Artwork Spotlight: Abdallah Benanteur’s “The Garden of Saadi”

March 31, 2020

By Géranne Darbouze

Located in the area devoted to gestural abstraction in the Grey Art Gallery’s current exhibition, Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s, Abdallah Benanteur’s painting The Garden of Saadi of 1984 is thought to represent not only a contrast between the physical landscapes of Northern France and Southern Algeria, but also the artist’s commentary on the two countries’ political opposition.

Abdallah Benanteur (Algeria), The Garden of Saadi, 1984. Oil on canvas, 37 1/2 x 47 1/4 in. Collection of Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah, UAE

The first clue to this interpretation appears in the work’s title: the word “Saadi” is thought to refer to a general in the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), Saâdi Yacef, who was a major target of the French military during the Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962). Captured during one of several battles of Algiers, he was sentenced to be executed about a year before the war’s end. As the story goes, Yacef saved himself from certain death by giving up a fellow leader, Ali la Pointe, a former petty criminal known as “the assassin of the revolution.” Despite this rumor, Yacef remained in the Algerian people’s good graces by writing the original screenplay for and starring in The Battle of Algiers (1966), the highly influential film and most sympathetic retelling of the War of Independence. Keeping Yacef’s complex history in mind, Benanteur’s work is even more puzzling, but Yacef’s story helps explain why the artist chose to paint as he did.

Poster for The Battle of Algiers (1966)

As a young adult, Benanteur had left Algeria, joined the French military, and moved to France in order to further his art education. Around the time the Algerian War of Independence was stirring, Benanteur exited the French army but remained in France. This choice left him with an overwhelming sense of guilt, and he swore to dedicate his artistic practice to “translating” Algeria for a French audience through the techniques of well-known French artists. The results include such works as The Garden of Saadi; To Monet, Giverny; and Lumières du Sud, all of which are on view in the Grey’s exhibition.

LEFT: Abdallah Benanteur, To Monet, Giverny, 1983. Oil on canvas, 47 1/4 x 47 1/4 in. RIGHT: Abdallah Benanteur, Lumière du sud (Southern Light), 1960. Oil on cardboard mounted on wood, 38 5/8 x 30 3/4 in. Both collection of Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah, UAE

The Garden of Saadi is a medium-sized oil painting divided among four wood panels. It conjures up a rather wet, mossy-looking pasture with rolling hills, all shrouded in a green, yellow, and blue light. The moist air seems to reflect upon the earth, lending the image a certain graininess that is both felt and seen. While Benanteur borrows Claude Monet’s impressionist methods, he adds more surface dimension by laying on his paint more thickly. The blue and green elements allude to Monet’s paintings of his famous garden at Giverny, in the north of France, while the neutral yellow and brown tones, as well as the illusion of a rolling hill, call to mind Algeria’s southern countryside. Thus Benanteur, in this one painting, brings together his devotion to both French art and the political history and landscape of his native Algeria.

Géranne Darbouze is an undergraduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery who is majoring in Film and Television Production and minoring in Art History and Religious Studies. She expects to receive her BFA in May 2021.