As international interest has grown in modern and contemporary art from the Arab world, with a thriving gallery scene, particularly in Arab Gulf countries, doing much to promote the work of Arab artists to new generations buyers, there may still be few opportunities to see the works of modern and contemporary Arab artists outside of the Arab world.
Major public institutions in Europe have hosted retrospectives of individual Arab artists, with the Tate Modern in London hosting exhibitions of the work of Lebanese painter and sculptor Saloua Raouda Choucair and Sudanese painter Ibrahim Al-Salahi in 2013, for example. The Center Pompidou in Paris hosted a major exhibition in 2017 of works by the Art and Liberty group, an Egyptian art movement of the 1930s and 1940s. The Institut du monde arabe, also in Paris and not primarily an art museum, also recently hosted retrospectives of modern Lebanese painting and modern and contemporary Egyptian art.
But these may appear as mostly isolated examples, with major art institutions accompanying their more general fare with occasional exhibitions of art from other parts of the world.
However, within the framework of the demonstrations organized throughout France on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Evian agreements which put an end to the war of independence of Algeria in 1962, the Institute of the Arab world once again assumes its mission of making known the culture and civilization of the Arab countries. better known to the European public by hosting a new exhibition, Algérie mon amour, artists of Algerian brotherhood, a major retrospective of modern and contemporary Algerian art until July 31.
Many of the artists whose works are on display are unlikely to be known to European audiences, and the Institute is to be commended for its efforts to make them better known.
Like the modern art of many other Arab countries, the modern art of Algeria took off in dialogue with that of Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries and particularly with that of France. The first school of fine arts with modern lines – the first intended to train students in European-style painting and other arts – was established in Algeria in the 1880s in the capital Algiers. This was followed by the founding of an association of “Algerian and Orientalist artists”, then the creation of an annual salon and a municipal art museum in Algiers at the beginning of the last century.
A national art museum was created in Algiers in 1930, followed by other museums and art schools in Constantine and Oran. However, they are all French colonial institutions, and their collections and programs all focus on European art. Today, visitors to Algiers can still visit the National Museum of Art overlooking the capital’s beautiful Jardin d’Essai du Hamma, a botanical garden, and view much of its original collection of works by mainly painters. French such as Delacroix, Courbet, Pissarro, Degas, Renoir, Sisley and Matisse.
No one can ignore the importance of this major collection, which makes the museum one of the most important on the African continent through its collection of art, particularly French from the 19th century and orientalist. But it was never designed to promote modern Algerian art or to contribute to the training of modern Algerian artists. Its role was to serve as a reference and repository for European artists working in Algeria or for members of the European community in the then colonized country seeking training in European art.
The exhibition at the Institut du monde arabe reminds visitors of part of this history, since the generation of artists with which it began, born in the 1920s or 30s and studying in Paris after the Second World War, can be considered as the true pioneers of modern Algerian art. For them, the academic techniques, and even more so the ways of seeing, taught in European art schools in Algeria and in the country’s National Art Museum, represented traditions against which to react.
Their task, as the exhibition explains, was to gather materials that could contribute to a modern Algerian art, that could learn from the experiences that had taken place in Europe during the first part of the century, without necessarily abandoning the earlier tradition of European Orientalist painting which had attempted to depict Algerian and North African subjects, of course seen through foreign eyes.
At the same time, members of this generation also felt the need to research local art forms obscured by European colonialism, without falling into the trap of recycling folklore or postcard designs of what , in the Algerian context, could constitute popular works. or traditional art. They thus found themselves grappling with questions familiar from many other contexts and relating to the dualisms of local content and foreign forms and of European modernism and local visual traditions rediscovered in the context of a growing national consciousness.
The ways in which they approached these questions, and their survival in the work of subsequent generations, may provide a useful way of thinking about the establishment and development of modern Algerian art.
The exhibition is housed in the institute’s basement exhibition spaces, ideal in terms of volume but lacking in natural light, and it is organized by artist, rather than by theme or period.
It includes the work of 18 artists from three generations, from the oldest, born shortly after or in the decades following World War I, to the most recent, born in the 1970s or 1980s and working within the framework and institutions of the contemporary rather than modern. art. All of the works presented are drawn from the institute’s collections of modern and contemporary Arab art, in this case significantly enriched thanks to a bequest from Claude Lemand, also curator of the exhibition.
An important name from the previous generation is that of M’hamed Issiakhem (1928-1985), represented in the exhibition by two paintings, one from the 1960s and the other from the 1980s, both dealing with the same subject.
Issiakhem’s earlier painting La Mère (The Mother) depicts a woman in what may be traditional dress, the image space “almost completely saturated with signs”, say the exhibition notes, referring to the “jagged lines of Berber ceramics or textiles”. up to “abstract” decoration. Her later painting, Mère Courage (Mother Courage), shows a woman “who seems alien to herself” disappearing into the white background of the canvas. “This Mother Courage is Algerian, but she could be from any era or any country that has experienced or is experiencing patriarchal or political domination.”
Issiakhem, of Kabyle origin, first trained at the National School of Fine Arts in Algiers, then still a colonial institution, before moving to Paris in 1953 to study at the famous School of Fine Arts in the city. He thus follows a trajectory familiar to other Algerian artists of his generation, wanting to fully explore the local environment before seeking to expose himself to the experiments taking place in a major international capital of art – as Paris was still emerging from the Second World War.
Issiakhem is perhaps also typical of his generation, in his bringing together national subjects with techniques familiar from international modernist art. He wanted to give the artist a social role, say the notices of the exhibition, and if he does not seem to have favored a “committed” art, the latter seeing in it the illustration of collective projects, he certainly wanted to offer a modern iconography for the national consciousness being built in the years before and after independence.
This was of course going to break with the ways of seeing established by European Orientalist painters, giving new roles in particular to human figures. But he was also one who would avoid a simple recycling of tradition as a sign of authenticity, seeking instead to link traditional subjects or techniques such as the markings and incisions of traditional Berber ceramics with forms and genres oriented towards the future of a consciously modern self-art.
Much like other artists facing similar challenges, Issiakhem experimented with large-scale public forms such as murals and accepted state commissions to design stamps and banknotes, cementing the role of l artist in providing national iconography. But he also preserved his intimacy, his attachment to art as such, by creating the kind of paintings presented in the exhibition.
Another name from this first generation is that of Mohamed Khadda, born in Mostaganem in 1930. Like his partner Abdellah Benanteur, also from Mostaganem and born in 1931, he studied in Paris in the early 1950s, both emerging with a a heightened sense of national specificity and the means of relating this to the forms and techniques of modern art. Khadda is represented in the exhibition by canvases from the 1960s, 70s and 80s, each featuring what may originally have been traditional figurative elements rendered in abstract form. Benanteur, represented in the exhibition by paintings made between the 1960s and 1980s, seems to have been inspired by similar ideas.
Issiakhem, Khadda, Benanteur, and other members of this founding “generation of the 1930s”, including Mohamed Aksouh, born in 1934 in Algiers, and Choukri Mesli, born in 1931 in Tlemcen, as well as sharing certain common experiences also left for account they record what they hoped to achieve in their numerous declarations of artists and their institutional implications. Inheriting only the French colonial institutions mentioned in the exhibition, they set to work by participating in the construction of new ones which will train the next generations of Algerian artists and give a framework to their ideas.
Some of these were run by the state, indicating its role in promoting modern Algerian art in the decades following independence, but there were also initiatives that emerged from the artists themselves. One of the most important was the Aouchem Group (Tattoos), founded in 1967 with the participation of Mesli and Denis Martinez, born in Algeria in 1941 and also represented in the exhibition, which aimed to research traditional Algerian iconography with a view to find sources of inspiration outside the privileged styles of the Algerian National Union of Plastic Arts.
Many people, leaving the exhibition of the Arab World Institute, will want to know more about modern and contemporary Algerian art. Although the institute made it more accessible to the European public, it was unable to produce a catalogue. Most of the documents on Algerian art are in French and scattered in periodicals that are sometimes difficult to find. Only too aware of the provisional nature of the above, the present author cannot be alone in wishing that there were more complete accounts of Algerian art available in English.
Algérie mon amour, artists of the Algerian fraternity, Institute of the Arab world, Paris, until July 31.
*A version of this article appeared in the June 9, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.