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Published:June 20th, 2011 08:47 EST
Algerian Masterworks Missing: Where Are The Paintings of Juanita Guccione?

Algerian Masterworks Missing: Where Are The Paintings of Juanita Guccione?

By SOP newswire2

Juanita Guccione spent almost five years in eastern Algeria in the 1930s making oil paintings, watercolors and drawings. She then called herself Nita Rice. She was often so poor she tacked her jackets to stretchers and painted on them. She lived in Bou Saada, not with the Europeans, but with the Ouled Nail.

In 2004, five years after her death in New York City, her son, Djelloul Marbrook, sold 174 of her Algerian works, almost her entire Algerian oeuvre, to Sonatrach, the Algerian national energy combine. There were two conditions: 1) Sonatrach promised to build a special exhibition site for the paintings and permanently exhibit them to the Algerian people, 2) Sonatrach, promised to keep Mr. Marbrook informed about the paintings.

Sonatrach did not keep these promises, and all 174 works of art have vanished after their arrival in March 2004 at Houari Boumedienne International Airport in Algiers. Repeated letters, faxes and e-mails to Sonatrach and to the Algerian embassy in Washington, DC, have gone unanswered. One former ambassador, Amine Kherbi, promised to inquire into the situation but he took a new post without corresponding again with Mr. Marbrook. The current ambassador, Abdallah Baali, did not answer a letter from Mr. Marbrook inquiring about the paintings.

These events have now been reported in the Algerian press, notably Le Matin and Ech Chourouk, in French and Arabic. A number of Algerians living in the United States have contacted the artist`s son, expressing sympathy and regrets.

These press accounts have linked Dr. Chakib Khelil, the former Algerian energy minister and chief executive of Sonatrach, to the mystery. But Mr. Marbrook himself has made it clear that he does not know who to hold accountable for the apparent disappearance of the 174 works of art. Dr. Khelil, former head of the World Bank and OPEC, holds both Algerian and American citizenship and left Algeria under a cloud raised by events not related to the paintings.

It was perhaps inevitable he would be linked to the mystery, because he made a speech in March 2004 at the Washington (DC) Arts Club promising to personally see that the paintings were installed in a public venue and shared with the Algerian people. The then Algerian ambassador to Washington, Idriss Jazairy, also spoke at that event. The paintings were exhibited by Mr. Marbrook at the arts club to memorialize Algeria`s acquisition of them.

Mr. Marbrook says he had always intended to go to Algiers when the paintings were introduced to the Algerian public. The history of the sale began in 1991 when the United States Information Agency sent them to Algiers as a goodwill gesture. The paintings were enormously popular and were sent to other cities at the expense of the Algerian government. After the USIA brought them back to America Mr. Marbrook began thinking that they belonged in Algeria because they portray a period in Algerian history.

But he had another reason, too. Most European painters portrayed the Algerians as foreign exotics when in fact they themselves were the foreign exotics, but the young Juanita Guccione (then Nita Rice) portrayed the Algerians as her friends and neighbors and she considered herself one of them, eschewing the European subculture of Bou Saada, which was a famous art colony. Because her portrayal of the Algerians was so fond her son felt strongly that the Algerian people should have the work. As time passed and he heard no word of their location he became sad and made a decision that if the Algerian press ever asked about the paintings he would tell the whole story. That has now happened.

Many of the paintings were shown in The Brooklyn Museum in 1935-6, but as time passed the artist studied with modernists like Hans Hofmann and began painting in completely different styles. The Algerian paintings languished and fell into disrepair. In 1986, Mr. Marbrook, who was born in Algiers in 1934, the year Albert Camus, a fellow Algerine, was finishing his studies at the University of Algiers, began a costly project to clean, conserve, and frame the paintings. That project lasted almost 12 years, and the price Sonatrach paid for them barely covered the costs of rescuing them from neglect.

"I don`t know where all this will lead," Mr. Marbrook says, "but I hope the paintings will be found and that Sonatrach`s promises will be made good, because they were, after all, made in behalf of the Algerian people."