Abdulwahab Mihoub: Folk Artist from the Maghreb
Abby Levine: Works of Humor and Satire
Algerian Abdulwahab Mihoub was born and raised in the oasis city of Touggourt world famous for the exquisite dates harvested from the palm trees there. Touggourt is a city of about 140,000 people located in the Sahara Desert some 500 km southeast of the nation's capital, Algiers, which is a port city on the Mediterranean.
"Besides Touggourt," Abdulwahab says, "I lived a couple
of years in Algiers and went to high school in Ouargla (100 miles from
Touggourt). In Ouargla is where the nearest university is.
I have visited most parts of Algeria. I used to be in the Scouts, and we used to camp all over the country during our summer vacations.
For a person from the Sahara, the need for seeing the sea and green vegetation is a real longing. Summer by the seaside is a luxury, knowing that temperatures get very high in the summer in Touggourt and that people start 'living' after sunset."
Market in Ouargla
Abdulwahab remembers that he loved painting with acrylics. When he was
18, his soccer coach, who was also the manager of a youth club, received
from the Ministry of Culture some pyrographic tools. Not really
knowing what he should do with them, he started by giving one to the
young man who had shown an interest in art.
Intrigued, Abdulwahab set about exploring the possibilities of his new tool. All on his own, he started doing small sketches on very small pieces of wood, and quickly understood how to go about working with his pyrographic tool. He's been doing it ever since.
After completing his education as an accountant, Abdulwahab soon left Algeria to 'discover' Europe. He traveled through a few countries, and it was in London where he met Farida, a student from France studying the English language. They married in 1985 and lived in Touggourt.
Back in Touggourt raising a family, Abdulwahab experimented with several
occupations, particularly agriculture, and during this time, pyrography
was always part of his life. Over the years his pyrography, which he
continued to learn alone, steadily progressed to what it is now.
Since 1990 Abdulwahab, Farida, and their children divide their time between Algeria and France. When Farida and the children left Algeria in 1994 to establish the family in France, Abdulwahab had to stay behind part of the time to keep his advertising agency going. Wherever he goes, though, he always keeps his art work with him. His original work focuses mainly on traditional scenes of landscapes, people, and customs of the Sahara.
"Yes, my art lives inside of me," Abdulwahab says, "Wherever I am and whatever I'm doing, I always take my pyro tool. I do not go out very much now. Activities are not so many in Touggourt. There are no music clubs, for example, nor theaters, and only one cinema, showing mostly old movies and westerns. Cultural life is very limited--you have to move to bigger cities to see that. If I have an opportunity to work on a pyrography piece, I take it, even if I'm staying somewhere on holiday."
Tool. Abdulwahab uses a French pyrographic tool made by Rougier
& Plé. It is an electric tool of the soldering iron type with
temperature control. He has had to replace his original one and
subsequent ones over the years, but has always used the same kind.
Size. The size of the wood panels that Abdulwahab uses varies; however, they are generally large and range in size from 2 ft by 1 ft to as large at 5 ft by 4 or even 5 ft.
Wood. Abdulwahab describes the wood he uses as "plain wood." Although he buys his wood locally in Touggourt, wood is altogether a luxury in Algeria because it is imported. It is brought to Touggourt from the capital city of Algiers, he says, as are most of the imported products in Algeria. Fancier woods like cedar, he explains, are not only difficult but actually impossible to find in his country.
Finish. Sometimes, depending on the piece, Abdulwahab applies a matte varnish to a completed piece; however, in many cases, he says that he doesn't apply any finish.
Abdulwahab's pyrographs are his original works. He uses old photographs of Touggourt, Ouargla, and Biskra as reference. He also works from pictures he has taken himself of scenes in the streets or out in the desert.
Street in Mestawa
As to what inspired him to pyroengrave scenes of Touggourt and the Sahara, Abdulwahab had this to say: "First, it is a passion. I love this town. Touggourt is a mystical place." Throughout the centuries, it has been a major crossroads of trade and communication. Caravans traversing the Sahara connected the black peoples of the Subsahara with the Berbers, including Tuaregs and Mozabites, and the Arab peoples who historically populated North Africa. Ultimately, this trade route extended from the Mediterranean coast to the peoples of Europe. "There are lots of 'tribes'. I like the melting pot situation. As in any country, differences can be welcome or not. I find my inspiration in all the existing differences, the historical situation where blacks and whites live more harmoniously now. Mixed weddings are no longer considered as 'shameful'."
Al-Madrassa (The School)
Unlike Subsaharan Mali, (To
Timbuktu in Search of Pyrography!), Algeria has no traditional
pyrographic art. In all the exhibitions where he has participated,
Abdulwahab says that his work has always made people really curious.
"They have never seen anything like that," he
recounts--"whether they are ordinary visitors or people of renown."
Not only does Abdulwahab not know anyone where he lives who works in pyrography traditional or otherwise, there is no one to his knowledge who does the same work in Algeria. Moreover, he says, "I have never met another pyrographic artist, even abroad."
Regarding the motivation for his choice of subject matter, Abdulwahab
says, "I like the traditional, historical perspective. I guess I
want people to retain the image of ancient Touggourt and its
surroundings. In reality, the Sahara is full of those images still,
especially in remote villages where one could say that time has not left
However, Touggourt and some of the other cities in this region of the Sahara have been changing quickly in recent years. Concrete has invaded the city with the exception of some traditional places like mosques and some of the markets, etc. With concrete replacing traditional construction methods and materials, the city is apt to lose a lot of its character. Even Mestawa, the old part of Touggourt, is being rebuilt.
A Game of Checkers
Apart from their artistic value as folk art, Abdulwahab Mihoub's
pyrographs have an added importance as historical works, preserving
images of the past as well as visually documenting Touggourt and this
region of the Sahara in the present as he himself knows it and lives it
through the years.
Abdulwahab confirmed this special appeal, saying "Besides individual orders, local authorities and private companies are very keen on my work. They have purchased some of it for the Town Hall, the Touggourt Hospital, the high school in Ouargla, and to decorate their places of business." He regularly displays his work in small museums surrounding Touggourt. He has even been interviewed and his work shown on TV by the Algerian channel.
More stories of life in Algeria are portrayed in additional examples of Abdulwahab Mihoub's work exhibited in The E-Museum of Pyrographic Art.
"I would conclude by saying that I wish to keep the spirit of this
town alive, I want to show others how Touggourt was or is, depending on
the scene I am working on.
The Artist Abdulwahab Mihoub
2002, Kathleen M. Garvey Menéndez, all rights reserved.