The greatest Moroccan painter of 20th Century

Africa Nilanjan Hajra
Today's Focus
Moroccan painter

Moroccan painter Chaibia Talal’s life has a ring of a fairy tale about it. She was the most important Moroccan painter of the 20th century, and the only one ever to be listed in the stock market. Critics have compared her abstract works with that of Pablo Picasso. She largely depicted women, in their myriad moods, through vibrant colors. She did achieve much fame in her lifetime, but it didn’t come her way easily. Unfortunately, she passed through a period of prolonged struggle before the art world recognized her talent. Incidentally, the Moroccan painter remained illiterate all her life. And that, in a way, may have actually helped in the flowering of the artist inside her.

Early struggles and recognition 

Talal was born in a nondescript village, Choutka, near the port-city of El Jadida in Morocco in 1929. Right from her childhood, she was imaginative and different from other children of her age. They called her Mahbula, the ‘holy fool’, and often reprimanded her for her playful nature. A tragedy of sort struck her when her parents married her off to a 70-year-old man when she was only 13. She moved to Casablanca with her husband and bore him a son the next year. Her husband died in an accident the year after. Thus, the Moroccan painter became a widow with a son when she was just 15.

Talal spun wool in addition to working in a French household as a maid. Although illiterate herself, she put everything into her son Hossein’s education. Even as her life trudged along, one day she met a holy person, who predicted that Talal had dormant talent. And in addition to these, she dreamt of a bunch of unknown people giving her painting tools. Talal took the two incidents as divine inspiration and discretely began painting. All this happened in 1963. She was 34.

In the meantime, Hosein had begun to dabble in serious painting. One evening in 1965 he invited Moroccan painter Ahmed Cherkaoui and the director of the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, Pierre Gaudibert to his home for some couscous. And after this fateful diner, she showed some of her works. Stunned by their quality, the French art expert decided to help her flourish as an artist. Next year he arranged exhibitions of the Moroccan painter at Goethe-Institut in Casablanca, the Solstice Gallery in Paris, and the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. The Moroccan painter never looked back after this.

Works of Moroccan painter Talal 

As we have seen, Talal never had the opportunity to learn painting formally. And this may have had a role in adding a special freshness and ingenuity to her paintings. Critics dubbed it as ‘outsider’s art’. And in her paintings, Talal presented the unconventional, which was the point of strength in her creations. According to the Moroccan painter herself, her paintings represented her love for nature. And in many senses, they also reflected her childhood village experiences mingled with her perception of the feminine. Moroccan film director Youssef Britel made a biopic of the great Moroccan Painter, titled Chaibabia.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)