Seeing Baya: Portrait of an Algerian Artist in Paris (Abakanowicz Arts and Culture Collection) (Hardcover)

Seeing Baya: Portrait of an Algerian Artist in Paris (Abakanowicz Arts and Culture Collection) By Alice Kaplan Cover Image
Not Yet Published


The first biography of the Algerian artist Baya Mahieddine, celebrated in mid-twentieth-century Paris, her life shrouded in myth.  

On a flower farm in colonial Algeria, a servant and field worker named Baya escaped the drudgery of her labor by coloring the skirts in fashion magazines. Three years later, in November 1947, her paintings and fanciful clay beasts were featured in a one-woman show at the Maeght Gallery in Paris. She wasn’t yet sixteen years old. Alice Kaplan tells the story of a young woman seemingly trapped in subsistence who becomes a sensation in the French capital, then mysteriously fades from the history of modern art—only to reemerge after independence as an icon of Algerian artistic heritage.
The toast of Paris for the 1947 season, Baya inspired colonialist fantasies about her “primitive" genius as well as genuine appreciation. She was featured in newspapers, radio, and a newsreel; her art was praised by Breton and Camus, Matisse and Braque. At the dawn of Algerian liberation, her appearance in Paris was used to stage the illusion of French-Algerian friendship, while horrific French massacres in Algeria were still fresh in memory. 

Kaplan uncovers the central figures in Baya’s life and the role they played in her artistic career. Among the most poignant was Marguerite Caminat-McEwen-Benhoura, who took Baya from her sister’s farm to Algiers to work as her maid and gave the young girl paint and brushes. A complex and endearing character, Marguerite’s Pygmalion ambitions were decisive in determining Baya’s destiny. Kaplan also looks closely at Baya’s earliest paintings with an eye to their themes, their palette and design, and their enduring influence.

In vivid prose that brings Baya’s story into the present, Kaplan’s book, the fruit of scrupulous research in Algiers, Blida, Paris, and Provence, allows us to see in a whole new light the beloved artist who signed her paintings simply “Baya.”

About the Author

Alice Kaplan is the Sterling Professor of French at Yale University. She is coauthor of States of Plague, with Laura Marris, and author of French Lessons, The Collaborator, Looking for “The Stranger,” and Dreaming in French, all also published by the University of Chicago Press. She has been a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award. She lives in Guilford, Connecticut.

Praise For…

"In the story of Baya Mahieddine, Alice Kaplan sees into the difficulty of seeing across cultures and across time. How did Baya, celebrated as a child genius in Paris in 1947, see the French people who took her up? How did they see her? Kaplan reads into Baya’s gloriously colorful art a record of intimate life as well as the fury and complexity of the Algerian War for Independence. A delicate and intensely moving tale, and a tribute to a powerful artist."
— Rosanna Warren, author of Max Jacob: A Life in Art and Letters

Product Details
ISBN: 9780226835082
ISBN-10: 0226835081
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication Date: October 20th, 2024
Pages: 176
Language: English
Series: Abakanowicz Arts and Culture Collection