Samta Benyahia

1949 | Constantine, Algeria
Samta Benyahia — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Courtesy Samta Benyahia

Algerian-French visual artist.

“Mashrabiya” has become a leitmotiv in Samta Benyahia’s work. Diamonds, stars, and the Mediterranean blue rosette – known as a “Fatima” in the Andalusian Arabic repertoire – are the pillars of her vocabulary. S. Benyahia grew up in Constantine, Algeria, and went on to study at the École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris from 1974 to 1980. Her reflections on engraving techniques led her to take an interest in the symbols and geometric shapes used repeatedly in Muslim art. As the first female professional engraver in Algeria, she was instrumental in the creation of the engraving workshop at the Algiers School of Fine Arts. She taught there from 1980 to 1988, before moving permanently to France, where she pursued her studies at Paris VIII – Vincennes-Saint-Denis University. Her life and her work combine both her Algerian and French backgrounds, and she is deeply committed to intermingling African, Arab, Berber, and Western cultures.
Mashrabiya is a style of mural surface, an openwork architectural element typically found in constructions from the Mediterranean basin, and acts as a transition area between public and private spaces by creating a division that offers protection from the light and heat. It is see-through but not completely, making it possible to see without being seen, therefore raising questions pertaining to perception, interpretation, and relationships, all of which fascinate S. Benyahia. Her work references the intimate spheres of the generations of women who came before her – invisible and yet very present. She works on these screens in series, in a style close to minimalism. Her process deliberately combines qualities of revealing and concealment by alternating cut-outs of hollows with solid patterns. Working mostly on site-specific installations, she uses mashrabiya of various scales and materials, ranging from three-dimensional volumes to screen-printing on glass, canvas, plastic, or ceramic.

S. Benyahia uses the language of abstraction to represent potential areas of division and communication among people and between the genders. She accentuates the play of shadows, creating environments that consider the notion of passage, and therefore encourage viewers to adapt their physical behaviour to these intermediate patterns and structures.
Her installations also often include archive footage – for instance black and white photographic portraits of family members, or blown-up postcards of the famous Constantine bridge – and recordings of poetry on the condition of women (such as the poems ritually recited during buqala games) or of texts by writer Kateb Yacine. S. Benyahia’s aim is to highlight traditional craftsmanship: to this end, she has collaborated with women embroiderers to create rosettes out of beads and sequins, and has taken series of photographs documenting bridal trousseaux. As both viewer and artist, she often speaks of the importance of “remembering the future” and of the “kaleidoscope of memory.”
In 1986, S. Benyahia’s work was shown at the Havana Biennale in Cuba. Since then, it has been presented at many international collective shows, such as the Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles (1998), Venice and Bamako Biennales (2003), Dak’Art (2004), Über Schönheit [About Beauty] in Berlin (2005), as well as La Force de l’art in Paris, and the Shenzhen and Gwangju Biennales (2006). Several of her works are kept in public collections, particularly at the Musée national des Beaux-Arts in Algiers, Bibliothèque nationale d’Algérie, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Fonds régional d’art contemporain d’Alsace, Institut français de Casablanca and by the Art in Embassies Program (ART).

Caroline Hancock

© Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions
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