This spirit was embodied in a global emancipatory impulse instantiated in the participation of artists and intellectuals working in pan-African networks1 as well as cultural trajectories within Morocco, and emanating from Morocco. Embodying this dynamic, the sculpture exposition organized by Mathias Goeritz on the occasion of the Mexico City Olympic Games brought together international artists from all five continents, including Mohamed Melehi, representing the African delegation, to produce monumental sculptures lining the road linking the city to the Olympic village—officially known as the "friendship road.”2 Toni Maraini and Mohamed Melehi were joined by Pauline and Patrice de Mazières on this occasion. Mohamed Melehi thus brought to the international public stage the experimental approach recommended by the Casablanca School of Fine Arts to applied arts and architecture, creating a monumental sculpture in public space. It was also on this occasion that he first met Herbert Bayer, an artist from the Bauhaus movement, who was later to settle in Tangier in the late 1970s. These trajectories thus materialized a physical movement—that of artists and intellectuals—alongside a theoretical one—that of the circulation of thoughts—in which the Bauhaus became a touchstone within Morocco.
Collective exhibition, Présence plastique, M. Ataalah, F. Belkahia, M. Chabâa, M. Hamidi, M. Hafid, M. Melehi
Jema Al-fna, Marrakech, 1969, © Chabâa Family.
1. Common Thoughts / Communities of Thought?
Les Intégrations exemplified a specific conceptual motif, one that acted not within a single field but rather implied a relationship of interdependence between different media (visual arts and architecture) and techniques (those of graphic arts and architecture). They thus allowed for the emergence of disciplines that were not static in formation but evolving in relation to one another. The intermedial relationship they created between art and architecture raises the question of what lies "between" these disciplines: how do they communicate with each other? What are the elements of language common to this "spirit of the times," to the particular atmosphere of the late 1960s?
Experimenting with practices between the major and minor arts implied not only the invention of new modes of transmission across disciplines but also between creative works and the general public. Artists and intellectuals of the time turned resolutely towards public space as a site for debate and a place for expressing contradictory opinions. Such an orientation also suggested that artists and intellectuals should be actively involved in the life of society. This proposition contained within it an implicit question regarding the artist's social role. Such modes of transmission from the different disciplines to public space were based, first of all, on the creation of cultural magazines (Souffles, Integral, Maghreb Art), providing a theoretical basis for subsequent interventions in public space and the participation of artists in urban projects: as producers of site-specific works; in the field of interior decoration; in the creation of posters and advertising; and furniture design and manufacture. This network of mobile relationships made visible a desire for freedom, expressed in the battle against processes of historical fixation where anthropological and archaeological museums acted as depositaries producing identity assignments that restricted the significations of a material culture the Moroccan cultural scene claimed as inherently hybrid.3 Acting against the essentialization of folk art by such institutions, artists, poets, writers, intellectuals, filmmakers, architects and others united in opposition, proposing a set of objects to be studied not with a view to constituting a history of forms but a history of forms in relation to one another.
Painted ceiling by M. Melehi, Hotel Les Roses du Dadès, Kelaa M'Gouna, 1971-72, Architects: Faraoui et de Mazières, © Cabinet Faraoui et de Mazières.
Painted ceiling by M. Melehi, Hotel Les Roses du Dadès, Kelaa M'Gouna, 1971-72, Architects: Faraoui et de Mazières, © Cabinet Faraoui et de Mazières.
In 1962 Farid Belkahia returned to Morocco after studying at the Paris School of Fine Arts (1956–1959) and the Prague Theatre Academy (1959–1962). His career path was not unique. It bore a similarity to that of several artists he later recruited to teach at the Casablanca School of Fine Arts, including Mohamed Melehi and Mohamed Chabâa. These cosmopolitan cultural trajectories formed a moving cartography of modernities that helped to situate artistic practices in 1960s Morocco within a global movement where art was also seen as an agent to express social and political demands. The cultural events organized in Morocco from the 1950s to the mid-1960s by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and the few existing Moroccan art galleries encouraged a neo-orientalist academic trend that served as a standard for Moroccan artistic production, highlighting its enchantment and naïveté4 and thus denying art’s liberating and autonomous potential.5 The public space, the street space, by contrast, welcomed the vital momentum of a generation of artists who sought to inaugurate new strategies for the exhibition and reception of works of art. This vital momentum also freed up the possibility of aesthetic filiations outside institutions, acting as a kind of "ephemeral museum." According to Abdelkebir Khattibi:
"The ancestors have not disappeared, their traces are alive, and their memory has taken to the streets. To be convinced, it would be enough to immerse oneself in the scenography repeated from century to century of popular culture and its production of signs. The Arab artist is strongly influenced by it. It is his chance, his risk in the face of the constraints of the past, of his living and surviving tradition.”6
Patrice de Mazières was already an architect—just like his father and grandfather before him—when in 1967 he met Mohamed Melehi and Toni Maraini at one of the art openings where the cosmopolitan and vibrant Casablanca cultural scene congregated. He was accompanied by his wife, Pauline de Mazières, who in 1971 opened the first modern independent art gallery, l'Atelier, in Rabat. Together with Sylvia Belhassan, her collaborator for 20 years, she established a rampart against the institutionalized currents of fine art; a formidable springboard for a modern Maghreb artistic modernity badly in need of visibility. This meeting between the architect and the Casablanca Group provided a new impetus to the transdisciplinary practices already being initiated at the Casablanca school. These relied in particular on the financial support of the Moroccan state,7 which financed—sometimes unwittingly—a series of artistic commissions carried out between 1967 and 1982 in some 20 state-funded public infrastructure projects. These infrastructure projects corresponded to two recent political orientations: the deployment of a national tourist network in rural areas demonstrating economic potential, and the creation of a variety of civil administration authorities—such as banks, prefectures and university departments. However, those advocating a coordinated cultural policy that would be supportive of artistic creation were in the minority at the time (especially after the ongoing government crackdown against opposition movements—of which the cultural scene was a part—became more vigorous following two failed coups d'état in 1971 and 1972 against King Hassan II, leading to the arrest of the main creative force and founders of the Souffles magazine, notably Abdellatif Laabi, Abraham Serfaty and Mohamed Chabâa).
Exhibition catalogue, Mohamed Melehi. Recent Paintings, The Bronx Museum of Arts, New York 1984, p.21 © Toni Maraini Archive.
2. Présence Plastique vs Integrations
Exhibition catalogue, Mohamed Melehi. Recent Paintings, The Bronx Museum of Arts, New York, 1984, p. 18, © Toni Maraini Archive..
The transdisciplinary practices that were formulated as operating within public space—even if they originated within the symbolic site of the editorial spaces where many artists were involved—gave rise from 1969 onwards to two artistic orientations, manifested in the Présence Plastique exhibition cycle and the artistic interventions in architecture carried out in the Integrations project.
The first Présence Plastique exhibition was organized on Jema el-Fna Square in Marrakech. A later incarnation occurred on 16 November 1969 in Casablanca. These were followed in 1971 by two exhibitions, also held in Casablanca, in the public high schools Fatem-Zahra and Mohamed V in 1971. These actions were developed out of a desire to invent new exhibition models that would present an alternative to official exhibitions and fairs. Public space thus becomes a modality for both aesthetic creation and existence, allowing for the expression of a new aesthetic trend. This series of exhibitions was also developed in order to create (political and cultural) momentum: the work existed in the moment of their manifestation and through an encounter with the public. The plastic nature of the works thus also functioned as a claim: "We also wanted to awaken this man's interest, his curiosity, his critical spirit, to stimulate him, to do in such a way that he integrates new plastic expressions into his rhythm of life, into his daily space.”8 This cycle of exhibitions also possessed a projective dimension: its participants adopted the principle of advertising, communicating with the spectator from a distance and through the mediating function of the artworks.
Speeches and writings regarding these exhibitions, in particular those published in the journals Souffles and Integral, called for a set of perceptual strategies that often highlighted different or even opposing biases. Présence Plastique sought to present artistic works, paintings, to the general public in urban space, but these were separated from this same public by security barriers which created two symbolic spaces: the world of fiction and the real world of the spectators. Staging the paintings in this way revealed the essentially theatrical nature of Présence Plastique, whose conceptual origins lay both in the reality and temporality of the city square and the audience/performer relationship of halqa shows.9 By contrast, Integrations sought to create a relationship with the object characterized not by a public recognition that would reveal their fictional character and lead to an appreciation of the works’ artistic value, but by creating instances of architectonic ornamentation indifferent to artistic spectatorship. Instead, the “object” was judged by its ability to blend into architectonic space, to adapt to its physical constraints or to respect specifications defined by the infrastructure project’s architects.
The debates surrounding the reception of works, however, also included a consideration of strategies that might be employed so as to cultivate a new post-independence audience—one previously excluded from cultural activities. This concern brought together the entire artistic community. In this respect, the figure of the illiterate, widely cited in modern literature but also in writings and speeches on art, came to embody a new public, one whose knowledge was based on iconographic traditions found in rural cultural practices: folk art, oral poetry, song and dance. In Ahmed Bouanani's work,10 the illiterate is not the one without access to education but the one detached from traditional, local knowledge forfeited through formal education, particularly during the colonial period. Both sorts of interventions in public space employed similar strategies to involve a new audience, in the sense that a visual memory game was played with the viewer, organized around ascertaining the gap between the sign and the meaning of the image: in order to reconstruct its meaning, the viewer was required to recognize the origins of the signs taken from the popular imagery that composed the work. This is particularly the case in Farid Belkahia's paintings, which uses techniques inspired by folk art, such as leather or metal work, as well as iconography inspired by Berber tattooing.11 The imaginary potential of folk art and the part reconstitution plays in it implies a paradigmatically different relationship between audience and creator, contributing to the writing of alternative narratives about art and its practices. In itself, this use of the grey area of tradition reflects a modern creation, filling in the blank spaces of history, partially reconstructed with the help of a public who share and employ the same vocabulary. Both Integrations and Présence Plastique thus reflect the crucial issue of building a new audience.
Painted Ceiling of a Souss mosque illustrating the article "Notes on the paintings and mosques of the Souss" by Mohamed Melehi, in: Maghreb Art, No. 3, published by the School of Fine Arts of Casablanca, 1969, p. 9.
Wooden ceiling lamp by Mohamed Chabâa (ceiling) and tapestry by Claudio Bravo (far left), Hotel de Taliouine, 1971–72, Architects: Faraoui et de Mazières, © Cabinet Faraoui et de Mazières.
3. Offence of Authenticity
Ceramic panel, Carla Accardi, Hotel Tarik, Tangier, c. 1975, Architects : Faraoui et de Mazières, © Cabinet Faraoui et de Mazières.
Through their transdisciplinary nature and the different perceptual strategies they implemented, Moroccan artists' interventions in the public space crystallized the appearance of new practices that no longer satisfied the aesthetic categories of the Protectorate or the museological typologies requiring that authenticity be based on so-called ethnic and territorial origin. Integrations thus reflects a fragmentation of disciplines and categories and a set of common concerns both aesthetic and political in nature. Among these concerns was the need to find an aesthetic language that was neither a restrictive expression of national culture nor a demonstration of Western categorical injunctions. The desire to break down practices was reflected in the choices promoted by the artists of the Casablanca Group. In particular, the work of Mohamed Melehi and Mohamed Chabâa symbolize this desire for openness in the way each artist incorporated graphic arts and design into their practice.12
Mirror painted by Ait Amza, Hotel Les Gorges du Dades, Boumalne, 1970-71, Architects: Faraoui et de Mazières, © Cabinet Faraoui et de Mazières.
Among their architectural achievements, two hotels in the Dades Valley of the Souss region in southern Morocco—Les Gorges du Dadès and Les Roses du Dadès—are of special interest. At the time these hotels were built in 1970, the Souss region had become an object of growing interest on the part of artists and intellectuals. This interest was motivated by the desire to uncover know-how and ways-of-doing particular to the region, which had been marginalized during the Protectorate and whose cultures remained mostly absent from the collections of anthropology museums. The nature of this material culture, whose development, it is claimed, was the product of a combination of pre-Islamic, sub-Saharan and Mediterranean influences, supported the discourse on origins that must be sought outside the classical heritage/tradition. From 1966 onwards Bert Flint led excursions to the region in which Toni Maraini, Melehi and Chabâa participated. The aim of these journeys was to research a culture on the verge of extinction, and the group acted in accordance with what they saw as an urgent need to document this little-known culture. They were also alert to the possibilities this relatively unstudied culture presented for inventing new typologies and mobilizing a field of knowledge around cultural objects that had not yet been fixed within a dominant cognitive system. The Souss region thus acted as a catalyst for fomenting cultural practices with the potential to function as acts of resistance in the post-independence period, making it impossible to distance artistic from political acts.
Mohamed Melehi and Mohamed Chabâa produced wooden and ceramic wall panels for the restaurant and reception rooms of Les Roses du Dadès hotel. One of the most emblematic works in this series is Melehi's wall ceiling in one of the hotel's several lounges. The wide ceiling is composed of wooden panels that play on a variation of undulating and colored patterns. The combinatorial play of motifs created a rigorously composed pictorial surface reminiscent of Melehi's previous encounter in America with geometric abstraction. This composition was conceived in alternating panels reproduced in series, predominantly red or blue in color, evoking the objectivity of American painting of the 1960s. However, the characteristic colored waves of Melehi's work of the time are also addressed in his writings, which might be described as autobiographical prisms, referencing the situation of his native city Asilah (bordering the Atlantic Ocean) and historical reference point such as prehistoric Saharan symbols and vernacular folk art.13
Melehi's painted ceiling was based on the translation of an iconographic corpus from a liturgical context to a strictly decorative and commercial context. Its immediate source was a traditional ceiling pattern discovered by Bert Flint in the rural mosques of the Souss region in 1965, photographs of which were subsequently published in the third issue of Maghreb Art magazine in 1969.14 Melehi reinforced the idea of a formal similarity between the iconography of the painted ceilings of the Souss and his own graphic universe, one based on the spatial experience of the spectator. Indeed, the artist relied on an associative transfer from spiritual contexts and experiences to aesthetic secular experience, suggesting a genealogical relationship based on the repetition of the same gesture: lifting the head to view the painted surface. It is thus worth noting how this modern practice implemented in public space, which can be considered as emblematic of the intention of Integrations as a whole, was conceived in opposition to the idea of rupture inherent in modernity by basing itself on a visual tradition and on a community of experience. Melehi's painted ceiling crystallizes the challenge inherent in re-appropriating a particular material cultural form, pointing towards a critique of the phenomena of patrimonialization. Being that it was also the result of a collaboration between architects and artists, the work makes visible more tangible links in how art can function as a social object, reinforcing the need to interrogate museum practices by participating in the invention of new museal forms based on formal experimentation and the experience of the viewer.
The other Integrations conceived in the same area was by Mohamed Chabâa, who created a series of ceiling lights and hotel signs for both Les Roses du Dadès and Les Gorges du Dadès. The ceiling lamps reflect an interest in constructivist and kinetic sculpture—two movements regularly mentioned by Moroccan artists, particularly in Souffles15. Its set of geometric lines also recalls the experiments of the graphic arts workshop Chabâa directed at the School of Fine Arts in Casablanca, particularly those conceived for Koufi typography, for which he developed a new stylistic approach. This typographic revival also characterized the hotel signs, that utilized a kufic calligraphic style. Chabâa's typographic work is in line with the claims of the artists of hurufiyyâ (a pan-Arabic form of lettrism), a movement of artists who based their work on a practice of abstraction rooted in Islamic heritage, which in reality brought together extremely diverse practices using the Arabic alphabet as one of the components of a new complex and mixed language.
Contact sheet, Hotel Les Almoravides, Marrakech, 1970–72, copper doors: Farid Belkahia, ceramic wall panel: Mohamed Melehi, sign: Mohamed Chabâa, motif on the cupboards of the rooms: Cecile Boccara, Architects: Faraoui et de Mazières, © Cabinet Faraoui et de Mazières.
Note of intent: 15 years of collaboration between architects and painters, © Cabinet Faraoui and De Mazières.
By moving away from the conventional spaces of demonstration, Integrations created alternative spaces, making it possible to assign new values to art objects. Integrations’ strategies of integrating art-time into life-time in the 1960s also exerted an influence on more recent practices, such as the creation of murals in public spaces—for instance, the Moussem d'Asilah created in 1978—or interventions by the Berrechid psychiatric hospital in 1981. Moreover, the set of media, practices and strategies that comprised Integrations contained an implicit critique of museal practice as a cultural vector and actor within cultural heritage as such. Additionally, the breaking down of barriers between high and low culture also gave rise to a typology of transdisciplinary objects that encompassed design, graphics, architecture and folk art, and attempted to requalify their belonging to modernity. In comparison with the international phenomena that comprise a modernist project in which the assimilation of artisanal practices to artistic practices was placed at the service of both innovation and rationalization, Integrations allow us to think of another form of material culture working not in the service of innovation as economic and commercial progress, but rather to a vernacular form of modernism. According to Peter Limbrick,16 this vernacular modernism characterized the modern artistic period in Morocco and allowed for a re-evaluation of the conflict between local knowledge and modernity to be aired. Doing so allowed for the incorporation of diverse vernacular practices to enter into the field of a modernity under negotiation, one in which cosmopolitan and nationalist impulses were both at play. The Integrations project thus gave substance to a counter-cultural movement in Morocco where the inclusion of artistic practices in public space pursued two concomitant strategies: on the artistic level it was a question of making visible a host of previously invisible spectators; on the social level the creation of new forms of sociability affirmed art as an agent of social transformation.
- 1 Regarding the participation of artists in Morocco in international networks, see Marion von Osten: “Don't Breathe Normal: Read Souffles!—On decolonizing culture,” in: bauhaus imaginista Online Journal: http://www.bauhaus-imaginista.org/articles/1572/don-t-breathe-normal-read-souffles.
- 2 While the Mexican government sought to use the 1968 Summer Olympics (held from October 12 – 27) to raise its international profile and affiliation with other postcolonial regimes (investing a massive $150 million in preparation for hosting the games, an amount equal to roughly $1 billion in today’s dollar), the games themselves were preceded by waves of student protest, in solidarity with government crackdowns against labor union and farmer agitation. After the government’s violation of university autonomy over the summer, a National Strike Council (CNH), a democratic delegation of students from 70 Mexican universities and preparatory schools charged with coordinating further protests promoting social, educational and political reforms, was formed. The CNH were the organizers of a massive protest at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas on October 2, to which government forces responded with special vehemence, arresting students and bystanders en masse, and killing scores of protesters. Known today as the Tlatelolco massacre, the number of dead may never be fully known, but contemporary estimates are that between 300 and 400 individuals were killed by government forces. The memory of the massacre was still fresh when the Mexico City Olympics opened ten days later: the games themselves were not without further controversy. Karoline Noack references the massacre in her text on the TGP (Taller de Gráfica Popular) in this journal. Please see: www.bauhaus-imaginista.org/articles/2444/the-workshop-for-popular-graphic-art-in-mexico-bauhaus-travels-to-america.
- 3 See Toni Maraini: “Mémoires métissées. The Ancient Paradigm,” in: Insaniyat, No. 32/33, 2006. Placed online on 6 August 2012: http://journals.openedition.org/insaniyat/3303.
- 4 “A controversy will arise, around the manipulation of the concepts of ‘naivety’ and ‘spontaneity’ then invested with a romantic aura and projected on authors very different in gender, quality and personality.” Toni Maraini: “Au rendez-vous de l'histoire: la peinture,” p. 84, in: Ecrits sur l'art, Editions Le Fennec, Casablanca 2014.
- 5 See Khalil M’Rabet: “Au sujet de la réception des pratiques marocaines orientalistes et leur participation au débat post-colonial,” in: Peintures et Identités: L’expérience Marocaine, Editions L’Harmattan, Paris 1987.
- 6 Abdelkebir Khatibi: “L’art contemporain arabe.” In: Essais, Editions de la Différence, Paris 2008, p. 272, t. 3.
- 7 The artists’ interventions were often disguised within the architectural specifications and referenced under less problematic names—as indicated in the note of intent drawn up by the Faraoui and Mazières firm, who stated: “all joint projects will often be carried out without the project owners' knowledge.” Abdeslam Faraoui et Patrice de Mazières, “Note d’intention: 15 années de collaboration architectes–peintres,” archives du Cabinet Faraoui et De Mazières, non daté, archives: Cabinet Faraoui et de Mazières.
- 8 This sentence comes from an anonymous manifesto later acknowledged to have been written by Toni Maraini. “Action plastique: exhibition jamâa lfna Marrakech,” pp. 45–46, in: Souffles, No. 13/14, 1969.
- 9 A Halqa is the names for the circle of spectators who form around artists performing in a public square, which by extension refers as well to art shows taking place in public space.
- 10 Ahmed Bouanani: “Introduction à la poésie populaire marocaine,” p. 9, in: Souffles, No. 3, 1966.
- 11 “Many of the motifs used by Farid Belkahia are inspired by the heritage of tattoos and the signs/symbols that adorn objects of traditional folk art, because, being pre-calligraphic, these elements refer to a whole problem of the sign—and the pleasure of the sign—that modern art has brought to us from the depths of the collective consciousness.” In: Toni Maraini: “Farid Belkahia ‘The important thing is to feel good about yourself,’” p. 84, in: Ecrits sur l'art, Editions Le Fennec, Casablanca 2014.
- 12 Mohamed Melehi was working to define a common graphic language for interventions in public space. This intention is visible particularly in the editorial line of Souffles magazine and the poster designed for the first independent exhibition of the Casablanca Group, organized in Rabat by Toni Maraini at the Mohamed V National Theatre in 1966. Belkahia, Chabâa and Melehi all participated. Mohamed Chabâa also worked in a transdisciplinary artistic environment through multiple collaborations in the field of design and architecture.
- 13 Toni Maraini, “A Study on the Work of Mohamed Melehi,” in: Mohamed Melehi, Melehi. Recent Paintings, Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York 1984.
- 14 The allusion to this corpus first appeared in 1965 in Bert Flint's text “Caractéristiques des arts populaires,” p. 20, in: Maghreb Art No. 2, published by the École des Beaux-Arts de Casablanca, 1966. “The painting of these ceilings,” Flint wrote, “must already be considered of the greatest interest for the history of Moroccan art and perhaps for art history in general.” The subject was also treated three years later in an article by Mohamed Melehi, published in the last issue of Maghreb Art magazine. See: “Notes on the paintings of the mosques and zaouias of Souss,” p. 7. In: Maghreb Art, No. 3, 1969.
- 15 See the questionnaire carried out with several artists and published in the review Souffles, No. 7/8, (Situation Arts Plastiques au Maroc), 1967. Republished in the online journal bauhaus imaginista, http://www.bauhaus-imaginista.org/editions/3/learning-from.
- 16 Peter Limbrick: “Vernacular Modernism, Film Culture, and Moroccan short Film and Documentary,” pp. 388–413. In: The Journal of Cinema and Media, No. 56, 2015.