While international interest has been growing in the modern and contemporary art of the Arab world, with a thriving gallery scene particularly in the Arab Gulf countries doing much to promote the work of Arab artists to newer generations of buyers, there are perhaps still few opportunities to see the works of modern and contemporary Arab artists outside the Arab world.
Major public institutions in Europe have hosted retrospectives of individual Arab artists, with the Tate Modern in London hosting shows of the work of Lebanese painter and sculptor Saloua Raouda Choucair and Sudanese painter Ibrahim Al-Salahi in 2013, for example. The Pompidou Centre in Paris hosted a major show of work by the Art and Liberty Group, an Egyptian art movement from the 1930s and 1940s, in 2017. The Arab World Institute, also in Paris and not primarily an art museum, has also recently hosted retrospectives of modern Lebanese painting and modern and contemporary Egyptian art.
But these can come across as mostly isolated examples, with the major art institutions leavening their more general fare with occasional exhibitions of art from other parts of the world.
However, as part of events organised across France to mark 50 years since the signature of the Evian Accords that ended the Algerian Independence War in 1962 the Arab World Institute is once again living up to its remit of making the culture and civilisation of the Arab countries better known to European audiences by hosting a new exhibition, Algérie mon amour, artistes de la fraternité algérienne, a major retrospective of modern and contemporary Algerian art running until 31 July.
Many of the artists whose works are on display will probably not be household names to European audiences, and the Institute is to be congratulated for its efforts at making them better known.
Like the modern art of many other Arab countries, the modern art of Algeria took off in dialogue with that of 19th and 20th century Europe and particularly with that of France. The first fine art school on modern lines – the first intended to train students in European-style painting and other arts – was set up in Algeria in the 1880s in the capital Algiers. This was followed by the foundation of an association of “Algerian and orientalist artists” and then by the establishment of an annual salon and an Algiers Municipal Museum of Art early in the last century.
A National Museum of Art was established in Algiers in 1930 followed by other museums and art schools in Constantine and Oran. However, these were all French colonial institutions, and their collections and curricula were all turned towards European art. Visitors to Algiers today can still visit the National Museum of Art overlooking the capital’s magnificent Jardin d’Essai du Hamma, a botanical garden, and see much of its original collection of works by mostly French painters such as Delacroix, Courbet, Pissarro, Degas, Renoir, Sisley, and Matisse.
No one would want to underestimate the importance of this major collection, making the museum one of the most important on the African continent in its holdings of particularly French 19th-century and orientalist art. But it was never designed to promote a 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 then colonised country’s European community looking for training in European art.
The Arab World Institute exhibition reminds visitors of some of this history, since the generation of artists with which it begins, born in the 1920s or 30s and studying in Paris after World War II, can be considered perhaps the true pioneers of modern Algerian art. For them, the academic techniques, and, even more so, the ways of seeing, taught at the European art schools in Algeria and in the country’s National Museum of Art, represented traditions to react against.
Their task, as the exhibition explains, was to gather materials that could contribute to a modern Algerian art, one that could learn from the experiments that had taken place in Europe during the earlier part of the century, while at the same time not necessarily jettisoning the earlier tradition of European orientalist painting that had tried to represent Algerian and North African subject matter, though of course as seen through foreign eyes.
At the same time, members of this generation also felt the need to carry out research into local forms of art occluded by European colonialism, while not falling into the trap of recycling folklore or picture-postcard conceptions of what in the Algerian context might constitute popular or traditional art. They thus found themselves wrestling with questions familiar from many other contexts and relating to the dualisms of local content and foreign forms and of European modernism and the local visual traditions being rediscovered in the context of growing national consciousness.
The ways in which they approached such 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 organised by artist, rather than by theme or period.
It includes the work of 18 artists from three generations, from the earliest, born shortly after or in the decades following World War I, to the latest, born in the 1970s or 1980s and working within the framework and institutions of contemporary rather than of modern art. All the work on show is drawn from the institute’s own collections of modern and contemporary Arab art, in this case significantly added to thanks to a bequest by Claude Lemand, also the curator of the exhibition.
An important name from the earlier generation is that of M’hamed Issiakhem (1928-1985), represented in the exhibition by two paintings, one from the 1960s and one from the 1980s and both dealing with the same subject matter.
Issiakhem’s earlier painting, La Mère (The Mother), represents a woman in what may be traditional dress, the picture space being “almost completely saturated with signs,” the notes to the exhibition say, referencing the “jagged lines of Berber ceramics or textiles to the point of abstract” decoration. His later painting, Mère Courage (Mother Courage), shows a woman “who seems a stranger to herself” disappearing into the white ground of the canvas. “This Mother Courage is Algerian, but she could be of any time or from any country that has experienced, or is experiencing, patriarchal or political domination.”
Issiakhem, of Kabyle origin, trained first at the National Fine Arts School in Algiers, then still a colonial institution, before moving to Paris in 1953 to study at the city’s famous School of Fine Arts. He thus followed a trajectory familiar to other Algerian artists of his generation, wanting to explore fully the local environment before seeking exposure to the experiments taking place in a major international art capital – as Paris still was following World War II.
Issiakhem may be typical of his generation, too, in his drawing together of national subject matter with techniques familiar from international modernist art. He wanted to give the artist a social role, the notes to the exhibition say, and while he does not seem to have favoured a “committed” art, one seeing it as illustrating collective projects, he certainly wanted to suggest a modern iconography for the national consciousness being built in the years leading up to and following independence.
This was one that would of course break with the ways of seeing established by the European orientalist painters, giving new roles in particular to human figures. But it was also one that would avoid a simple recycling of tradition as a sign of authenticity, seeking instead to link traditional subject matter or techniques such as the marks and incisions of traditional Berber ceramics to the forward-looking forms and genres of a self-consciously modern art.
Rather like some other artists faced with similar challenges, Issiakhem experimented with large-scale public forms such as murals and accepted state commissions designing stamps and banknotes, cementing the artist’s role in providing national iconography. However, he also preserved his privacy, his commitment to art as such, by producing the kind of paintings on show in the exhibition.
Another name from this early generation is that of Mohamed Khadda, born in Mostaganem in 1930. Like his associate Abdellah Benanteur, also from Mostaganem and born in 1931, he studied in Paris in the early 1950s, emerging both with a keener sense of national specificity and ways of linking that with the forms and techniques of modern art. Khadda is represented in the exhibition by canvases from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, each presenting what may originally have been traditional figurative elements rendered in abstract form. Benanteur, represented in the exhibition by pictures completed 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,” among them Mohamed Aksouh, born in 1934 in Algiers, and Choukri Mesli, born in 1931 in Tlemcen, as well as sharing certain common experiences also left behind them records of what they hoped to achieve in their many artist statements and institutional involvements. Inheriting only the French colonial institutions mentioned in the exhibition, they set to work participating in the building of new ones that would train the next generations of Algerian artists and provide a framework for their ideas.
Some of these were state-led, indicating its role in fostering modern Algerian art in the post-independence decades, but there were also initiatives that emerged from the artists themselves. One of the most important was the Aouchem (Tattoos) Group, founded in 1967 with the participation of Mesli and Denis Martinez, born in Algeria in 1941 and also represented in the exhibition, that aimed to research Algeria’s traditional iconography with a view to finding sources of inspiration outside the favoured styles of the Algerian Union Nationale des Arts Plastiques.