One of Algeria’s most celebrated artists, Baya Mahieddine is famous for the iconic work that would inspire Picasso to paint a collection called Women of Algeria. As a self-taught artist, Baya retained the connection to ‘tribal’ art that so fascinated the Western world, and actively rejected any form of classification, instead drawing on personal memories and experiences.
Born in Algeria in 1931, Baya’s life was far from easy. Orphaned at the age of five, she was raised by her grandmother. Unable to attend school, she worked as a servant for a French woman named Marguerite Camina, who would later be described by the artist as her adoptive mother. Camina noticed the talent that her young servant displayed in making figures from clay, and encouraged her to develop her craft. Instead of following the typically Western models of art production that were being taught at the time, the young Baya drew on her own personal experiences and imaginings, alongside the traditional tribal art of Algeria.
Sharon Obuobi describes Algeria’s visual culture as boasting ‘intricately designed traditional textiles, ceramics, gardens, and architecture’, and these motifs reoccur in Mahyeddine’s paintings. Her clay figures are said to have inspired the fluid forms and figures she painted, giving her works their unique aesthetic that was so influential to artists like Picasso and Matisse.
By the time she was 16, Mahyeddine had her first exhibition in Paris. This is where her influence on artists such as Picasso is first noted. Picasso’s interest and fascination with African tribal art (and masks in particular) is well known. His graphic cubist style is attributed in part to his curiosity in traditional African forms of representation, at that time presented in Europe in the form of curios and artifacts rather than artworks. Mahyeddine was an exception to this. She was not creating tribal curiosities, but allowing her environment and imagination to shape her work.
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