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Mahamad Racim – an important Algerian artist and miniaturist

November 13, 2017

In the course of his researches on the book Life’s Echoes by ‘Tis True, Georges Bardawil has been investigating the story of Mahamad Racim, the artist who provided illustrations and decoration for this volume.  The following represents a summary drawn from his original remarks in French together with some additional biographical material.  We are grateful to Georges for sharing his findings and to Bob Forrest for sending us copies of some of Racim’s work for Life’s Echoes.  We should add that we have for years thought that the artist’s name was Racim Mahamad with the latter word the surname, since this is how he signed his work in Life’s Echoes.  But it is now clear that Racim is his surname, and our records have been corrected.

Mahamad (or Muhammed) Racim was a celebrated calligrapher, illustrator and a key figure in the modern school of Algerian painting and miniatures.  He was born into an artistic family in Algiers on 24th June 1896 and was murdered, with his wife, on 30th March 1975.  As a teenager he joined the state sponsored Cabinet de Dessin where he met the French Orientalist painter Etienne Dinet, who in 1916 asked him to ornament his book on the Life of the Prophet to be produced by Editions Piazza.  This was the beginning of a long collaboration with the celebrated publisher/editor.  Racim was also asked to decorate various other books and he illustrated and decorated the compilation of material in English from Omar Khayyam and others published in 1926 by ‘Tis True (aka Col. R J R Brown) under the title Life’s Echoes. *

These very promising beginnings encouraged Racim to leave the Cabinet de Dessin in the early 1920’s to go to Paris.  He signed a contract with Piazza to decorate the text of One Thousand and One Nights translated by Dr Mardrus, that Leon Carre had illustrated.  This work would occupy him for eight years and the income from it gave the young artist the freedom to travel and to study other painting traditions. An early visit to Cordoba and Granada revealed to him the riches of the Islamic golden age.  He spent time in the department of manuscripts in the National Library of France, and also travelled to London, where he met the scholar Sir Denison Ross, and to Cairo, Rome, Bucharest and Stockholm.

The discovery of Persian miniatures marked a key second stage in the apprenticeship of Mahamad Racim.  In the later 1920’s, there were shows of his works in Paris at the Museum Galiera in Paris, then at the Gallery Escale, where he received an enthusiastic welcome both from the public and from the press, who hailed him as an up and coming artist.  His contract with Editions Piazza expired in 1932 and the artist returned to Algeria where he organised an exhibition at the Gallery Soubiron.  From 1934 he devoted himself to teaching at the School of Fine Arts in Algeria.

Racim’s skills and drive gave Algeria a high ranking in the world of miniature art.  He became well known in other countries such as India and he has been called the greatest miniaturist of the 20th century.  He sought to revive a specifically Algerian tradition of art and to contribute to the cultural renaissance of the country which led on to Algerian revolution and independence.

* Some biographical material suggests that Racim illustrated a version of Omar Khayyam produced by the famous scholar Edward Granville Browne.  But there is no information on such a volume and it seems more likely that commentators have confused E G Browne with Col R J R Brown with whom Racim did work on the Life’s Echoes  volume.

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