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Memories

Painted ceiling of Mohamed Melehi
Hotel Les Roses du Dades, Kelaa M'Gouna, 1968–69
Architects: cabinet Faraoui et de Mazières
Archive: Faraoui et de Mazières.

Introduction

Mohamed Melehi has, through his various personal and creative journeys, played a key role in redefining the conversation on art in Morocco since the 1960s, and in doing so has forged new paths for a nomadic and transnational modern art movement that has as yet been poorly studied.

Melehi teaching: Mohamed Melehi’s paiting studio
Pedagogical brochure of the École des Beaux-Arts de Casablanca, 1962–65
Archive: Toni Maraini.

Born in Asilah, northern Morocco, in 1936, Melehi was one of the first students of Moroccan descent to graduate from the National School of Fine Arts of Tétouan in 1956. He continued his studies in Seville and Rome, and then in New York and Minneapolis, thanks to a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. He returned to Morocco in 1962, becoming head of the painting and photography departments at the School of Fine Arts, Casablanca. Under his leadership, these became veritable laboratories of learning, in which artistic experimentation went hand in hand with the development of a new body of knowledge on art in relation to associated disciplines (sociology, anthropology, philosophy); the School thus formed a new thought-community based on the need to create a public space for artistic practices that broke with established academic institutions. With the Casablanca Group (“Casa Group”), artists such as Mohamed Melehi, Farid Belkahia, Mohamed Chabâa alongside art historian Toni Maraini and anthropologist Bert Flint, invented art forms, as well as a modality of showing them, by inaugurating a new art movement that borrowed from both the oral and populist tradition and artistic debates on modernity.

In this personal memoir, Mohamed Melehi revisits the events that were formative in his “visual” education and that nourished his work. This cosmopolitan education formed the teaching matrix of the Casablanca School, in which its modern practices, in dialogue with the European and American avant-garde, could not have existed without recourse to the Mediterranean and Maghrebi origins of Moroccan art. Elaborations on this can be found in cultural media such as in the magazine Souffles (1966–72) as well as in two journals co-founded by Mohamed Melehi: Maghreb Art (1966–69, with Farid Belkahia, Mohamed Chabâa, Bert Flint and Toni Maraini) and Integral (1971–76, with Tahar Ben Jelloun, Toni Maraini and Mostafa Nissaboury).

Maud Houssais

I was sixteen years old when I undertook my first journey into finding a professional vocation, first in Asilah, then in Fez followed by Tétouan. Before going any further in my narrative, I would like to elaborate on the dreams which led me there.

1952. Tangiers was, to me, an open book, a window on the world. The freedom of seeing, of discovering and of feeling, of weaving the narratives of my dreams. The city was an international place at that time, where several languages were spoken alongside colloquial Arabic: French, Spanish, Italian, even Portuguese. However, English (American) – this language that had been loaded with American baggage during World War II – appeared even more attractive. To be able to speak English with an American accent, both in the expression of the language as well as in the gestures of speech, gave off the definitive impression of being a cowboy, something neither Spanish nor French could offer.

Coca Cola came along within that same baggage, arriving straight into Tangiers from America, carrying with it its novel and refreshing perfume. The world’s first coloured lemonade. One could sensually fondle the female curvature of the bottle in one’s hands. The ladies of Tangiers, of all nationalities, went to have coffee or mint tea at Soco Chico, at the Central Coffee house, where a musical would play non-stop, night and day. Blonde cigarettes were distributed all over the place, and were even smoked by blondes. The apotheosis of all this were the cinemas, housed in buildings that were cubist in architecture, such at the Alkazar or the Capitol, and which showed the films of Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart in a continuous loop – not forgetting those of Lana Turner. The story of Tom Sawyer, however, appealed more to the sixteen-year old me.

The decision to become a painter

It was whilst I was watching the film An American in Paris several years later that I had a revelation: I was going to become a painter. Beyond Coca-Cola and cinema, Tangiers had art galleries that exhibited paintings. Seeing these gallery-hung paintings reminded me of my childhood, when I used to look closely at the food packaging of products imported from Spain that featured reproduction illustrations of the great works by Goya, Murillo or Velázquez. These images transported me to another world through their graphic beauty. Etched into my memory and my adolescent recollections, lingering between my dreams and waking reality, they became a testament to my vocation, which was to become a painter like these masters. The shape of my professional career began to take form, somewhere between the memories of that packaging illustrated by Goya and Velázquez, and the discovery of a small reproduction of a Van Gogh in a library in Tangiers.

Maghreb Art’s cover, edited by the École des Beaux-Arts de Casablanca, N°1, 1965.

The Context

I was born in Asilah, a small town on the Atlantic coast in northern Morocco, 40km from Tangiers. Dotted with the tombs of marabouts that define the important focal points of the town and mark out its urban fabric, we could freely move about this place without losing the spiritual links to Sufism that defined our moral stability. Navigating without a map in a sea of avant-garde and Western influences, I came across my first dilemmas on entering the world of art. The goal was the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (the School of Fine Arts) and to leave Morocco. In order to do so, I needed to get to Europe, to get to Spain. Towards the end of the 1950s, the schools of Fine Arts in Seville and in Madrid – where I familiarized myself with the language of the visual arts – taught a very rigorous and academic curriculum. The teaching dated from the 18th century, with its drawing and modelling classes in which we would reproduce the human form constrained by its contours and classic curvatures within an atmosphere characterized by an iconographic heritage.

Learning and appreciating the basics of aesthetics is important in the tradition of Fine Art, but where was the art that sprung from the spirituality and heritage of the civilizations that I carried within me? Emigrating for the purpose of learning presented a problem, even though Islam itself had drawn its knowledge through distant journeying, sometimes even as far as China. The Fine Art Schools of the 20th century continued to lean on Classical iconography. It was a time when gleaning knowledge from other civilizations or studying universal modes of interpretation or representation through the subject of philosophy, for instance, was not yet part of the curriculum.

Discoveries

Following ten years of art practice across Spain, Italy, France and the United States, I returned to my country to share the experiences I had gained abroad. The only option I was offered was to engage myself in teaching art at the School of Fine Arts in Casablanca. But on what principles and techniques would I base my teaching? Morocco is so close to Europe geographically, separated by a distance of only 12km, and yet they are diametrically opposed in terms of artistic practice.

A dilemma

Whilst starting to think about the teaching programme, we1 came up against the problem of the absence of a tradition of representation, particularly in a society in which figurative art was never really of interest nor a means of communication.

In truth, figurative art is not banned in Islamic countries, contrary to popular belief. In Morocco, representation was brought in by the presence of foreigners, mainly, but not exclusively, the colonial powers. In the period before the arrival of scripture-based religions to Morocco or North Africa, myths and daily life were not portrayed according to the classical forms of Roman or Greek antiquity. Islam in turn never codified nor imposed a ban on representation. Take, for example, the Alhambra’s Court of Lions in Granada or the carafes and utensils shaped in the form of animals, as evidence of this. In the Punic period, for instance, the representation of myth and of North African religious symbolism was often simplified and subject to abstract stylisation. Morocco began in the 20th century to open up and to adapt to modern standards through the influence of the French and Spanish protectorates. However, at the same time, there was a movement against the use of the figurative in likeness to the occupying powers’ lifestyle.

Students annual exhibition at the Galerie de l’École des Beaux-Arts, 1966, archive: Chabâa Estate.

In terms of where teaching art was concerned, we witnessed the emergence of a number of institutions that showed little interest in either national artistic heritage or in modernism, ignoring the history of the region’s rich creativity.

Morocco was slowly opening itself up to the representation of the human figure through the medium of photography. To have one’s portrait taken seemed a bizarre thing to do and only the most courageous of people went to have it done. People began to accept portraiture through seeing the image of Sultan Mohamed V, the use of which established a new means of communicating the supreme personality of the King. The Nationalist Moroccan movement then used this portrait as a propaganda tool. The role played by this image was so fundamental that portraits of Mohamed V and the royal family were soon to be found hung up in every home before having been displayed in shops and public spaces. Rejection of imagery became less virulent and the ban on children drawing human figures, including that of Sultan Mohamed V, was lifted.

In the immediate aftermath of Moroccan independence in 1956, we saw the birth of a visual means of expression across the kingdom that we called ‘Naïve Moroccan Painting’, a form exploited by those who were not real art connoisseurs and one which was appreciated primarily, if truth be told, by foreign expatriates who had settled in Morocco.

The return

During the 1960s, young graduates who had received degrees from European institutions in all disciplines, including Fine Art, returned to Morocco. Artists would share the fruits of their knowledge and skill in order to participate in the development and renewal of their country. Following our rather inconclusive experiences in the field of Fine Art, we were attracted by the wealth of Moroccan Arts and Crafts, in particular the popular arts and architecture found mainly in rural areas, but also in certain urban areas too. We became passionate about the weaving of carpets and kilims. These objects reflected a colour palette and scope of designs that engage in a playful dialogue with post-impressionist European painters.

Mohamed Melehi’s drawing, Souffles, N°1, 1966, p. 26.

The educational dimension

The School of Fine Arts in Casablanca quickly became the breeding ground for artistic and ethnographic research, where a group of teachers2 drew up a new form of teaching based on the studios and art history courses that employed modern research methods, a far cry from the decrepit academic dogma that had been in place before. We then started investigative fieldwork into researching the forms and symbols3 contained within artistic works mainly produced in rural areas, in order to demonstrate that modernism does not always flow directly from a historical period or evolution.

In order to put this concept into practice, we at first had to take note of the dual difficulties of our mission: to transmit these new ideas through an educational approach to our students whilst, at the same time, transmitting them to our entire teaching staff. The School of Fine Arts in Casablanca, since its inception in 1953, was based on a Western-styled system of teaching that was modelled on the curriculum of provincial European schools. We felt that Morocco, having been blessed with its own ethnic iconographic heritage, deserved to be the source of inspiration for artistic trends. The discovery of silver jewellery in South Morocco and of vernacular paintings on the ceilings of mosques in the Atlas Mountains made a considerable impact on us.4

It was necessary to substitute classical methodologies in order to engage with the idea of correcting or redirecting the gaze and facilitating a better appreciation of shapes and colours, despite the resistance and opposition of some colleagues. This substitution of classical methods was facilitated by the discoveries made within our endogenous heritage and was made through the introduction of a teaching methodology that was coherent with the multifarious subtleties of Moroccan culture. One of these teaching methods was the introduction of a new classroom experience, namely the replacement of plaster casts and memento mori objects in a still life set with rural rugs from the mainly Arabic region of Haouz in Marrakesh, and with silver jewellery from Souss in the Tamazight region, which was then photographed and enlarged as teaching material for students to research and study in terms of forms and signs. This new departure was reinforced by the introduction of a course in Arabic calligraphy and in architectural drawing held within the department of decorative arts.5

The Bauhaus as a catalyst

Our aim here is not to conduct a study into the Bauhaus – a School which as the best example of its type revolutionized art movements and was the forerunner of the contemporary application of art to everyday life – but to explore its contribution to the clarification of our gaze and to our thinking on the reciprocal relationship between our indigenous Moroccan artistic heritage and the broader scope of art history. The Bauhaus sustained us during our journey and helped us open our eyes onto our own iconographic heritage. We cannot end our discussion here without naming just a few of the great pillars of the Bauhaus: Robert Delaunay, László Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Paul Klee and his contact with North Africa through his time spent in Tunisia, Wassily Kandinsky, the bare minimalism in the techniques and compositions of Josef Albers, and the architecture of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe or Walter Gropius.

The Bauhaus approach helped to create a bridge between a Western movement and our vision of modern art in Morocco, in spite of the absence of a strong tradition of European classical figurative art. Moroccan artists had studied different periods of art history but the Bauhaus was exceptional in allowing us to reconcile our own artistic tradition to higher decorative art forms.

Translation from French by Maria Vlotides.

●Footnotes
  • 1 We were a hard-core group that formed in 1965 determined to change the teaching and curriculum that dated from the colonial period; the group members were Farid Belkahia (head of the School of Fine Arts), Toni Maraini (professor of Art History), Bert Flint (professor of Anthropology), Mohamed Chabâa (professor of graphic arts), and myself, Mohamed Melehi (professor of Painting and Photography).
  • 2 Cf. footnote 1.
  • 3 See Bert Flint: Forme et symbole dans les arts du Maroc (Forms and Symbols in Moroccan Art), vol. 1 & 2, Tanger 1973.
  • 4 See Mohamed Melehi, ‘Notes sur les peintures des mosquées et les zaouias du Souss’ (Notes on the Paintings within the Mosques and Zawiyas of Souss), Maghreb Art n°3 (1969), published by The School of Fine Arts in Casablanca.
  • 5 The course in Arabic calligraphy was taught by Mohamed Chabâa whilst that in architectural drawing was led by Mohamed Bensalem.
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