Maya-Inès Touam investigates the intersection of her dual identity

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Each year, British Journal of Photography presents its Ones To Watch – a selection of emerging image-makers, chosen from a list of nearly 500 nominations. Collectively, these 15 talents provide a window into where photography is heading, at least in the eyes of the curators, editors, agents, festival producers and photographers we invited to nominate. Throughout the next few weeks, we are sharing profiles of the 15 photographers, originally published in the latest issue of BJP, delivered direct through thebjpshop.com

Born and raised in Paris by immigrant parents, French-Algerian photographer Maya-Inès Touam describes her work as being “between the two shores of the Mediterranean”

It is an unusual feeling to have more than one home; to have a hybrid point of origin. In our increasingly globalised world, identity shifts into a more nebulous network of locations, feelings and memories. 

Born and raised in Paris by immigrant parents, French-Algerian photographer Maya-Inès Touam describes her work as being “between the two shores of the Mediterranean”. Her series Replica, which will be exhibited as part of the Louis Roederer Discovery Award show at Les Rencontres d’Arles this year, investigates this intersection of her dual identity, which she describes as both “foreign and intimate”.

© Maya-Inès Touam.
© Maya-Inès Touam.

Touam graduated from the Beaux-Arts de Paris in 2013, where she spent her studies exploring Arab femininity and the “ambivalence of bodies” through Western and Arabic perspectives. The camera “imposed itself” on her when she was 20, she says, and she has been working with the medium ever since. 

Now aged 33, Touam creates meticulously composed still lifes that enact metaphorical self-portraits. Speaking of her recent project, she says: “I borrowed the title from the fashion house Maison Margiela, whose Replica collection reuses vintage clothes to create unique pieces… Replica is an extension of [previous project] Ready Made, a term also dear to Marcel Duchamp [who believed that] any object is art if the artist decides.”

Touam builds a self out of found objects, both Western and African. She describes this as a “creolisation”, a “poetry of everyday life and the beauty of the objects that surround us”. For Touam, we are what we collect. “I began Replica to understand who I was and the environment I grew up in,” she says. “I am presenting the beauty of hybridisation. Location is important in my work, but never visible.”

Photography historian and writer Taous Dahmani nominated Touam for Ones to Watch. She describes her work as “layered and complex. Maya-Inès’ compositions offer a unique body of work and iconography that hybridises references and creolises elements of diverse cultures,” she says. 

Touam also draws on her knowledge of art history, with Replica being a “deconstruction and reappropriation” of the French Modernist painter Henri Matisse. “I wanted to explore the idea of photographic Fauvism,” she explains, referencing the colour-over-realism style of the early 20th century. “I wanted to work around his pictorial reflection, his ease in working with colour and spatiality.” 

© Maya-Inès Touam.

Touam uses “Old Master” rules in her art, yet disrupts the style through non-Western objects; she questions the value metrics given to still life items, asking what and who decides what is of “use” and what is thrown away. “What would Matisse paint if he had been in Africa?” she asks. “What would his work look like if he had been North African?”

Touam’s work creates an “anthropological and dreamlike” space outside of geographic location in which the artist can question the generational codes that create her identity. She quotes the late writer Edward Said: “No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are not more than starting-points.” Touam is currently working on a new series, Sanctuarium, in which she gathers religious and spiritual objects from Africa to explore stories of migration and pilgrimage.

Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.