Baya: Woman of Algiers
Algerian-born Baya Mahieddine (1931–1998)—who chose to be known by her first name— created distinctive works that fuse motifs drawn from her Arab and Kabyle heritage with
French modernism. Although she was championed by key members of the Parisian avantgard—including André Breton, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso—Baya remained true to her unique vision, continuously challenging entrenched national and cultural frameworks. In her paintings, Baya proposes an alternate mode of seeing: female figures intertwine with birds, fish, and flowers, which she arranges in recurring patterns that recall Arabic lettering and Islamic art. Her forthright depictions of the female body and the world surrounding it invite broader interrogations of stereotypes found in representations of women.
While demonstrating her awareness of the French avant-garde, Baya’s paintings also reflect
the complex ruptures and transfers she experienced in her youth. Orphaned at the age of
five, Baya was adopted in 1942 by a French intellectual who provided her with painting
materials, an education, and access to art world luminaries. During a visit to Algeria in
1945, Aimé Maeght, a prominent French art dealer, saw Baya’s work and was instantly
captivated. Soon he was displaying her paintings in exhibitions at Galerie Maeght in Paris:
the International Surrealist Exhibition, organized by Breton, and a solo show—the latter
accompanied by a special issue of the gallery’s journal, Derrière le Miroir, to which Breton
contributed an essay declaring: “Baya is queen.” From 1948 to 1952, Baya spent summers
in the South of France, where she worked alongside Picasso at the Madoura ceramic studio
in Vallauris. Also on view here are ceramics by Picasso from the New York University Art
Although Baya is often discussed in the context of Surrealism, she rejected all labels, including “Surrealist” as well as “outsider” and “naïve.” Moreover, the themes she explored in her paintings—women, displacement, and personal identity—continue to resonate with artists today. Woman of Algiers concludes with Mother Tongue (2002), a contemporary video work by French-born Algerian artist Zineb Sedira featuring herself in conversation with her mother and daughter. The dialogues—in Arabic, French, and English—raise questions about memory, migration, and the transmission of history. Examining the breakdown of communication over three generations, Sedira offers a present-day perspective on cultural translations and feminist genealogies.