In the 1940s, a 16-year-old girl gained notice from renowned artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Andre Breton. The self-taught Algerian artist, Baya Mahieddine (1931-1988) – known as Baya – was finally celebrated in the first North American exhibition of her work, at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, in March 2018. Baya used gouache as her primary medium, depicting a world without men but full of bright images of women, nature, and animals. The bold patterns in her work are attention-grabbing, but her life story is even more so.
Baya was born Fatima Haddad in 1931, in a small, Muslim town in French-occupied Algeria. By the age 5, both her parents had died, so she was raised by her grandmother and shuffled between the homes of various relatives. Her grandmother worked as a maid at the house of Marguerite Camina, a French woman residing in Algiers. Marguerite, who was an art collector, noticed Baya’s artistic talent and adopted her when she was eleven years old.
In 1947, when Baya was just 16, an established French art dealer came to visit Marguerite at her home and saw Baya’s paintings. Later that year he included Baya’s work in the Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme at his Galerie in Paris. Almost overnight she caught the attention of Picasso and Matisse, among other prominent artists, for her colorful, spontaneous and “childlike” compositions.
The bold colors and strange figures of her works revealed surrealist and dream-like qualities that inspired her contemporaries such as Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, André Breton who defined her work as Surrealism, and this view was widely held for a long time.
Breton’s enthusiastic reception of Baya and her work is expressed in his 1947 essay “Baya”:
“I speak not as others have, to deplore an ending, but rather to promote a beginning, and at this beginning, Baya is queen. The beginning of an age of emancipation and of agreement, in radical rupture with the preceding era, one of whose principal levers for man might be the systematic, always increasing impregnation of nature. The beginnings of this age lie with Charles Fourier, the new impetus has just been furnished by Malcolm of Chazal. But for the rocket that launches the new age, I propose the name Baya. Baya, whose mission is to reinvigorate the meaning of those beautiful nostalgic words: happy Arabia. Baya holds and rekindles the golden bough.”
Scroll to see images of Baya’s work.