Unveiling The Muse
Baya Mahieddine and the reclaiming of Identity
baya mahieddine miilkiina

The Western fascination with the ‘Oriental’ woman as the mysterious cultural ‘other’, embeds within it a history of socio-political and colonial discourse. Though seemingly far removed from contemporary society – remnants of this dynamic remain in our modern realities, just as they linger within our cultural conscience. For those unfamiliar with the work of Fanon or Said, it may be fitting to note the decades of Orientalist ‘painter-ethnographers’, whose portrayals of Arab and North African women were but a means of pacifying their own masculine desires, (invading their private realms, both physically and psychologically). In simpler terms – if you’ve ever cringed at the sound of someone referring to a woman anything near the proximity to an Arab as ‘exotic’, know that this fetishization is far from novel. It’s for this reason that the news of Baya Mahieddine’s Dubai based exhibition was so enticing to me.

Though wildly understated (her pioneering work has received little credit in comparison to artists such as Matisse and Picasso, whom she directly influenced) the 16-year-old Algerian artist was instrumental in reaffirming post-colonial art movements during the mid-twentieth century and beyond. In presenting new details and points of reference in her work, she was the first to deconstruct Orientalist fantasies and stereotypes, in relation to Arab cultures. Where colonial Orientalist paintings, of the likes of Ingrés or Delacroix, were organized by an ideological frame (with both power and desire functioning at simultaneous channels of communication)  Mahieddine challenged viewers to examine her subjects from a uniquely female, Algerian perspective.

One is only to observe the way odalisque women are posed, surrounded by parallel objects with no active personal agency. Or the way their veils exemplify an object of unruly desire; frustrating the male colonizer, in embodying both fear and fetish. Baya’s portrayals transcended these depictions entirely. Her work, which also centered around female subjects, employed intricate decorative and repetitive, rhythmic patterns, reminiscent of her homeland. In observing further, you’ll find that within these details (concealed in what appears to be only traditional designs) lies a distinct discourse, which moves away from Orientalist attempts to conform to the viewer‘s expectation of authenticity.

Her representation of the female eye in the shape of an inverted H has even been noted to assert an alternative mode of seeing and reading. The combination of historical artistic traditions to showcase female subjects from a non-Orientalist perspective is a strategy by which she sought to elude Western categorizations of her art. In light of this, surrealists in Paris, including Picasso, were encouraged to rethink the Orient, as a result of her authentic contribution to the arts. With further enlightenment about existing social parameters, we feel a sense of optimism, in that more women are becoming expressive in how they choose to define themselves within the art world. A crucial move towards the future image of the Arab woman, as the process of representational movement, coincides with the assertion of our own identities.

Unveiling The Muse
Baya Mahieddine and the reclaiming of Identity
baya mahieddine miilkiina

The Western fascination with the ‘Oriental’ woman as the mysterious cultural ‘other’, embeds within it a history of socio-political and colonial discourse. Though seemingly far removed from contemporary society – remnants of this dynamic remain in our modern realities, just as they linger within our cultural conscience. For those unfamiliar with the work of Fanon or Said, it may be fitting to note the decades of Orientalist ‘painter-ethnographers’, whose portrayals of Arab and North African women were but a means of pacifying their own masculine desires, (invading their private realms, both physically and psychologically). In simpler terms – if you’ve ever cringed at the sound of someone referring to a woman anything near the proximity to an Arab as ‘exotic’, know that this fetishization is far from novel. It’s for this reason that the news of Baya Mahieddine’s Dubai based exhibition was so enticing to me.

Though wildly understated (her pioneering work has received little credit in comparison to artists such as Matisse and Picasso, whom she directly influenced) the 16-year-old Algerian artist was instrumental in reaffirming post-colonial art movements during the mid-twentieth century and beyond. In presenting new details and points of reference in her work, she was the first to deconstruct Orientalist fantasies and stereotypes, in relation to Arab cultures. Where colonial Orientalist paintings, of the likes of Ingrés or Delacroix, were organized by an ideological frame (with both power and desire functioning at simultaneous channels of communication)  Mahieddine challenged viewers to examine her subjects from a uniquely female, Algerian perspective.

One is only to observe the way odalisque women are posed, surrounded by parallel objects with no active personal agency. Or the way their veils exemplify an object of unruly desire; frustrating the male colonizer, in embodying both fear and fetish. Baya’s portrayals transcended these depictions entirely. Her work, which also centered around female subjects, employed intricate decorative and repetitive, rhythmic patterns, reminiscent of her homeland. In observing further, you’ll find that within these details (concealed in what appears to be only traditional designs) lies a distinct discourse, which moves away from Orientalist attempts to conform to the viewer‘s expectation of authenticity.

Her representation of the female eye in the shape of an inverted H has even been noted to assert an alternative mode of seeing and reading. The combination of historical artistic traditions to showcase female subjects from a non-Orientalist perspective is a strategy by which she sought to elude Western categorizations of her art. In light of this, surrealists in Paris, including Picasso, were encouraged to rethink the Orient, as a result of her authentic contribution to the arts. With further enlightenment about existing social parameters, we feel a sense of optimism, in that more women are becoming expressive in how they choose to define themselves within the art world. A crucial move towards the future image of the Arab woman, as the process of representational movement, coincides with the assertion of our own identities.

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