The strange odyssey of my mother’s Algerian paintings
The paintings of an American artist purchased by Algeria’s national energy company in 2004 should hardly cause a blip on its radar. The company, Sonatrach, is besieged by allegations of corruption, but the seeming disappearance of the paintings has given Algerians a pulpit from which to express their frustration with a company that provides more than 90 percent of the country’s revenue.
Nita Rice, my mother, born Anita, was a fashion model and art student when she decided to go to France to study in 1930. She found France too expensive and began sailing around the eastern Mediterranean on tramp steamers, earning her way by making portraits of sailors, officers and passengers. In Egypt she heard about an inexpensive art colony in Algeria, Bou Saada, and she took a steamer to Algiers.
Bou Saada captivated her, not its White Russian and European inhabitants, but the Ouled Nail tribe among whom she settled. She began painting and sketching the Ouled Nail and their environs, portraying them as neighbors and friends. Amused by her last name, which sounded like the Arabic word for captain, rais, they began addressing her as Ya Rais. She lived with them for five years, and the art she made there is what Sonatrach purchased in 2004 from me.
There were three conditions to the sale: 1) the work was to be permanently exhibited to the Algerian public, 2) the oils, watercolors and drawings were to be kept together, and 3) I was to be kept informed of Sonatrach’s plans for the paintings. None of these conditions were written into the contract. The participants agreed that they constituted a matter of honor sealed by handshakes.
A celebration was held at The Washington Arts Club in November 2002 to commemorate this bridge-building between two countries, two peoples, two cultures. Dr. Chakib Khelil was then Sonatrach’s chief officer and Algeria’s energy and mines minister. He made a speech at the club saying he would personally supervise the construction of a permanent public venue for the art works. The then Algerian ambassador, Idriss Jazairy, who had conceived of the purchase, spoke about the artist’s work and its significance to Algeria.
Sonatrach kept none of its promises. After the art arrived at the Houari Boumedienne International Airport in Algiers on March 17, 2004, it vanished. I waited two years to hear about it. Then I began making inquiries of Sonatrach by e-mail, fax and post. When Sonatrach failed to even acknowledge my inquiries, I contacted the Algerian embassy in Washington. At first the embassy said it would make inquiries. But when I heard nothing and inquired again there was no reply. Earlier this year I wrote to Ambassador Abdallah Baali. He did not reply.
But Sonatrach’s officials weren’t the only ones in Algeria who knew about the paintings, and earlier this month members of the Algerian press corps began to inquire about them. When they contacted me I told them the story that I am essentially telling here. When their stories appeared, along with a complete list of the inventory sent to Sonatrach, Sonatrach issued a statement to the Algerian Press Service which raised as many questions as it answered. It was the first indication that Sonatrach still possessed the paintings. There had been nothing on the worldwide web about the paintings other than Ambassador Jazairy’s remarks.
Sonatrach said the art work was at its headquarters in the Hydra district of Algiers. The company said the work had been shown from time to time and was in fact being shown now. But when a journalist visited Sonatrach after its statement only a portion of the oeuvre was available for viewing in a so-called “VIP room” and also in the offices of some Sonatrach executives. This was, of course, a far cry from what Dr. Khelil had promised. He has left Algeria, where he is under investigation. Since his departure from the Algerian scene he has dropped under the radar-strange for a man who had played such a big role on the world stage as head of OPEC and a cabinet minister. There is scant information about him on the web since 2010.
The Algerian press understandably pointed a finger at him, since he had taken personal responsibility for the paintings, but I have no reason to point a finger at anyone other than the corporate culture at Sonatrach. Someone obviously is responsible for Sonatrach’s failure to keep its promises to make the paintings available to the Algerian people. And it seems to me that Sonatrach, with all its problems, would save itself a great deal of trouble by simply keeping its rather modest promises. Under the circumstances it would go some way towards restoring Algerians’ faith.
An Algerian journalist, Said Khatibi, has e-mailed me that a petition is being circulated in Bou Saada, now a thriving city of some 120,000 people, asking Sonatrach to build a venue for the paintings there and turn them over to the people who are portrayed in them.
There are other options. The Ministry of Culture could assume responsibility for the oeuvre, for example. I have no opinion about this. As far as I am concerned, the Algerian people own these lovely paintings and should have them without further delay.
But there is an important story underlying these developments. Day after day stories pile on about the conflicts between the Arab World and the West, the misunderstandings and mistrust-and yet here you have an Arab people clamoring for a part of their history and heritage lovingly created for them by a young American artist. Surely this is the real story, not Sonatrach’s behavior. The Algerians who have written to me and who are circulating a petition are simply asking that a young woman’s love for them and her special way of seeing them should be returned to them, as Sonatrach promised.
Even in the midst of these unfortunate developments there is a shining story in the fact that a Muslim country made this gesture in the first place, choosing to honor a young American woman who had lived among the Algerians, loved them, and created a legacy for them. Sonatrach’s original vision and inspiration should not be tarnished by its later behavior and can easily be redeemed today. Not just Sonatrach’s, but Idriss Jazairy’s, and, yes, Dr. Khelil’s. We embarked on a noble enterprise and it should not be thwarted by what happened or didn’t happen in the intervening years. It’s not too late to uphold this bridge between our peoples.
The artist returned to her native America, and in 1935-36 The Brooklyn Museum showed some of these Algerian works. The show got considerable attention in the press, but my mother always regretted the tabloid press’s romanticization of her life in Algeria. The press had done exactly what Dr. Edward Said would later denounce in his book, Orientalism-the press exoticized the Algerians, as had many European artists. My mother, for her part, simply saw them as her unforgettable friends.
She resumed her studies in New York. She studied under the famous Hans Hofmann for seven years. Her style changed. During the war years many of the French Surrealists came to New York and she came under their influence. The Algerian works were forgotten. But in the 1980s I found some of them and began to collect the entire oeuvre. The paintings had been neglected and many were in poor condition. The drawings had not been made on acid-free paper and needed aggressive steps to conserve them. For some 15 years my wife, Marilyn, and I strove to find, collect and conserve this precious oeuvre. My mother’s health was failing, but she signed the work Juanita Guccione, and in some cases the paintings bear both names. When my mother died in December 1999 the restoration of her Algerian oeuvre was almost complete. The project had been costly and difficult.
In 1991 the United States Information Agency sent about 55 works to Algeria as a goodwill gesture. The exhibition was enormously popular, and it gave me the idea of returning the entire oeuvre to Algeria somehow.
That, then, is the barest outline of the story of my mother’s Algerian paintings and drawings. As Mlle. Barkahoum Ferhati, an historian of the Ouled Nail people, has pointed out, these works are an invaluable window on a certain time and place in Algeria’s long history. They are also a remarkable gesture, first on the part of the artist and then on the part of the Algerian government, as represented by Sonatrach. My mother understood how portrayals of the Arab world are distorted, if not in the first instance then later when they become second-hand. She often told me that she wished she had given every single piece to an Algerian friend before returning to America, and indeed there are undoubtedly paintings in Algerian homes that she did give away.
Del’s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal Latte’s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother’s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt’s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com