After you emerge from the Jardin d’Essais Metro Station in front of the Musée National des Beaux Arts – or as Google Translate explains it, accurately for once, the National Museum of Fine Arts – in Algiers, you are promptly confronted by the best and worst that the city has to offer. At the top of the metro steps you find yourself at the base of a hill. The museum is a little way up the hillside while the Maqam Echahid – the Monument of the Martyrs – is perched at the top, its three broad curved legs making it look like an alien landing module that’s been sent down from an orbiting alien spaceship.
Meanwhile, set in the bottom of the slope is a curved and pillared alcove containing ten or more gorgeous, if slightly bit faded, tiled mosaics. I’ve seen other instances of these in Algiers and they really add to the city’s charm.
Alas, once you start up the stone steps that climb from the alcove to the museum entrance, you find yourself ascending a stairway of crap. It would be nice if they could sweep up the old leaves lying there, some of which have been lying for so long that they’ve decomposed into brown gunk, but at least that crap is organic, biodegradable crap. What’s unforgivable are the discarded newspapers, plastic bags, drinks cans and – worst of all – plastic water bottles mixed in with the leaves. They really make the approach to the museum look like shit.
The museum itself isn’t spectacular but its contents are nicely balanced between the old and new. In the lobby, for instance, you get a 17th century statue of King Solomon looking like a very tall, elongated version of one of the Lewis Chessmen that adorn the banner of this blog; while upstairs there’s Aicha Haddad’s L’Arbre de l’Espoir, which is basically a tree made out of spanners and metal nuts. Exploring the place makes a perfectly pleasant way to spend an hour or two.
I wasn’t allowed to take photos on the premises, unfortunately, except on a terrace that runs along the front of the building’s top floor and gives a splendid view over the nearby park, the Jardin d’Essais, and then the Mediterranean Sea. A mock Roman mosaic covers the terrace’s floor and lining its sides are pillars, some slightly-dusty plants and, every couple of pillars along, a stone statue or bust. There are also two small garden areas behind it, containing pink-flowered bushes, a palm tree and more statues. It’s an agreeable place to hang out for a while. No wonder that, while I was there, it was populated with young, hipster-type Algerians doing just that, hanging out.
The thing for which I’m most grateful to the Musée National des Beaux Arts is that it introduced me to the work of the 20th-century Algerian artist Mohammed Racim. It says in his Wikipedia entry that the scenes he painted were set in “an imagined past, before the arrival of the French colonisers, when the indigenous were the masters of the Maghreb. The people of Algeria, prior to the French arrival, appear in his works as prosperous, given to fine textiles and costumes and the arts of music, architecture and gardening”. Here are a few examples of his baroque, colourful and generally gorgeous art.
(c) Musée National des Beaux Arts