During one of my recent trips to Algeria, I visited the home of a family friend in Batna. I was pleasantly surprised to find the walls filled with paintings and immediately knew I was in the home of an artist.
From surrealist images to portraits of traditional women, the range of paintings was awe-inspiring. One of the pieces had “from the Aurès” etched in the corner. A painter just as inspired by the Aurès mountain region of Algeria as I was? I told my father I had to meet this person, and we asked the young girl living in the house where she had found the paintings.
“My dad painted these,” she said.
The paintings were by Abdelali Boughrara, who passed away in 1997. The young girl, now pursuing studies in medicine, was his daughter, Lina. And here in this home in Batna, an artistic legacy hung on the walls.
“From an early age, my father was interested in painting,” said Racim Boughrara, Abdelali’s son, responding to my interview questions from his current home in France. “When he was 12, he took a liking to a painting by Victor Hugo with a castle on a hill. His re-creation of it later earned him his first marks in his college drawing class.”
Abdelali’s childhood interest in art was not random or unexpected. He came from a family of artists: his father was an outstanding flutist, his mother sang while playing the traditional bendir drum, and his brothers were also musicians. Continuing the family tradition, his son Racim is now a guitarist.
What is a bit more surprising are Abdelali’s artistic influences. According to an article in Algeria’s Liberté newspaper byjournalist Rachid Hamatou, in the 1970s Batna earned a reputation as a city for artists. While landscape renderings were particularly popular among the city’s painters, Abdelali was attracted to the surrealist school, drawing his inspiration from the likes of Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and Yves Tanguy.
These influences were particularly clear to me in the paintings I saw in his home: a melancholy self-portrait in which the head is disfigured with a swelling brain, a dripping face in the sky, and a mix of figures and body parts seeming to spill out of clouds.
Other paintings revealed an entirely different angle to Boughrara’s talents, with clear inspiration from indigenous symbols and the traditional clothing of the region’s women.
I could not help but hope others had also been able to see this art. While most of his works were sought after and sold in his lifetime, Rachid Hamatou observed that contemporary tributes to Boughrara have been rare in Algeria, bitterly describing the painter as “a forgotten artist.”
I remain entranced by Boughrara’s paintings. I remember the total affect they had on me as I stood a few feet away from them; I was drawn in completely. For a moment I felt he was there, too. Spilling from the clouds.