Few events in Middle Eastern contemporary art are as storied as the 1969 open-air exhibition in Casablanca, when six Moroccan artists – Mohamed Melehi, Mohamed Ataallah, Farid Belkahia, Mohammed Chabâa, Mostafa Hafid, and Mohamed Hamidi – installed their paintings in the Jamaa el Fna for the people of the town to engage with firsthand. With shades of Edouard Manet’s Salon des Refusés, the artists protested against the Ministry of Culture’s Salon du Printemps and its French colonialist ideas of easel painting.
"We hung our paintings on the wall under the sun and the rain for ten days," Melehi later recalled about the exhibition’s second showing at the Place de 18 Novembre in Marrakech. "To show people that art is not a precious object – that it is an idea, a philosophy."
The gesture planted a stake in the ground not only for avant-garde artistic expression, but for a new Moroccan identity. Melehi, Belkahia, and Chabâa became known as the Casablanca Art School, and under Belkahia’s direction, moved the Ecole des Beaux Arts towards a radical synthesis of art, architecture, graphic design, fashion and craft. Melehi emerged as one of the major artists from this time, continually synthesizing and combining Arab, African, Amazigh, European avant-garde and even Japanese and Asian influences, until his death from Covid last year.
The artist was born in the northern coastal town of Asilah in 1936. At 19, he left to study art in Spain and, subsequently, Italy. There, his real artistic education began: he was introduced in Rome to such artists as Jannis Kounellis, whose Arte Povera technique and incorporation of everyday materials made him reconsider his own country’s own Amazigh heritage. The early works he made at that time collaged together common textiles, such as burlap sacks and the material used to make djellabas, into abstract compositions.
In 1962, he won a Rockefeller scholarship to study at Columbia University in New York. He frequented Leo Castelli’s gallery, then transitioning from Abstract Expressionism towards Pop and Minimalism, and took a studio below Jim Dine. Colour entered his work, in vivid blues, reds, greens, and yellows. As it was for so many artists, New York City itself was a source of inspiration. Melehi evocatively described watching the lights flicker on in skyscrapers as night fell – an experience one can perceive in his gridded I.B.M. (c. 1962/63) painting, which also shows his early interest in cybernetic systems.
The terms of Melehi’s scholarship dictated that he returned to Morocco, where Belkhahia recruited him to join the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Casablanca. He taught there from 1964 to 1969, in what became an extraordinarily fruitful moment for the country’s post-Independence art scene.
"There was a vital need to go beyond the Western canons for teaching art, which consciously ignored both the Western avant-garde movements and the locally emerging Moroccan avant-garde," he said in an interview with the curator Morad Montazami on the occasion of his touring retrospective ‘New Waves’ (2019–2021). "To turn this into another provocative statement about that specific time of rupture: as soon as I arrived [in Casablanca] in 1964, I used to say that the Berber jewellery should become our new ‘still lives’ and that we should look at our rugs and popular weavings as our ‘impressionist landscapes".
Melehi began incorporating Amazigh geometric styles, drawn from rugs, textiles and the painting on the ceilings of rural mosques. He developed his signature ‘wave’ form, an undulating series of stripes that bears witness to the four elements of earth, water, air, and fire; the shape of Arabic calligraphy and the horizons of the Moroccan landscape.
It is important to note that while Melehi’s work is known for its explosive meeting of Western avant-garde forms and traditional Amazigh crafts, this East/West reading also simplifies the expansiveness of Melehi’s influences. He was interested in Zen meditation, for example, and has also given this as an inspiration for the ‘wave’ paintings. His commitment to the people was a radically democratic one, not only a post-colonial exploration of traditional motifs. While Belkahia swapped out canvas for painting on vellum, or calf’s skin, Melehi eschewed acrylic for car paint in his move away from painting’s elitist tradition.
And he worked often within the commercial realm, bringing his forms to a wider audience through posters, books, and design and architecture projects. He created the iconic first cover of a sun for the influential postcolonial magazine Souffles, which ran from 1966 to 1972. In the 1970s, he directed the journal Intégral and founded the publishing imprint and design studio Shoof.
He combined his art practice with other forms of support as well. In 1978 he co-founded the Al Mouhit Cultural Association and the Asilah Moussem Festival of the Arts, in his hometown of Asilah, along with the politician Mohamed Benaissa, who had also been born there. The festival continues to support murals and youth engagement today. He also served as director of arts for the Ministry of Culture and later a cultural consultant to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation for the Moroccan government in the 1980s and 90s.
The interplay of colours and forms on his dancing, bright paintings remains a source of visual delight, entrancing an even larger audience over the past few years as his work has become better known beyond the Middle East. But the works come from a strong philosophical background: part of a bigger project ‘towards a proper dynamics of social progress and emancipation,’ as he said to Montazami.
"I look at it [the 1960s and 80s] as the golden age in the outcome of our struggle for independence,’ he explained. ‘I want to give you a sense of what was going on at the time, with a general will for change and not just [a will] to paint beautiful paintings."