Algerian Art on the 60th Anniversary of Algeria’s Independence

9 May, 2022
“La dernière phrase/The Last Word,” homage to Hélène Cixous, by Tarek Benaoum for the Insti­tute of Islam­ic Cul­tures at 19 rue Léon in Paris (pho­to cour­tesy Thea Yazli).

 

While the year 2022 marks the 60th anniver­sary of the end of the Alger­ian War and the coun­try’s inde­pen­dence, at least three French muse­ums and mul­ti­ple gal­leries are cel­e­brat­ing the coun­try’s his­to­ry and Alger­ian artists this spring, among them the Insti­tute du Monde Arabe (IMA) and the Insti­tute of Islam­ic Cul­tures in Paris, as well as the Mucem in Mar­seille. Our review­er saw the shows in Paris and Marseille.

 

Melissa Chemam

 

From the IMA exhib­it, “Alge­ria My Love,” by Baya, “Musique” (1974) © Dona­tion Claude et France Lemand, 2019 (cour­tesy IMA).

Alge­ria my love — Artists of Alger­ian broth­er­hood, 1953–2021” at the Insti­tut du Monde Arabe (IMA) in Paris is sure­ly one of the rich­est and most pub­li­cized exhi­bi­tions in the coun­try. It opened on March 18, and will be vis­i­ble through July 31, 2022. The works on view are from the IMA Museum’s Alger­ian col­lec­tion of 600 works of mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary art, fur­ther enriched in 2018, 2019 and 2021 by dona­tions from col­lec­tors Claude and France Lemand. Claude Lemand him­self coor­di­nat­ed the exhi­bi­tion with two oth­er cura­tors, Nathalie Bondil and Éric Delpont.

Accord­ing to them, this exhi­bi­tion is “a song of pain of the land and the Alger­ian peo­ple col­o­nized and mar­tyred.” For Claude Lemand in par­tic­u­lar, it is “the song of cul­ture and Alger­ian iden­ti­ty denied and uproot­ed. It is also the song of free­dom and hope, the renew­al of artis­tic and lit­er­ary cre­ativ­i­ty and the announce­ment of a rebirth, nec­es­sary and long await­ed. ‘Alge­ria my love’ is the expres­sion of the love that all artists have for Alge­ria, the artists of the inte­ri­or and even more those of the exte­ri­or, all these cre­ators of the dias­po­ra who can say, with Abdal­lah Benan­teur: ‘Alge­ria is in me, only my feet have left; my spir­it prowls per­ma­nent­ly among my people.’”

The exhi­bi­tion brings togeth­er 300 works of 18 artists, most active in the 20th cen­tu­ry and some until today. Among them we find Baya Mahied­dine, Zoulikha Bouab­del­lah, Kamel Yahiaoui, Rachid Koraïchi, Abdal­lah Benan­teur, Abder­rah­mane Ould Mohand, or Hal­i­da Boughri­et. “Alge­ria My Love” includes main­ly paint­ings, but also some sculp­tures, draw­ings, books, pho­tographs and videos. Most of the exhib­it­ed artists have lived main­ly in Alge­ria; oth­ers have also lived in France, like Denis Mar­tinez, born in Alge­ria in 1941 of French par­ents, and set­tled in France since 1994. The eldest is the non-fig­u­ra­tive painter Louis Nal­lard, born in 1918, and the youngest, El Meya, is only 34 years old.

Of all the painters exhib­it­ed, few are known to the gen­er­al French pub­lic, which makes the exhi­bi­tion rich and unique. The most rec­og­nized is undoubt­ed­ly Baya Mahied­dine, known sim­ply as Baya, whose works are said to have influ­enced even Hen­ri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

“Women of Algiers” by Souhi­la Bel­ba­har, inspired by Delacroix, ca 1962, mixed media on paper, 54 x 88 cm. Dona­tion CFL (cour­tesy IMA).

Born Fat­ma Had­dad in 1931, orphaned by the age of five, she had to work as a ser­vant in Algiers from ear­ly on. A com­plete­ly self-taught artist, she paint­ed land­scapes, por­traits, and flo­ral and ani­mal illus­tra­tions in flam­boy­ant col­ors and shapes in her ear­ly teens, which quick­ly got her noticed. In 1943, the sculp­tor Jean Peyris­sac showed her paint­ings to the French col­lec­tor Aimé Maeght, who decid­ed to orga­nize her first exhi­bi­tion in his Paris gallery, with a cat­a­log pref­aced by the sur­re­al­ist poet André Bre­ton. “I speak, not like so many oth­ers to lament an end but to pro­mote a begin­ning and on this begin­ning Baya is queen,” he wrote. “The begin­ning of an age of eman­ci­pa­tion and con­cord, in rad­i­cal rup­ture with the pre­vi­ous one and of which one of the prin­ci­pal levers is for the man the sys­tem­at­ic impreg­na­tion, always big­ger, of the nature.” Baya was then only 16 years old. She met Georges Bracque and Picas­so, before return­ing to Alge­ria where she mar­ried the musi­cian El Hadj Mah­foud Mahied­dine. The birth of their six chil­dren forced a pause in her career, but she resumed paint­ing in the 1960s. Three of her paint­ings are includ­ed in the exhi­bi­tion, in the cen­ter of the main room, radi­at­ing creativity.

Anoth­er woman artist is dis­tin­guished by the qual­i­ty of works pre­sent­ed: Souhi­la Bel Bahar. Born in 1934 in Bli­da, in a fam­i­ly of embroi­der­ers, she was first trained in sewing in Algiers, between 1949 and 1952, then became a self-taught artist. She began easel paint­ing of the age of 17, inspired by works of Delacroix, Renoir, Corot and Picasso.

Oth­er artists with inter­na­tion­al careers include the non-fig­u­ra­tive painter and engraver Mohamed Khad­da (1930–1991) and Abdal­lah Benan­teur (1931–2017), steeped in Arab cul­ture, con­nois­seur of Euro­pean paint­ing, also fed by the imag­i­na­tion of poets from around the world.

“Anzar, Berber Prince in the Rain,” Denis Mar­tinez, 2001, acrylique on can­vas, 200 x 300 cm, (cour­tesy IMA).

The pho­tographs of Hal­i­da Boughri­et, born in France in 1980, also stand out, offer­ing por­traits of Kabyle women matri­archs in fam­i­ly inte­ri­ors very famil­iar to Alge­ri­ans. And on the sev­enth floor one finds a mon­u­men­tal instal­la­tion by Kamel Yahiaoui.

The whole of “Alge­ria My Love” forms an eclec­tic col­lec­tion, and a beau­ti­ful his­tor­i­cal pre­sen­ta­tion of the Algiers group of the 1930s, artists of the inter­war and post-inde­pen­dence peri­od, as well as some great con­tem­po­rary names, even if the great Alger­ian names that have emerged in Europe since the 2000s — Djamel Tatah, Bruno Boud­je­lal, Zineb Sedi­ra, Kad­er Attia, Adel Abdessemed, Mohamed Bourouis­sa or Neïl Belo­ufa — are con­spic­u­ous­ly absent.

The ensem­ble high­lights the trans-Mediter­ranean links of these artists, but their most polit­i­cal and anti-colo­nial­ist works are unfor­tu­nate­ly not represented.

The exhi­bi­tion is accom­pa­nied by a rich cycle of con­fer­ences and meet­ings, enti­tled “2022. Regards sur l’Al­gérie à l’IMA.” And the IMA also exhibits this spring the excel­lent work in Alge­ria of French pho­tog­ra­ph­er Ray­mond Depar­don, pic­tures dat­ing main­ly from 1961 and 2019, in an exhi­bi­tion made in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Alger­ian writer Karim Daoud, enti­tled “His Eye in My Hand.” 

 


 

Mean­while, in Mar­seille, the Muse­um of Civ­i­liza­tion of Europe and the Mediter­ranean (Mucem) offers a unique exhi­bi­tion with “Abd el-Kad­er” (from April 6 to August 22), ded­i­cat­ed to the hero of the Alger­ian anti-colo­nial resis­tance and the his­to­ry of 130 years of colonization.

Por­trait of Abd el Kad­er on horse­back by J. Del­ton, cir­ca 1865 (cour­tesy Mucem/ANOM, Aix en Provence).

The exhi­bi­tion, artis­tic but espe­cial­ly his­tor­i­cal, traces the steps of the vio­lent French con­quest of Alge­ria, launched in 1830 by the July Monar­chy, and which met at the time the oppo­si­tion of the troops of Abd el-Kad­er until 1847, and this par­tic­u­lar­ly through the paint­ings of Emile-Jean-Horace Ver­net, known as Horace. The exhi­bi­tion also shows how France betrayed its promise to free the Emir after his defeat, and to let him take refuge in the land of Islam, as well as the var­i­ous con­tro­ver­sies aris­ing in France from these events. 

Sev­er­al texts and record­ings relate the admi­ra­tion of sev­er­al French writ­ers for the courage and hon­esty of the Emir, includ­ing Vic­tor Hugo, who called him “the thought­ful, fierce and gen­tle Emir”; Arthur Rim­baud, who nick­named him in a lit­tle-known poem “the grand­son of Jugurtha”; and Gus­tave Flaubert, who wrote that the word “Emir” should be used “only when speak­ing of Abd el-Kader.”

Near­ly 250 works and doc­u­ments are brought togeth­er to put into con­text the great­ness and grow­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty of the Emir through­out Europe, until his final depar­ture for Syr­ia. One finds doc­u­ments from French and Mediter­ranean pub­lic and pri­vate col­lec­tions, includ­ing the Nation­al Over­seas Archives, the Nation­al Library of France, the Nation­al Archives, the Palace of Ver­sailles, the Army Muse­um, the Orsay Muse­um, the Lou­vre Muse­um, the Aix-Mar­seille Cham­ber of Com­merce and Indus­try, and La Piscine de Roubaix.

Accord­ing to the cura­tors, Camille Fau­court and Flo­rence Hudow­icz, “the Mucem has long demon­strat­ed the desire to explore and expose the his­to­ry of rela­tions between the var­i­ous shores of the Mediter­ranean, and this is obvi­ous­ly the case for what con­cerns the Maghreb and par­tic­u­lar­ly Alge­ria,” such as Mucem’s ear­li­er exhi­bi­tion “Made in Alge­ria” (2016), or the cycle of meet­ings “Alge­ria-France, the Voice of Objects,” which has been held for the past five years.

The idea of this exhi­bi­tion on the emir was born a few years ago, dur­ing a meet­ing between the Catholic father Chris­t­ian Delorme, who had long har­bored and inter­est in the fig­ure of Abd el-Kad­er, and the pres­i­dent of the Mucem, Jean-François Chougnet. “They saw each oth­er in Amboise, the place of cap­tiv­i­ty of the emir, in 2019,” explain the exhi­bi­tion cura­tors, and “the project was born at that time.”

The exhi­bi­tion is time­ly for the peo­ple of Mar­seille, com­mem­o­rat­ing the anniver­sary of Alger­ian inde­pen­dence, and for his­to­ry buffs. 

From May 5 to 7, the Mucem also offered a pro­gram enti­tled “Alge­ria — France, the Voice of Objects,” with an out­door con­cert of the group Acid Arab and Ben­zine, and meet­ings and dis­cus­sions with the par­tic­i­pa­tion of authors, his­to­ri­ans or Fran­co-Alger­ian per­son­al­i­ties such as Ben­jamin Sto­ra, Salem Brahi­mi, Lyes Salem, Ahmed Bouy­er­dene, Raphaëlle Branche, Chris­t­ian Phé­line, Faïza Guène, Magyd Cher­fi, Slim, and Jacques Ferrandez.

With these two exhi­bi­tions, the IMA and Mucem devot­ed beau­ti­ful spaces to Alger­ian cul­tur­al his­to­ry, in a spe­cial year, marked by lots of debate on France and Algeria’s shared past. These two French cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions are of course expect­ed to deal with this issue, as they spe­cial­ize in the Arab world and the Mediter­ranean. Alger­ian artists have yet to con­quer main­stream cul­tur­al spaces in France, such as the Lou­vre or the Musée d’Orsay, but these two events, dense and great­ly pro­duced, could well encour­age a greater inter­est for Algeria’s artists across the country.

 

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