Casablanca through New Waves of Mohamed Melehi's cosmopolitan art

Moroccan artist Mohamed Melehi’s art is rooted in the regional tradition of Casablanca Art School, yet never far from the spatial-temporal axis of a transnational network.

by Dilpreet Bhullar Published on : May 26, 2020

As (almost) all of humanity undergoes lockdown, it is unanimously accepted that the part of the human tribe that is still safe from the coronavirus pandemic crisis, is one step closer to nature’s travel systems including sound reverberation, seismic movements and ocean tides. The travels, unlike the rigorous contemporary global journeys undertaken by many, had a different meaning for the generations of newly achieved modernism after the end of imperial rule. The Moroccan graphic designer, painter, photographer, muralist, teacher, Mohamed Melehi turned ‘waves’ into his quintessential motif for his major body of work. He used these as both, a design element and metaphorical reference, to emphasise his transnational approach towards creative liberty.

Flame, 1975, cellulose paint on wood from the collection of the artist | Mohamed Melehi | STIRworld
Flame, 1975, cellulose paint on wood from the collection of the artist, Imagr Image Credit: Courtesy of Mohamed Melehi

Last year at The Mosaic Rooms in London, and Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL) in Marrakesh, the curator Morad Montazami with the exhibition New Waves: Mohamed Melehi and the Casablanca Art School brought the wave of modernism to the foreground with the historical works of Mohamed Melehi. The exhibition that travels to Alserkal Avenue in Dubai sometime later in the year 2020, will be an entry point to understand and discuss the art practice of an artist who is familiar with the traditional art practices, and simultaneously brings in new elements of modernism to lend a global perspective around his politically charged surroundings.

Volcanic, 1985, cellulose paint on wood from a private collection | Mohamed Melehi | STIRworld
Volcanic, 1985, cellulose paint on wood from a private collection Image Credit: Courtesy of Mohamed Melehi

Montazami, in an interview with STIR, elaborates on waves being the singular key motif present extensively in Melehi’s works, when he says, “The title ‘New Waves’ is a reference to the everlasting visual pattern of the wave that still fascinates Melehi to this day. His multiple variations of that motif since the early 1960s suggest movement, pulsation, fluidity and sensuality but also cosmic relations, playing out between the sun, the sea, the horizon. It must be said as well that his overall study of pre-Islamic art led him to detect this wave (or rafter) pattern as a structural unit or visual signifier in most of the Afro-Arab visual cultures – from Berber to the Mesopotamian. In context of the exhibition New Waves resonates as a motto for breaking the (colonial) rule and initiating an artistic revolution, just as the Casablanca Art School and Melehi did in their own right.”

Exhibition view ‘New Waves: Mohamed Melehi and the Casablanca Art School, The Mosaic Rooms, London, 12 April 12 – 22 June 2019, curated by Morad Montazami and Madeleine de Colnet for Zaman Books and Curating |The Mosaic Rooms, A.M. Qattan Foundation, 2019 | STIRworld
Exhibition view ‘New Waves: Mohamed Melehi and the Casablanca Art School’, The Mosaic Rooms, London, 12 April 12 – 22 June 2019, curated by Morad Montazami and Madeleine de Colnet for Zaman Books and Curating Image Credit: Courtesy of The Mosaic Rooms, A.M. Qattan Foundation, 2019

Interestingly, West Asia and the Indian subcontinent share a similar historical pattern when it comes to post-colonial border-making exercise. However, art historians seldom find these intersections as fecund sites to trace these overlaps. Many of the Indian modern artists travelled to France to bring in the abstract idea of subjectivity based on gender or religious identity. To push us towards the direction of finding parallels, Montazami briefly walks us through Melehi’s transnational network that emphasised how his works resonated with the political history of his times beyond the regions of Morocco, “Since he was 20-years-old, Melehi left Northern Morocco, Asilah, travelled by boat, car, trains, and later planes throughout the Mediterranean up to the Atlantic, passing through West Asia. His postcolonial and pan-Arab trajectory shows his ability to connect places and reverse the viewpoint of modernist canons. The Pan-African Festival of Algiers in 1969, which Melehi participated in (after already taking part in the Alexandria Biennale in 1958) concentrated the vibrancy of these revolutionary artists networks, from festivals to biennales: The Pan-Arab Festival of Plastic Arts in Damascus in 1971, followed by the Baghdad Al-Wasiti Festival in 1972, the first Baghdad Biennial in 1974, whose protagonists and a network led to the Rabat Biennial in 1977 where the Casablanca artists were strongly involved – not to mention the Palestinian cause and visual solidarities in which he played a key role. Beyond painting practice, poster making and graphic design became Melehi’s main medium to respond and circulate in these transnational networks.”

Visitors at M. Melehi exhibition, Galerie Bab Rouah, Rabat, 1965 | STIRworld
Visitors at M. Melehi exhibition, Galerie Bab Rouah, Rabat, 1965 Image Credit: Courtesy of M. Melehi. Archives Safieddine-Melehi

To emphasise how Melehi carries a strong voice of modernism, Montazami says, “The exhibition is about underlining the multiple facets of a cosmopolitan artist from the African continent like Melehi: his geometric experiments, the cultural revolution put in motion at the Casablanca Art School, his key role in the development of art education, his significant work as photographer, editor, designer, graphic artist and muralist…all catalysed with this feeling of a ‘golden age’ for postcolonial arts and cultural growth in the Global South.”

Manifesto exhibition/Plastic Presence, 18 November square, Casablanca, 1969| STIRworld
Manifesto exhibition/Plastic Presence, 18 November square, Casablanca, 1969 Image Credit: Courtesy of M. Melehi. Archives Safieddine-Melehi

A dive deep into the colourful palette, traditional motifs and political themes of Melehi’s art practice is an opportune moment to experience the rippling effect beyond the palpable shores of Casablanca.

Untitled, 1970-1971, cellulose paint on wood from a private collection | STIRworld
Untitled, 1970-1971, cellulose paint on wood from a private collection Image Credit: Courtesy of Mohamed Melehi

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About Author

Dilpreet Bhullar

Dilpreet Bhullar

Bhullar is a writer-researcher based in New Delhi. She has been co-editor of the books Third Eye: Photography and Ways of Seeing and Voices and Images. Her essays on visual sociology and identity politics are frequently published in leading books, journals and magazines. She is the associate editor of a theme-based journal dedicated to visual arts, published by India Habitat Centre.

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