Her real name is Fatma Haddad, she married Hadj Mahieddine El Mahfoudh, a well-known Algerian musician. She was born at Bordj el-Kiffan in Algiers on the 12th December 1931, to a poor family and she lost both her parents when she was five-year old. She was then looked after by her grand-mother. When Baya was ten, a French woman (Marguerite Caminat-Benhoura), who feld to Algeria to escape World War II, offered her a room in her house. Marguerite was working as an archivist at the Muslim Bureau of Charities in Algiers and was well-connected in the literary and arts worlds. Baya referred to Marguerite as her ‘adoptive parent’, but some records state that she was a servant – she never learned to read and write. However, Marguerite helped Baya present her art in high profile exhibitions. Up until her death on the 9th November 1998, Baya lived in Blida, Algeria, where she painted actively.
Baya was a self-taught artist: she started making animals and human figures out of clay as early as 1943. In 1947, sixteen-year-old Baya had an exhibition, at the Galerie Adrien Maeght in Paris, which brought her to the attention of André Breton and Pablo Picasso. It is said that Picasso was so impressed by her art that he invited her to his country home and watched as she worked with clay. Between 1952 and 1967, Baya stopped painting. These years she spent bearing and raising children in Blida. In 1967, she picked up her paintbrush and color again. She exhibited her work in many solo and group exhibitions in her native country, Algeria, and in France.
Baya was categorized as a surrealist artist, and her art was interpreted by the surrealists as a fantasy and fairy tale of unreal reality. They went as far as to include her name in the “General Dictionary of Surrealism and Its Surroundings.” Other art critics classify Baya’s work as naïve art. Baya rejected classifying her art as surrealist and/or as naïve art or imposing any Western definitions and terminology on it. She said it was simply Baya’s!
What is perhaps special about Baya’s art is that is was produced during an interesting periond in the history of Algeria but also the Western World (where the West was questionning colonialist ideology, amongst other thing). Baya’s paintings have thus encouraged dialogue concerning art genres, post- and anticolonial critiques, post-World War II political movements, feminist theories, and psychoanalytic readings. Nonetheless, it remains a mystery why despite all the tragedies of her childhood, Baya’s artwork remained vibrant and joyful. This has given rise, within the art community, to many analyses of the social, cultural, and political contexts surrounding her existence and how it influenced her art.
Her selected exhibitions include: Forces of Change: Artists of the Arab World, The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, 1994; Bonjour Picasso, Musée Picasso, Antibes, France, 1988; Centre Culturel France, Algiers, Algeria; and Galeria Adrien Maeght, Paris, 1947.