Mohamed Melehi

Born in 1936 in Assilah, Morocco

Lives and works in Casablanca 

 

The leader of Moroccan modern art and cosmopolitan artist Mohamed Melehi was born in Assilah, Morocco in 1936.

The work of Mohamed Melehi has helped to shape the aesthetic of postcolonial and pan-Arab artists’ networks through his geometrical experiments and the cultural revolution operated by the Casablanca School, as well as his work as a photographer, editor, designer, graphic designer, and muralist.

Mohamed Melehi, the precursor of a new form of painting, began his artistic path at a very young age. He was only 19 when he entered Seville’s Academy of Fine Arts in 1955. He would transfer to Madrid the following year. In 1958, when the artist left Spain for Italy, he mounted his first individual show at the American Legation in Tangier. He showed radically abstract constructions, using stitched and printed burlap bags as supports, or woven woollens traditional used to make djellabas. He played with the expressive values of these materials and their symbolic resonance with the local visual culture. With the approach, audacious at that time, Melehi confirmed his emancipation from academism and his affiliation with informal art, the dominant pictorial style of post-war Europe. This exhibition demonstrated a radical position by which the artist fully embraced his own modernity, in a newly-independent Morocco. It also heralded the artistic vision that would guide Melehi in all of his works, marked by his pursuit of a pictorial modernity in interaction with his culture and speaking in a universal aesthetic language. 

From 1957 to 1961 he lived in Rome, where he worked with the Trastevere gallery, owned by Topazia Alliata (1913-2015), a cosmopolitan woman of culture who received the avant-garde artists and intellectuals of Italy. She devoted four exhibitions to the artist between 1959 and 1963. From that point, Melehi came in contact with the most innovative new artists (Accardi, Burri, Fontana, Kounellis, Perelli, Capogrossi…) and participated in international artists’ exhibitions, notably those of the young American abstract expressionists Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, and Robert Rauschenberg.

Jean-Hubert Martin signals the originality of Melehi’s work of that period: “To the destructive and chaotic violence of the Italians and the abstract expressionists, [Melehi] opposes the rigour and serenity of an ordered composition”.

It was at this time that he met Jilali Gharbaoui, and rediscovered his friends Mohamed Chabâa and Mohamed Ataallah at Rome’s Academy of Fine Arts, where they pursued their research, evolving in a cultural and artistic environment swept up in a spirit of renewal. 

Though well-established in the Roman art scene, Mohamed Melehi decided to discover Paris, then the US, which for him had become the new epicentre of the art world. He moved to New York at the end of 1962 and began a series of paintings that reveal his immersion in an urban landscape of music and culture that fascinated and inspired him. He abandoned black paint, making way for bright colours and a geometric abstraction inspired by scientific progress, which might be interpreted as an ode to cybernetics. At that time, his paintings manifested a predilection for curving lines, announcing the appearance of the wave motif which would become key to his work, and remains today at the centre of his artistic exploration.

During his years in New York, Melehi frequented established artists and trend-setting galleries, participating in two major group shows in 1963, “Hard Edge and Geometric Painting and Sculpture” at MoMA in New York, and “Formalists” at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art. He thus confirmed his place on the American art scene. 

For the ten years he spent abroad, Melehi took part in the emergence of major art movements across most of the Western cultural capitals. He decided to return to Morocco in 1964, eager to contribute to the cultural dynamic of his native country. He joined the teaching staff of Casablanca’s École des Beaux-Arts, under the direction of Farid Belkahia. 

He taught there from 1964 to 1969, alongside two art historians, Toni Maraini and Bert Flint. They would be joined by his companions from Rome, Chabâa and Ataallah. They had all evolved in the upper spheres of modern art in Europe and North America, and had assimilated the teachings of the Bauhaus. They formed a research and creation collective, aimed to design a new artistic practice, inseparable from the larger framework of reconfiguring society. At that time, Melehi reconnected with the aesthetic conception of Muslim civilisation, and its principle of giving form to ideas without copying either nature or man. Along with geometric form and flat fields of colour, he integrated a new body of symbols into his work, such as rainbows, flames, rays, astral bodies, or calligraphy, while privileging the wave forms that had become characteristic of his work. 

In parallel to his research at the heart of the Casablanca School, Melehi advocated for the integration of art into daily life, initiating with his peers several extra-muros art manifestations, including the historic “Présence plastique”, which took place on Jemaâ el-Fna Square in Marrakech in 1969. Melehi played an active role in cultural life of the 1960s, taking initiative in several areas. He founded the Intégral art review, which he directed from 1971 to 78. In 1978, he co-founded the International Cultural Festival of Asilah and launched a programme of temporary murals, spread throughout the streets of the city’s medina.

Melehi’s fertile work of the 70s and 80s reveals the demanding search for a modern form of representation. Here is a transversal aesthetic that articulates between figuration and abstraction, identity and modernity. The work would be the subject of a major exhibition, “Melehi, Recent Paintings”, at the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York (1984-1985).

 

Over time, Melehi’s body of work affirms the undulant shape of a wave carrying with it an infinity of metaphor. Manifested today in a process of temporal symbiosis in his artistic career, integrating the burlap of his Madrid period, the bands of Rome, and his New York waves. 

 

His work has been the subject of many exhibitions throughout the world, and several retrospectives have been devoted to his career. Among the latter is the current exhibition by the Alserkal Foundation in Dubai. Curated by Morad Montazami, the exhibition was shown first in London at The Mosaic Rooms in early 2019, then at the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL) in Marrakech. Michel Gauthier, curator at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, recently published a monography that examines the twenty formative years of his career.