A film by Osama Rai

Alphonse Etienne Dinet was a French artist from a wealthy background in 19th-century Paris who painted in what was called the Orientalist style, normally a Western view of the Middle East and North Africa which stereotyped its people as “wild” and “exotic”.

Edward Said‘s 1978 book, Orientalism, caused critics and historians to re-appraise their view of this style, as Said argued it represented a patronising, colonial attitude towards the life, culture and people of Asia, North Africa and the Middle East.

He was the best because he understood Arabs in an exceptional way, unlike some painters who only had a shallow understanding based on a Western perspective. With his passion for and understanding of the Arab world, Dinet was its best interpreter.

Frederick Chanoit, art expert

But unlike most Orientalist painters, Dinet travelled frequently to North Africa, and his work, far from being colonial in outlook, came to be seen as a true and sympathetic depiction of life in the Arab world.

Dinet was 22 when he first visited the small Algerian town of Bou Saada in 1884. It immediately cast a spell on him and dominated his life and work for the next 45 years.

“There he discovered the Sahara desert, a pure, clean world, a refreshing land, unlike Paris or France in general,” says Dinet biographer Koudir Benchico. “He fell in love with it and was hypnotised by all those spaces. It was a new world to be revealed through painting.”

He returned to Bou Saada one year later and began painting traditional Saharan life and culture. By the time of his fourth visit in 1888, he’d learned Arabic and also had a tourist guide with him, Sliman Ben Ibrahim, who became a life-long friend and collaborator.

“He (Sliman Ben Ibrahim) introduced Dinet to Arab Bedouin culture, to Islam and the Arabic language. Dinet would become completely bilingual in the 1900s. This friendship would help him fully explore Bedouin culture,” says art expert Frederick Chanoit.

Dinet admired the ordinary people of Bou Saada for their apparent contentment, despite their harsh living conditions, and the regard they showed him as both a Frenchman and a Christian.

Unlike other artists who painted the Arab world at the time, Dinet didn’t want to make Arab people look exotic and different. He spent time getting to know the Bedouin of Algeria, painted Saharan people as they really were and gave the artistic style a fresh perspective.

“Dinet is different from the rest because he represents a joyful world, like children playing with stones or old men playing with younger people. He’s unique in that respect,” says Jean Lepage, former director of the Musem of Art and History, Narbonne. “Dinet was distinctive in showing us a laughing, joyful North Africa.”

After spending many years travelling between France and Algeria, in 1903, Dinet finally decided to settle permanently in Bou Saada. He bought a house in the Arab quarter, deliberately to irritate the French colonial government and regularly spoke up for the people of Bou Saada in their dealings with the French administration.

He completely immersed himself in the Arabic language and Saharan culture, and converted to Islam. He announced his conversion in a personal letter in 1908, and completed it formally in 1913 when he changed his name to Nasreddine Dinet.

When news of Dinet’s conversion reached France, his Parisian artist friends, and other Orientalists painters in France there was universal shock.

“He was subject to a fierce attack by his fellow artists, as well as the ruling class of that time. He was excluded from all exhibitions which were his source of income,” says Dinet biographer Nacer Lemdjed. “He was a victim of an unethical campaign and rumours. I can’t even repeat the rumours they spread about him.”

But Dinet continued determinedly to portray a positive image of Islamic religious and social life in his art and writing.

In 1929, aged 68, Dinet decided to go on a journey he’d been planning since his conversion to Islam – pilgrimage to Mecca, known as Hajj. While the journey had a major spiritual impact on him, it was also hugely physically demanding: Alphonse Etienne, or Nasreddine, Dinet died in Paris on December 24, 1929, and was buried in Bou Saada.

Since Dinet’s death nine decades ago, his distinctive paintings have graced museums, art galleries and collections all over the world, still commanding high prices at auction.

Source: Al Jazeera


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