Women and a Multiplicity of Life Forms in El Meya’s Paintings: An Interview
You can read the French version of this text here.
Interview with El Meya by Katarzyna Falęcka
The artist Maya Benchikh El Fegoun (El Meya) was born in 1988 in Constantine, Algeria. Her paintings, often populated by women, respond to different visual legacies that include Orientalist images and the iconography of the Algerian War of Independence. El Meya is interested in the interiority of women, their dreams, desires, sins, life forms, and sociability. In this interview with Katarzyna Falęcka, the artist discusses Algeria’s diverse cultural heritage, how she meshes different temporalities in her work, and her continuing exploration of the historical limitations and future possibilities of figuring women on canvas.
Katarzyna Falęcka: In your series of paintings Wesfan (2020–present), you refer to the influence of African cultures on Algeria, particularly that of music. The series’ title is drawn from a music group called The Wesfan of Constantine, whose members are from Mali, Senegal, and Niger. In one of your paintings, “Wesfan” (2020), the depicted figures are in a sort of trance, playing drums, swallowing glass, their bodies bending to the music. I was particularly struck by the hands emerging from the right side of the canvas, wrapping a green scarf around a dancing woman’s waist, as if wanting to pull her outside the pictorial frame. What happens beyond that frame and how does it relate to what we see in the painting?
El Meya: In Constantine, during the celebrations where women and the Wesfan gather, they partake in a ritual of healing and purification, which explains the trance-like dance. The dancing women go into such a trance that the other women (those who do not dance) hold them by the waist with a scarf that the Wesfan distribute at the beginning of the evening. The colour of each scarf is carefully chosen by the Wesfan for healing a particular woman in question, so that they do not fall or get hurt and can continue their trance until exhaustion.
In the painting, I purposely included a partial view of the party to highlight the intrigue of the trance scene, as well as to allow viewers to fully focus on this particular detail. Beyond the desire to tell the story of cultures mixing and to trace the history of the Wesfan and the cultural heritage of eastern Algeria, I wanted to talk about healing. Even though the Wesfan had once been enslaved, there was always mixing and the construction of a common heritage through trance and music.
It seems that in many of your paintings it is the women who transgress boundaries – either through trance and music in “Wesfan”, or when they are suspended in the air, with Algerian flags wrapped around their necks in “Les Moudjahidates” (2021). What kind of transgression do the women in the series Djazira enact, of which “Les Moudjahidates” is a part? And how might the two paintings be understood together? The series Wesfan emphasises traditions from the eastern part of Algeria, while Djazira flies the national flag.
In both “Wesfan and “Les Moudjahidates” (provisional title), the women do not transgress the rules. I put them at the centre of the painting and make them its main subject. In “Wesfan”, this centring looks at healing, living, and transmitting traditions among women. In the second painting, I pay a tribute to the moudjahidates (women fighters during the Algerian War, fought for liberation from French colonialism in 1954–62). Until now, women have frequently been an object in painting; yet in my work, I put them at the heart of visual representation.
Let’s take “Les Moudjahidates” as an example. Contrary to the moujahidines (men fighters), the women fighters were always kept in the background. When we walk around Algerian territory, or look at works produced to commemorate the history of Algeria, we mostly see that men are put forward, not women. In my project Djazira, I wanted to give them back their rightful place as fighters and as symbols of liberation. However, I needed to ask myself several questions: how should I represent them? How can I make these women , these heroines, visible? How can I convey the bravery, courage, and greatness of what they are and what they accomplished?
I used the cloak of the heroines and warriors, the burnous (the cape of North Africa, a symbol of nobility and grandeur), the Algerian flag that the moudjahidates sewed and wore during the war of liberation, and, finally, the flag that was tied around the neck during the 2019 Hirak marches. All these elements enabled me to make an image of three women who can be identified, but who float in the air. They are elevated.
“Les Eves”, a 2018 painting, shows seven women on a terrace overlooking the sea. Some of them seem lost in thought or cast a rather detached gaze at the others, while several engage in a strange, almost cannibalistic battle. This work represents an indirect response to the early-20th-century Belgian painter, Emile Deckers, who is known for his orientalist pictorial representations of Algerian women. What temporalities do you combine in “Les Eves”? Is it a scene from the past, the present, or an anticipation of the future – or, perhaps, are all these intertwined in this work?
In “Les Eves”, I wanted to propose a critique of Orientalist painting. When we look at Orientalist paintings that depict a group of women, we see that the Orientalists and their contemporaries represent women as lascivious, lifeless, bored, or beautiful – as women who are there to be seen. I could not identify with this vision of women, and I wanted to show something else in “Les Eves”. I became interested in Eve, the first woman of humanity (according to religions), who transgressed the rules by eating the apple, the forbidden fruit.
In my painting and in my critique of Orientalist paintings, I imagined Eve multiplied into seven Eves. Each embodies one of the seven deadly sins. It was a way of proposing another image, a questioning of this perfection suggested by Orientalists and their contemporaries. As I see it, a woman is neither perfect nor fixed; she is alive. She can be beautiful and ugly at the same time. She can be gentle and violent. She can be calm and wild, or silent and noisy. I intend a painting style that is the antithesis of the image created by Orientalists.
As to the question of temporality in “Les Eves”, it seems to me that there is no time. I think that time is frozen or that the painting is in a space-time that escapes our reality. I believe that painting allows this possibility.
I would like to ask you to expand on the question of time. Does your work aim to rework the past, like in the case of the Orientalist tradition, or is it preoccupied with the present, or the future? Many artists have begun looking at the past, working with archives or inherited images. You do not work with archives, but you do look back. Is it the past that interests you or are you presenting us with images that try to say something about the future as well?
As far as my painting is concerned, I work on the present, but as I have said before, painting is in a space-time that does not obey time as we perceive it. Further, for you, Orientalist painting is historical. However, for me it is always part of my present, although it was painted in the past. It is the same for my own paintings. They are created today, but are related to the past-present and will always be there tomorrow. Everything depends on the artist.
Building on this, what is at stake in looking back at Orientalist painting? How can artists today critique these representations, without replicating or rearticulating them?
In my opinion, Orientalist paintings are a visual heritage. We must recognise them although they hold violent images (ones that are racialised and gendered), and then re-appropriate these images. What I mean by “heritage”, “recognition of this heritage”, and “re-appropriation” is to surpass these images, to question and criticise them, because if we do not accept them, we cannot question them. Otherwise, we will only reject them, but they will continue to exist regardless.
It seems to me that the best way of facing Orientalist images, of criticising them and especially of refraining from reproducing the same type of images through mimicry of Orientalism, is to take them as they are, to accept them and to propose another image, so as to get a closer image to our own experience – perhaps a more truthful and realistic one.
Much of your work explores rituals and traditions in Algeria, reflecting on national myths, as well as constructions of identity and gender. In relation to this, can you speak about your interest in the human body, which frequently seems to oscillate between culture and nature? In the painting “Le Couple” (2017), for instance, a nude couple is seated at a table, affectionately holding hands, while devouring large chunks of meat. The scene rests on the border of intimacy and violence.
“Le Couple” is from a series called OUMLIL. In this series, I looked for images that could represent us as Algerians. I considered three themes: portraits and self-portraits; rites, myths, and traditions; and spaces of life.
“Le Couple” illustrates the third theme, that of living spaces. I made a triptych (“The Couple’s Room”, “Visceral Love”, and “The Couple”) where we see the couple in their room. In the first image, the room is blank, with a tiger blanket covering the bed. In the second, we see the couple with a sheep. In this painting, I wanted to show how the couple shares tasks. For example, during the Aid feast, when a sheep is slaughtered in sacrifice, the man oversees the slaughter, while the woman washes the offal. The third painting, “Le Couple”, shows a face-to-face scene in which the couple is naked. As I see it, nudity is a way of reaching the intimate and the self – the self of the individual, but also the self of the couple.
I think that the couple is not only the beginning of the family, which is the foundation of society, but also the coming together of two individuals who may or may not be in harmony. In the painting, I wanted to explore, as you said so well, “the intimacy and violence” of the couple, the work of the flesh of the bodies, and the near absence of object and predefined space (apart from the table, meat, and cutlery) in a way that allowed me to both make the viewer feel tension, but also to get directly into the substance of the canvas.
You work predominantly in painting, a medium that has gone through so many ups and downs, and that was declared exhausted half a century ago. What potential does painting hold for you?
I am one of those artists who truly believe in painting and who do not think that this medium is exhausted. I would argue that painting can respond to the same issues as more contemporary art mediums, and that it projects itself beyond the present moment. It is one of the rare mediums that cross time. It has its rules and its context, like any other medium, and it can respond to any subject.
Painting can be figurative or abstract, it can be documentary, archival, reflective, or simply decorative. Painting is multiple, as it all depends on the painter. In my opinion, thinking that painting is “exhausted” is nothing but a matter of fashion, money, and politics.
Thank you for this conversation!
Katarzyna Falęcka is Lecturer in Art History at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom. Her research and teaching interests span modern and contemporary art from North Africa and the Middle East, archives, photography, gender, and memory. She is currently working on her first book, Archival Excavations: Photography, the Algerian War of Independence and the Afterlives of Images. She co-leads and coordinates a programme in modern art history at CEMAT, Tunis, and is an interviewer for the “Modern Art in the Maghrib” podcast series, part of the podcast channel Maghrib in Past and Present. In 2021, she curated the exhibition “Beyond Metaphor: Women and War” at apexart, New York.
Further articles in the #Aesthetics&CulturalPractice thread of the #MECAM series on TRAFO:
Angela Rabing, Can Images Shape the Future? A Conversation with Director Abou Bakar Sidibé, 3 February 2022
Farouk El Maarouf, Coming to Terms with Marginal Art(ists) in Morocco, 17 February 2022
Teresa Pepe, Science Fiction and the Anticipation of the Future: On a Public Talk by Kawthar Ayyed, 1 March 2022
Rasha Chatta, Comics as Witness and Testimony: An Interview with Jennifer Howell, 31 March 2022
Alena Strohmaier, Future | Cinema | Archive: On Appropriation Processes of Protest Videos, 12 April 2022
Citation: Katarzyna Falęcka, Women and a Multiplicity of Life Forms in El Meya’s Paintings: An Interview, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 26.04.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/35196