Portrait of Baya. Courtesy of Galerie Maeght.
Baya, Femme robe jaune cheveux bleus (Woman with blue hair in a yellow dress), 1947. Photo © Galerie Maeght. Courtesy of Grey Art Gallery.
In 1947, when artist Baya Mahieddine was just 16 years old, she painted a radical image of a woman.
Not just any woman, but a goddess-queen whose ovaries were marked by flamboyant birds and whose vulva was represented by a red-winged butterfly. Her crown was tall and swathed with flowers, and her gaze authoritative. She stared directly at the viewer with large, piercing eyes.
This is just one of 22 paintings on view in the exhibition “Baya: Woman of Algiers,” at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, the first U.S. solo exhibition of the late Algerian painter and sculptor (who, as an artist, went only by her first name). Baya’s works depict exuberant scenes of women or nature. And there are no men.
Baya, Femme allongée au visage bleu (Reclining woman with blue face), 1947. Photo © Galerie Maeght. Courtesy of Grey Art Gallery.
This is significant because, until the last decade or so, the artist’s work had been defined (like so many women artists of her generation) by her relationships with the men who surrounded her. Historically, she’s been written about most often as an outsider, child artist discovered by the Parisian modernist art dealer Aimé Maeght and taken under the professional wing of superstar intellectuals and artists of the mid-20th century, like André Breton, Jean Dubuffet, and Pablo Picasso.
Picasso, in particular, has defined Baya’s legacy (just as he overshadowed the careers and talents of many of the women who he interacted with). After spending several summers working alongside the Spaniard at the Madoura pottery studio in Vallauris, located in southern France, she was said to have inspired his Women of Algiers series.
Thankfully “Baya: Woman of Algiers,” curated by Natasha Boas, doesn’t dwell on these relationships. Rather, the show foregrounds Baya’s own work, suggesting that she resisted her male-dominated milieu, as well as their limiting categorization of her work—as being naïve or exotic—through paintings of a world filled with expressive, assertive women.
As the exhibition catalogue describes, Baya was born Fatma Haddad in 1931, in a small, Muslim town in French-occupied Algeria. She was orphaned at a young age, and throughout her youth shuffled between the homes of various relatives. Eventually, in 1942, she was adopted by a French intellectual and art collector, Marguerite Camina Benhoura (Baya’s grandmother was Benhoura’s maid). As the story goes, Benhoura was taken by the young girl, in no small part due to the “fascinating small animals and strange female figures” she made out of dirt and sand.
Baya, Femme et oiseau en cage (Woman with a caged bird), 1947. Photo © Galerie Maeght, Paris. Courtesy of Grey Art Gallery.
Baya, Femme et enfant en bleu (Woman and child in blue), 1947. Photo © Galerie Maeght, Paris. Courtesy of Grey Art Gallery.
There are two very early works included in the exhibition, which Baya made around this time, when she was just nine years old. It is unclear if she had already met Benhoura, and seen the patron’s collection of modern paintings by the likes of Henri Matisse, by the time she created them. Regardless, they reveal the artist’s distinct visual language—one that she would develop for the remainder of her life as a painter.
One gouache on paper, called Femme fond rouge (Woman on a red background) (1940), shows an elaborately dressed woman flanked by a extravagant peacock and towering houseplant. The subject nearly fills the composition, a point accentuated by the fact that Baya renders her eyes as little faces. In this way, her presence is tripled. She is three women in one; or, at the very least, one woman who is multidimensional and brazenly expressive.
Eyes are a focal point across nearly all of of Baya’s oeuvre. According to Boas, and other scholars like the Algerian writer Assia Djebar, they are also a key to understanding the artist’s artistic intentions. In their view, Baya’s depiction of the large, uncovered eye—or the “liberated eye,” as Djebar has described it—represents a reversal of the male gaze, a prominent element of Western figurative art in the artist’s time.
For Djebar, the stylistic (and potentially conceptual) choice also points to a liberation from the sexism inherent in the Muslim society in which Baya was raised. “Baya’s woman is equipped with a giant eye, which, agape, avidly desires flowers, fruits, sounds of lutes and guitars,” she wrote in a 1985 essay, reproduced in the exhibition catalogue. “Baya, the first in a chain of sequestered women, whose blindfold has, all of a sudden, fallen to the ground,” she continues.
Looking at Baya’s female subjects, all with large, lively eyes, it’s easy to share Djebar and Boas’s view. Most of the works in the Grey Art Gallery exhibition date to 1947, when Baya was 16, and were shown in her first solo presentation in Paris the same year. (The exhibition was organized by Maeght at his gallery, and by that time, Baya had already earned fans, including Breton, who included her in his famed “Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme”; and Dubuffet, who began to collect her work, albeit grouping it in his Art Brut collection amongst art made by children and individuals with mental illnesses.)
In Femme robe bleue cheveux rouges (Woman with red hair in a blue dress) (1947), Baya depicts a woman in a curve-hugging, flamboyantly patterned dress. What’s more, she is without a headscarf, her fire-red hair worn loose and wild. Every aspect of the composition, rendered in undulating lines exudes energy and freedom—especially the eye, with a thick black outline that pushes powerfully through the elaborate composition.
Baya, Femme attablées (Women at table), 1947. Photo © Galerie Maeght, Paris. Courtesy of Grey Art Gallery.
In other works, women with similarly assertive eyes consort with birds and flowers, enjoy each other’s company, or relish new motherhood. Across these scenarios, Baya’s subjects express a vast range of emotions, from contentment to ecstatic joy to self-assuredness. Her subjects are not only comfortable in their femininity, but freed by it.
While Baya’s subjects exude a liberated energy, some critics have noted that the artist herself remained manipulated and shackled by patriarchal forces throughout her life. While it’s true that Baya returned to Algeria at age 20 to become the second wife of a traditional Muslim man, and supposedly stopped painting during his lifetime, her work retained—then, as now—its core theme of the liberated woman.
It was within her work that Baya found freedom. The world she painted, after all, is one where women assert their individuality and are free from the men who attempt to brand them with labels, keep them inside the home, or hold them back in any way. “If I change my paintings, I will no longer be Baya,” the artist said in 1991, after her husband died and she’d returned to painting. “When I paint, I am happy and I am in another world.”