, between the flowers and fauna and birds in her paintings and the fine art of Islamic miniatures and Algerian ceramic tableaux.
Around 1943 Caminat took Baya to Algiers to work as her maid and arranged to pay a small sum to her grandmother in lieu of wages. In the early days of her new life, Baya prepared lunch for Caminat and then spent the rest of the day painting. At first, Baya returned to her grandmother’s on the weekends and for religious holidays. Those visits soon became intolerable—both her grandmother and her uncle beat her. Judge Mohamed Benhoura at the Bureau of Muslim Charities intervened. There was a medical exam. Baya testified that she wished never to return to her grandmother’s—a request for autonomy from her family that was both courageous and highly unusual. Benhoura became Baya’s official tutor in his capacity as legal protector of underprivileged children; Caminat received provisional custody, on the condition that she report regularly to Benhoura.
Baya’s separation from her family and her integration into European society took place in the electric atmosphere of Algiers in the period following the Allied landing in North Africa in November 1942. In the smoke-filled political rooms of the city, a committee of national liberation was beginning to construct a provisional government for Free France. And amid these great expectations, Caminat entertained. Members of the Resistance, English and American friends, French writers and artists, some passing through the city, others there for the long period of postwar recovery, showed up in her makeshift salon. In her chronology of Baya’s life, Caminat insists that Baya was at the center of this liberation socializing, “known and loved by everyone.”
Baya, like 98 percent of native Algerian girls, had no formal schooling. Every week Mademoiselle Bureau (a name you could not invent) came to the rue d’Isly to tutor her in French. Benhoura, attentive to the girl’s origins, made sure that she spent weekends with a devout Muslim family. After McEwen suddenly left Caminat in 1945, Benhoura’s deepening relationship with her around their mutual support of Baya was an exceptional bond in a largely segregated society. In 1952, three years after her divorce from McEwen, Caminat married Benhoura in a religious ceremony. Benhoura’s guardianship of Baya and his and Caminat’s romance created what we’d now consider a conflict of interest, but also a greater devotion to Baya’s care. It was a sign that Baya’s transformative effect on Caminat’s life was as great as the latter’s effect on the young artist.
Caminat didn’t accompany Baya to her glorious Paris debut. Her friends suspected that she dreaded seeing McEwen, and they tried to reassure her that Paris was a big place. For posterity, there was an advantage to her absence: she received (and saved) many letters from people who housed Baya, who entertained her, who delighted in her paintings. We don’t come to know Baya through these letters, but we do understand the pressure she was under and the extent to which Paris was speaking for her. Baya’s hosts were constantly grading her on her posture, her cleanliness, her manners. They described her daily activities in Paris and supplied endless messages about grooming: we are keeping her clean, they report; we are watching her carefully; her behavior is impeccable; she even sits up straight at the table.
Baya was a genius, the talk of the town, photographed for Vogue, and yet she was still a maid, cleaning and cooking a blanquette de veau for the Maeghts and worrying in one of the letters she dictated home that it was too watery. She wore the Algerian costumes prepared for her trip: Benhoura had decided that she must only appear in Paris in “oriental” garb—a white veil and gown, an embroidered vest traditional to Algiers, a purple velvet dress. At the same time, she was entertained like any first-time tourist. She visited the flower market, the zoo, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, the cinema (where she saw herself in a newsreel), the Paris Museum of Modern Art, the bird market (her favorite place), and the House of Dior, where her purple velvet striped gown was much admired.
From Algiers, Benhoura wrote to congratulate her on her Parisian success: “You’ve proven that a little Muslim girl who carries herself correctly can only inspire sympathy among those who surround her.” Baya, once rescued, was constantly made to represent an entire people. Among the revelations of “Baya: Femmes en leur jardin” is a series of paintings by Baya discovered by the art historian Anissa Bouayed, illustrations for a volume of Berber tales that Maeght commissioned but never published: a little bird, a pigeon girl, a stepmother preparing couscous, orphans at their mother’s grave, and a big bird with a child nestled beneath its purple wing, every inch of the paper saturated with color.
Again and again observers noted that she appeared indifferent to fame and attention and criticism. Mauriac was the first person to interview her at the opening of the exhibition, and he addressed her with the patronizing tu. “Is this an animal?” he asked about one of her clay beasts, and she answered, “I don’t know.” Other journalists wanted to know if she dreamed her paintings and how she found the themes for her art. They wanted to know how long she’d been working—a strange question, to which she also answered, “I don’t know.” Claude Lemand, one of the curators of “Baya: Femmes en leur jardin,” reflecting on her responses, recalls an Arabic proverb: “Half of all knowledge is to say I don’t know.” Like the traditional Algerian costumes that distinguished her and kept her at a safe distance from the curious Parisians, I don’t know was an effective form of resistance. All her letters from Paris, supposedly dictated by her, were in the handwriting of her hosts, and Rosita Wertheimer, who housed her in Neuilly at the start of her trip, mused, “Can we really know what she is thinking?” It’s hard to fathom how exhausting the performance must have been.
Silence was a refuge, but we can glean much about Baya from her art. One painting from the Maeght exhibition, Mother and Child in Blue (1947), which also appears in “Baya: Femmes en leur jardin,” resonates with longing. A mother, her enormous face and head crowned with pink, white, and blue hair, embraces a child who is wiggling against her. The mother and child gaze at each other with their matching almond-shaped eyes. The child has a tail rather than legs, like a mermaid or a seahorse swimming in the blue depths of the mother’s skirt. The bodice of the mother’s dress has stripes at the neckline, like traditional dresses in Kabylia, and gives way to a wide skirt that occupies the entire bottom of the painting. There is a world of design inside that vast skirt, an abstract painting within the figurative one: red X’s, red dots inside green circles, white dots inside red ones. To the upper left of the mother’s face is a peacock rendered in teal green, its thick tail waving proudly behind it, its head turned to one side, its eye matching the woman’s and child’s eyes, but turned away from them.
To the left and right of the woman’s skirt, red, yellow, and white scattered shapes suggest flowers in a field. In her later years Baya recalled that the Farges flower farm had a rose garden, that the rose petals were harvested for perfumes, and that she used to sweep them up, soak the color out of them, and draw with their pigment. When they were scattered to the wind she would observe the patterns. Baya’s compositions play with figures and abstractions. Here it’s not clear if the woman is holding a child in her womb or embracing a newborn. When you look closer, the figures fall away and you see colors, and beyond those colors you see the patterns—the circles, the abstracted petals.
You can follow the originality of this artist via her skirts, each one a vessel into which she pours her blossoms and branches, her checks and circles. Skirts were in the news in 1947: long skirts with marvelous high heels, skirts in satin, in taffeta, in velvet. Christian Dior had just launched his New Look, marking the return of unabashed luxury. Madame Maeght was a regular at fashion shows—Givenchy, Balenciaga, Fath. Claude Staron, the fabric producer who supplied Dior, purchased thirteen of Baya’s paintings and gave her enough fabric for several gowns of her own.
The painting Dream of the Mother (1947) is different from any other in color and form, though it continues Baya’s abiding emotional theme of mother-loss and mother-memory. A tall, thin woman gazes down at her daughter, identical to her but tiny, remote, as if she’s standing miles away on a distant shore. Black and white are the dominant colors. A rock in front of the daughter is an obstacle. It has a dull round shape, rendered in a faded brown-gray rarely seen in Baya’s paintings, and gives depth to a two-dimensional world. Mother and daughter both wear lushly patterned skirts: the mother’s dark-gray one is filled with circles of white within white; the child’s has orange stripes. As in Mother and Child in Blue, this mother and daughter have matching almond-shaped eyes. The mother’s arms are ghostly, painted in a nearly transparent gray, unlike the curving arms in saturated colors that appear in most of Baya’s paintings. The tiny daughter stands under a tree with its branch curved around her, protecting her.
One document on display in “Baya: Femmes en leur jardin” was a small brochure from a show of British children’s paintings that Frank McEwen curated for the British Council in Paris in 1945. Newly separated from his wife, he sent the catalog to Algiers—a final gesture before disappearing from Caminat’s and Baya’s lives for good, as if to point out that she was not the only child making art. The cover of the brochure shows a matronly woman and a boyish figure in pants and pigtails holding a bouquet at his side. The title of the painting is The Admirer, attributed to “M. Denhill age 13.”
Between M. Denhill’s heavy, awkward figures and Baya’s gouaches with their original color combinations, their perfect sense of symmetry, their composition, there’s a world of difference. In Baya’s paintings, the figures are naive and the field is flat, but the art is confident, accomplished. It knows its recurring patterns, its grammar.
Baya went home to Algiers after her whirlwind six weeks in Paris. She returned to France in the summer of 1948, to the Madoura sculpture workshop in Vallauris, sharing the occasional couscous with Picasso, who sculpted in an adjoining studio. She visited again briefly in 1950. But she never considered leaving Algeria, even in the 1990s when it was a dangerous place rocked by civil war.
Blida became her home as soon as she turned twenty-one, when Benhoura’s tutelage and Caminat’s custody ended. Caid Chanderli, the senior Muslim official in the Algiers district, placed her there in the home of a high school Arabic teacher from one of the city’s most distinguished families. That teacher arranged Baya’s marriage to the Algerian composer and musician Hadj Mahfoud Mahieddine, some thirty years her senior and already married with eight children. Caminat’s chronology notes neutrally: “communal life of the two wives from 1953 to 1958, when Mahfoud divorces his first wife.” For Baya, it was an excruciating rupture from the life she had known. For nearly ten years she had no contact with Caminat, who moved to France with Benhoura in 1957.
Baya’s separation from Caminat coincided with Algeria’s war for independence. Like many Algerian artists unwilling to support French cultural institutions, she refrained from exhibiting her work, and her husband stopped recording. There was also little time for making art: between 1955 and 1970, she gave birth to six children. In the months leading up to Algeria’s liberation in July 1962, Jean de Maisonseul, a European supporter of independence who became the first director of the Musée des Beaux Arts in Algiers, invited Baya to his home, and in the course of their visit he encouraged her to start painting again.
Just as her initial impulse to paint was attributed to Marguerite Caminat, here too the idea to paint is often credited to Maisonseul, with a docile Baya responding to his wishes. But Baya’s letter to Caminat, with whom she had resumed contact through Maisonseul and his wife, Mireille Farges (Caminat’s niece), makes it clear that the desire to paint and sculpt again was hers. “I assure you I have a great desire to work,” she wrote in November 1962. Her husband built shelves for her work; the Maisonseuls brought her paint and paper. Baya’s son and daughter-in-law remember her at the kitchen table and in her lush garden, bent over a gouache with perfect concentration, mixing her paints to get the right colors, drawing her lines and circles in black with her favorite brush. Still centered on female figures accompanied by flora and fauna, her paintings now included an homage to her husband’s music in the form of the Algerian string instrument, the oud. She died in 1998.
Baya’s changing reception since 1947 is an object lesson in art and ideology. In reviews of the 1947 show the Parisian press described her as the granddaughter of a witch, a native of Kabylia who ate with dogs and slept with goats—just as the girl in Baya’s tale “Le grand Zoiseau” ate with the animals. They were incapable of seeing her as anything but a projection of their own fantasies of a primitive Kabylia, or as Breton intones in his catalog essay, “what the Berber imagination has kept alive of the traditions of ancient Egypt.” Jean Dubuffet purchased her work as early as 1948 for his “outsider” art collection—twenty-five of her paintings are in the collection of his Art Brut museum in Lausanne. Reducing her to a “primitive” or “outsider” artist has kept her in the shadows.
Today, when interest is keen in recuperating both women modernists and artists from the Global South, Baya is more likely to be described as an indigenous, self-taught painter who needs to be liberated from the colonial grip of European aesthetics. The Tunisian feminist Sara Mychkine has written, “The imaginary colonial museum has imprinted Baya’s work with its gaze.” French critics describe her as an Algerian Matisse, for her colors and her flat compositions, or as an African Picasso. Rare are the art historians like Anissa Bouayed who are able to describe in fine detail the influence on her work of Kabyle craft and design and color, and to analyze the way that Baya integrated traditional Berber themes in her paintings.
Both Breton and Tahar Djaout, the great Algerian journalist and writer assassinated in the 1990s, evoke the figure of Scheherazade in their essays on Baya. As I think about her performance in the French capital, I’m reminded of the young virgin of The Arabian Nights who outwitted a murderous king with her stories. Baya, witty and wise, outsmarted her European hosts with beguiling paintings, with her Berber stories, with her I don’t know.
After Algeria won its independence, Baya slowly reemerged as the country’s national painter, her gouaches of women and children, birds and plants in magical symbiosis now outlined in fluid black paint. Maisonseul began to acquire her work for the permanent collection of the Musée des Beaux Arts. In 1969 the Algerian postal service issued a stamp with a painting of hers and the line “Protection of the mother and the child”—a moment of personal satisfaction for an artist who had survived a violent childhood.
Baya’s life lends itself to conflicting interpretations: for some she is a prisoner of the colonial gaze, a wife and mother confined by patriarchy, a painter who is too pleasantly decorative or whose figures are too frightening. For others she is a luminous feminist who emancipated herself from her cruel origins and eschewed French exile for family life and faith, and a pioneering artist who renewed a sluggish European modernism and popular and traditional Algerian forms. But her art, with its daring colors, its freedom of movement, and its playful mastery of styles and motifs from Kabylia to Paris, has always spoken its own language.