Sharjah

Baya Mahieddine, Deux femmes avec vase fond jaune (Two Women with Vase and Yellow Background), 1997, watercolor and gouache on paper, 38 5⁄8 × 58 1⁄8".

Baya Mahieddine, Deux femmes avec vase fond jaune (Two Women with Vase and Yellow Background), 1997, watercolor and gouache on paper, 38 5⁄8 × 58 1⁄8".

Baya Mahieddine

Sharjah Art Museum

Florals? For spring? Winding around and across stylized butterflies, birds, and sylphlike women in this long-overdue survey of the art of Baya Mahieddine (1931–1998), they are utterly dreamy, if not groundbreaking. This show, curated by Alya Al-Mulla and Suheyla Takesh as part of the annual “Lasting Impressions” series highlighting the region’s outstanding artists, brings together more than seventy paintings by the self-taught Algerian painter, who exhibited under her first name only. Hung against walls sumptuously painted olive, mustard, navy, and maroon, each color-drenched gouache or watercolor follows a similar template: One or two or sometimes three women are depicted in profile, surrounded by flora, fauna, and prehistoric-looking fish. Sometimes they hold infants, stringed instruments, or ceramics overflowing with grapes or some other fruit, often rather labial looking. All have the same more-isn’t-enough maximalist feel. Despite Baya’s having painted variations on the same tight theme for sixty years, the exhibition never feels redundant, but rather builds up a gentle intensity. It’s the kind of wholly pleasurable show that makes you want to light candles, drape yourself in velvets, and dance around to Stevie Nicks.

Although the exhibition is not arranged strictly chronologically, the outlines of Baya’s development become clear. In the 1940s, the women are painted facing forward, and the backgrounds are sparser, less crammed. The ’70s bring some truly gnarly botanicals and a vegetal palette. Baya had occasionally made some village and nature scenes unanchored by figuration, but in the late 1980s these come to the fore. More than anything, I think of the way that closed captioning on streaming services describes music in affective terms, where a song is described not (for example) as arpeggiated, but as ominous. For this last period, the caption might read: Paintings get groovy and weird.

In the past decade or so, there has been a push to rediscover and amplify the grand doyennes of Middle Eastern modernism. Usually, it involves indexing these women in relation to the great male artists of their time, and Baya is no exception. The Arab-Berber artist’s life story gets emphasized: Orphaned young and raised by a grandmother who worked at a rose farm outside Algiers, she was then adopted by a well-connected French painter. André Breton writes a glowing essay for her Parisian gallery debut in 1947, when she was just 16. She catches the attention of Picasso, who invites her to come spend a few months in Vallauris.

But even as these men enjoyed her work—and, truly, it’s hard not to—they didn’t see the self-taught painter as an individual so much as a fetishized, orientalized representative of a primitive authentic Arabia. Even today, art history relegates her to a naive-outsider status. This show opens with a time line that sketches the principal events of Baya’s life and career—birth, death, major exhibitions, and the period after her first marriage when she stops exhibiting but continues to paint in secret. Save for the odd italicized quote, the show otherwise allows the artist to speak in her own words via a wide-ranging 1993 interview with art historian and curator Salwa Mikdadi, shown in a video displayed in a small side room. We learn how overwhelming it was for a young girl to be thrust into that high-octane milieu, how she preferred seclusion, and how she navigated being a female artist raising six children with a musician husband who believed she should stay at home and not interact with the outside world. These small details contextualize, rather than explain, the themes and motifs of her show. Baya’s paintings have the imaginative, shyly surreal grain of fantasy, but she paints what she paints—flowers and musical instruments—precisely because they were around her and because she “felt” them. The images were not dreamed up but ready at hand. A picture emerges of a cloistered artist who found community not with people but rather with the objects she painted. Beyond this, the show doesn’t attempt to editorialize, and there’s dignity and a relief in that.