Born in Bordj El Kiffan, a suburb of Algiers, on this day in 1931, Fatima Haddad was an Algerian artist known simply as Baya. Her vivacious watercolors, gouaches, and ceramics depict powerful images of women and nature in an expressive and personal style that defies easy categorization.
Orphaned as a young girl, Baya was adopted in 1942 by the French art collector Marguerite Camina Benoura, who employed Baya’s grandmother as a housekeeper. Showing talent from an early age, Baya made “fascinating small animals and strange female figures” in the sand of her beachside hometown. She was exposed to Benoura’s collection of modern art, including works by Matisse, and by age nine she was painting as well.
The art dealer Aimé Maeght, known for representing Miró, Calder, Léger, Braque, Giacometti, and Chagall, exhibited Baya’s first solo show of paintings at his Paris gallery when she was only 16 years old. “I speak not as others have, to deplore an ending, but rather to promote a beginning,” wrote the influential poet and critic André Breton in her exhibition catalog. “And at this beginning, Baya is queen.”
Picasso invited her to work with him in 1948, and traces of her influence can be seen in his Women of Algeria series. She married the musician El Hadj Mahfoud Mahieddine and raised a family during a time of revolution in Algeria, but declined an offer to move to France, in affirmation of her Algerian identity. Baya became so beloved in her homeland that a portrait of the artist and one of her paintings appeared on Algerian postage stamps in 2008.
Breaking conventional rules of composition and perspective, Baya’s bold, colorful paintings explode with energy, evoking a world of ecstatic women with their eyes wide open.
Happy Birthday, Baya!