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Algeria, for the purpose of art and fraternity

“Jdiscovered the history of Algeria thanks to the militancy of the Algerian workers of Aix-en-Provence, where I was following a doctorate in 1971. The municipality wanted to dislodge them without explanation as to the place of their rehousing. I was the interpreter who translated the exchanges between the politicians and these men from the people to whom I felt close”, indicates Claude Lemand, Franco-Lebanese collector at the initiative of this beautiful exhibition which is held at the Institut du Arab World (IMA) until July 31 and entitled “Algeria my love, Artists of the Algerian brotherhood, 1953-2021”. Its scenography brings together 36 works by 18 artists who testify to the great diversity and the exceptional creativity and production of three generations of visual artists from Algeria and the diasporas. Man-orchestra, Claude Lemand is both the donor and the curator. How did it come to this?

Claude Lemand, a collector accustomed to the workshops of Algerian artists

A former university professor, passionate about art, Claude Lemand constantly visits the studios of Algerian artists, some of whom become his friends and, over several years, has built up a strong collection of nearly 600 pieces of modern and contemporary art dedicated to Algerian corpus. In 2018, he donated it to the IMA, making it the holder of the most important collection of Algerian works in the Western world.

Avid bibliophile, fervent admirer of the work of Abdallah Benanteur, painter and engraver whom he knew and rubbed shoulders with for many years, Claude Lemand, began his collection of modern Algerian art with his wife while he was teaching in Egypt as a French cooperator. He quotes with a touch of pride “Matinale de mon peuple”, the first book of Algerian independence which presents engravings made by Abdallah Benanteur in 1962.

If he is not an avowed fan of raï, “Algeria my love” echoing the hit hit “Baïda mon amour” by the late Cheb Hasni, assassinated by terrorists at the height of the dark decade, For this Lebanese from birth and French at heart, the genius of the title of this rich exhibition inevitably refers to the fraternal bond that has endured between the artists since their arrival in France in the 1960s. “Even after Houari Boumediene’s coup against President Ahmed Ben Bella, these painters maintained bonds of brotherhood. Moreover, they made the choice to live in France, attracting the wrath of the power in place in Algeria when they were favorable to independence but often pacifists. Abdallah Benanteur thus dedicated a series in homage to his younger brother, Charef, who would have died in his place during the war of independence”, underlines Claude Lemand.

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An exhibition that opens with paintings by Benanteur

From then on, we feel the collector’s emotional content for these paintings by Benanteur, finally exhibited in Paris: paintings tinged with symbolism, a dreamlike quest oscillating between the tangible and the intangible, the visible and the invisible, the present and the beyond, open the wandering of this exhibition. As such, we particularly regret that the space dedicated to the IMA museum is devoid of adequate light that better highlights such pictorial goldsmithery. Here, Benateur’s work is imbued with an idealistic and humanistic tenor. She is transfigured by a spiritual dimension that speaks to her aesthetic and ethical ideal, namely the Sufism of her childhood in Mostaganem, cradle of mystical prayers and poems chanted in Arabic during processions over religious festivals from illuminated books and introduction to Arabic calligraphy.

As we wander, the paintings dialogue with each other, in a space-time suspended on the border of Algeria and France. With the yellow of Naples by Souhila Bel Bahar, the color line deploys its inaugural place where tiny details instil a new dimension in “Women of Algiers after Delacroix” (1962), free, audacious painting, inspired by “Women of Algiers in their apartment”.

In the presence of the pioneer Mohamed Aksouh

“It’s one of my favorite works, I see a different interpretation every time,” says bluntly, the painter, sculptor and engraver, Mohamed Aksouh, who is taking part in this abundant collective exhibition. Born in 1934 in Saint-Eugène (Bologhine) west of Algiers, he embodies one of the spearheads of the generation of the 1930s who adopted abstract language.

Mohamed Aksouh poses with pastel touches a close reminiscence of the landscapes of his Algiers childhood. This is deeply marked by references to Arab-Berber culture. The dark tones of the first canvases were followed by a white period until the 1990s. Witness the painting shot through with luminous flashes, presented here, “Untitled” (2003, Oil on canvas). So many abstract stigmata of his native land, schoolboy memories, signs of the grace of childhood and his adolescence in Algiers.

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Baya in its full spectrum

The Tuareg blue of Baya, which we find today in the monumental works fashioned from fabrics by Abdoulaye Konaté (Mali), is a happy and joyful promise. Bursting with life, drawing her eternal Ladies with perfect lines, embodied in the heart of “Musiques” (1974), Baya revives the power of life. The obstinate, radical, poetic gesture of this exceptional visual artist fascinates in a painting-poem, a painting-melody, a painting-balm.

As for the tonality of the painting “The Yellow Curtains” (1947), it is reminiscent of Monique Frydman’s yellow, Baya the colorist makes her pleasurable palette vibrate with brilliance. Contrary to popular belief, she was not exclusively self-taught. Adopted at the age of 11 by Marguerite Caminat, a Frenchwoman who settled in Algeria in 1942 after fleeing occupied France, she studied painting very early: her art is far from being considered naive. Prized by prestigious collections in the United Kingdom and the Middle East, it has also won over teacher-researchers from illustrious universities in the United States.

Baya has revolutionized the classic referents by distilling the lines of multiple silhouettes with an obvious sensitivity to color, feminine, childish and unfailing silhouettes telling, celebrating the world around a new plastic. She pays homage to Andalusian musical instruments, magnifying, sublimating beautiful, free and powerful women. For writer Assia Djebar, Baya is a visionary. She opposed the “reclusion of generations of women, immediately stepping over this condemnation, as if it were flying away”.

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The young plastic school in the spotlight

Further on, the female narration continues with the young school of visual artists from Algeria itself and from the diaspora. We discover or find the works of Zoulikha Bouabdellah, who lives in Casablanca, and El Meya, who lives in Algiers.

At the crossroads of modern and contemporary painting, she diverts the ambient codes of current society by evoking the place of orientalism, still in the footsteps of colonial images present in the collective unconscious, sensitive to the revolution of the smile taken by various generations of women, including mujahideen, since February 2019. In “Le Cheval blanc” (2021) evoking the figure of Emir Abdelkader, the metaphor takes on its full meaning.

An exhibition that deserves to exist

“This is a first exhibition exclusively dedicated to a particular collection, intended for the general public. It is an encouraging attempt, the virtuous circle is launched. It has the merit of existing, but we want to see more of it, to get as close as possible to the audacity and bubbling of the new generation, talents like Nadia Benbouta. And, other local artists who practice lithography, sculpture, calligraphy. Among them, Arezki Larbi, Abdallah Sefou, Ali Khodja”, specifies Rachid Nazef, young Algerian collector, present at the opening of “Algeria my love, Artists of the Algerian brotherhood, 1953-2021”.

Closer to us, Zineb Sedira, a renowned Franco-Algerian artist who lives and works in the United Kingdom, also present at the opening of this exhibition-event, would have expressed the wish to participate, according to Claude Lemand “if the Algeria does not have a pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Fortunately, the art of Zineb Sedira shines there”. “She currently represents the colors of Algeria there,” concludes the curator and collector.

Another milestone to note: the presence of Rachid Koraïchi during the “Algerian Sundays” whose next session will be held on June 5 on the theme of “Garden of Africa”. For the time being, the efflorescence of modern and contemporary Algerian art is gradually carving out a place of prominence: within international auction houses, prestigious foundations and galleries in various latitudes. As for the exhibition “Algeria my love, Artists of the Algerian brotherhood, 1953-2021”, it brings together the small story with the big one by resonating with the 60and anniversary of the independence of Algeria.

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