PARIS: The enigmatic Fatima Haddad — better known as the artist Baya — rose to fame at the age of just 16, elevated to icon status by a generation of post-war French intellectuals. More than 20 years after her death in 1998, she is still held in high esteem by critics and collectors alike.

A new exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, with works donated by Claude and Frances Lemand, presents a selection of her gouache drawings, paintings and sculptures in an all-encompassing homage to Baya’s career that spanned more than five decades. Many of the artifacts on display in “Paya: Women in Their Garden,” which runs through March 2023, come from archives left by the artist’s adoptive mother, Marguerite Kaminat.

Baya at an exhibition by Algerian artists, September 1998 (AO Mohand-min)

Kaminat was the first and biggest supporter of Baya’s exceptional artistic talent, which was noticed by Parisian gallery owner Aimé Maecht on a trip to Algiers. The 16-year-old was invited by Maecht to contribute to a major exhibition in Paris in November 1947, where her work enthralled art lovers in the French capital, including André Breton, who wrote: “I do not speak like many others to lament the end., but To strengthen the beginning. The beginning of the age of liberation and harmony, in a radical rupture… And from this beginning, Baya Malaka.”

“Baya was a talented artist and tireless worker,” Claude Lemand, one of the curators, told Arab News. “She affirmed her personality, her identity, her independence, and her decision (to be an artist) at a very young age, but without ever offending others.”

Baia, Lady and Birds in Blue, 1993 (Alberto Ricci-min)

In 1953, Baya married musician El Hadj Mahfouz Mohieddine and took a 10-year sabbatical to devote herself to her family at their home in Blida, Algeria. As I began to produce art again, new horizons were revealed, undoubtedly influenced by the Algerian War of Independence, which took place in that period.

It was a pivotal period for the artist. “Since 1963, she has developed new ideas, starting with her landscapes – the Garden of Eden – a joyful celebration of nature and life… surrounded by sunny mountains and dunes, with four rivers, the symbolic trees of Algeria – olive tree and date palm, and full of birds and fish of all colours.” “The birds sing, the fish dance,” Lemand said. “An oasis or an island, the Garden of Eden has the colors of Algeria: the blue of the Mediterranean, the red of its land, the green of its vegetation, the gold of its dunes.”

Some critics have highlighted the repetitive nature of Baia’s work, and in response, Lemand explains, she developed other themes, including “live takes”, which often included instrumentals, inspired by her husband’s profession.

“All its elements (still life works) are represented as living beings, their eyes always wide open to others and the world, with expressive attitudes of mutual seduction and affection, participating in general harmony, in a symphony of shapes and colors,” Lemand added.

From 1963 onwards, Baia developed a third theme: women: “musicians, dancers, mothers, women alone in their garden or in groups, open and happy, standing or sitting, surrounded by musical instruments and talking birds,” said Lemand.

Visitors to the exhibition will witness the power of Baia’s cheerful and vibrant paintings along with the elegance of her clay sculptures.

Baya prefers turquoise blue, Indian pink, emerald and dark purple. She paints with unparalleled finesse the world of childhood and motherhood, Lemand said, expressing her fascination with the memory of her mother. “First she drew in pencil, then applied color. She started with women and then moved on to other elements, leaving voids in her early works, before succumbing to the “horror of emptiness” of the Arab-Islamic aesthetic and motifs filling in all the voids left empty in her compositions.

In her paintings, there is a harmony between women and all living things: “each has its own language, which is understood by all the actors in the scene,” Lemand notes.

Far from the cynical image some have of her work, Paya appears here as empress of a fertile kingdom where young women can freely put their dreams to paper. As Breton wrote, Baya was the “happy queen of Arabia”.

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