In 1965, students of the Casablanca École des Beaux-Arts were encouraged to self-organize their mid-term exhibition, usually held in the main hall of the School. It was the first time they had collaborated as a group, and they worked enthusiastically. I wrote a text for the occasion, published in a local newspaper and distributed to visitors. In it I wrote: “The students have worked in a spirit of collaboration and exchange inspired by the ideas and methods of the first real modern art school, the Bauhaus …” It was the first time that an art history course in Morocco had included lessons on the Bauhaus, for which educational material was still relatively difficult to come by.
View of the 1965 collective exhibition of the École des Beaux-Arts students on color fields and forms.
Courtesy of Toni Maraini.
If our small new team of teachers shared similar views on what a modern art school should be and were all inspired by the Bauhaus’s example, it was thanks to our mutual friendship and shared history of transcultural experience. Between the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, a time when Italy’s interest in the Bauhaus was very much alive, invigorated by the ongoing debate over the ideas of the Immaginista movement (which partly had its origins in Northern Italy, around 19531), three young Moroccan artists—Mohamed Melehi, Mohamed Châbaa, and Mohamed Ataallah—had received scholarships to study at the Rome Art Academy. We four became good friends. When I left Rome to finish my university studies abroad, I met Melehi again in New York, where the Bauhaus heritage still exerted a great deal of influence. That was going to count when in the mid-1960s Ataallah, Châbaa, Melehi, and myself began to teach at the Casablanca École des Beaux-Arts. As documented in an article published elsewhere in this journal,2 Farid Belkahia, a talented and dynamic artist who, upon returning to Morocco after studying in Prague, had been appointed director of the School—first founded under the French Colonial Protectorate to serve the European elite—was searching for a new team of teachers to change its program and pedagogical methods. These changes were indeed soon realized …
When a group of the School’s painters joined together to stage the very first art shows in Morocco (in Rabat, Casablanca, and Marrakesh) organized independently from the ministry of culture and the state’s official art policies, journalists had referred to them as “the Casablanca Group” and wrote that an altogether new situation was at hand. They also called them “les artistes contestataires.” Many indeed were the things to contest! The School’s research, declarations, and programs, along with its cultural and social commitment, had soon captured public attention. Not bad for a small establishment, with a student body numbering around 50. Our team was aware that we were carrying out a set of actions coinciding with a crucial phase in Morocco’s post-colonial history. We were equally aware of our responsibility in forming a new generation of art students, some of whom indeed emerged later as successful artists. But we could not have imagined then that more than half a century later our experience and work would be the focus of art historical attention, and would be honored as part of the Bauhaus’s centenary celebrations!
How the School—today called École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts—evolved in later years is another story. The period that my account concerns dates from between 1964 and 1974. The end point of this period was the year Châbaa, Melehi, Ataallah, and myself left the School—as we felt a cycle had been accomplished—and Belkahia resigned in protest against the official policies of the administration . Morocco at the time was going through a very somber political period. With its critical stand and public events, its collaboration with other artists and with the militant group of poets from the left-oriented literary review Souffles, the Casablanca Group was indeed considered highly “contestataire.”
Pages of Maghreb Art, No. 3, 1969, published by the École des Beaux-Arts de Casablanca, photograph by Mohamed Melehi of a rural popular silver jewel and student graphic studies inspired by it illustrating the article ‘Note on the Experience of Painting and Decoration Workshops Run by Painters Chebaa [Chabâa] and Melehi at the École des Beaux-Arts de Casablanca’.
What bauhaus imaginista has documented thus relates to a particular historical phase, one that opened a path to the renewal of the art situation in Morocco. And yet, although more recent generations of Moroccan art historians and critics often mentioned the period as a formative and unavoidable reference point, they never really deepened study of that period. It somehow remained in the shadows of other phases and realities. But cultural memory has its rhythms, and the moment arose when the years of the Casablanca Group called for attention, demanding its artistic accomplishments be better understood. In this regard, the bauhaus imaginista project came at the right moment and has had important repercussions.
In December 2008, a small conference on the past history of the School was held within the First Marrakesh Art Biennale, but was attended by only a few artist friends and failed to reach a broader public. When Belkahia died in 2014, a new wave of interest in his work arose, with several exhibitions and conferences organized in Morocco and France, a Foundation created in his name in Marrakesh, and a book project, later published in France by Editions Skira in 2017. In retracing Belkahia’s work and career, his period as director of the Casablanca School of Fine Arts emerged in all its importance. Yet, it was treated mainly as a phase in his life. What was still lacking was a work focused only on the School. By a lucky coincidence, Marion von Osten and I were in Morocco in April 2016, attending a conference in Rabat about the revue Souffles. I learned that she and Grant Weston were greatly interested in the important role the Casablanca School once played in the Moroccan art scene. Their bauhaus imaginista project was soon going to stir great enthusiasm in Morocco, where a handful of young researchers were just then embarking on a collective research project on the Casablanca School coordinated by Morad Montazami. They were soon incorporated into bauhaus imaginista. Fully documenting the period was no easy task. It required insight and knowledge into this complex and revolutionary “hinge” period in the history of Morocco’s national culture, that took place in the interstice between colonial and post-colonial history. An additional complication: over the years documents had been scattered and lost, and the School of Fine Arts itself had not always kept a proper record of its past. The interviews and enquiries made by the research team had to somehow compensate for these problems, as did the precious personal archives some of us had kept. (Since 1964, I myself had written regularly on the various phases of modern Moroccan art.)
I can affirm here that the new broader interest, academic studies, and institutional acknowledgement fueled by the inclusion of Morocco in the bauhaus imaginista project is thanks to the far-reaching vision and commitment of Marion von Osten, Grant Watson, and their collaborators. The effects have been significant.
On the national level, bauhaus imaginista broadened the horizon of the art scene, enhancing the necessity of better apprehending the past. It encouraged a new interest in an artistic and cultural phase often unknown to younger generations. This phase is highly illuminative of the pioneering spirit of the modern Moroccan (and Maghreb) artists who dynamically interlaced local and international influences : in other words, this group of artists and culture workers exemplify the general importance of transcultural processes. In fact, the references the Casablanca School made to the Bauhaus in the 1960s must not be seen as merely the adoption of a model or ideological superstructure (this was not at all the case), but as the discovery, through a variety of personal experiences, of some artworks, methods, and ideas with which these artists felt a deep affinity and corresponded with their passionate quests and enquiries. The French art critic Pierre Restany later described this particular experience as a “transhumance journey” across cultures.
Much could be said about the artistic reception in Morocco and the Maghreb of the words and works of Klee and Kandinsky (and not them alone), so rich in Afro-Oriental influences, or of Gropius’s exhortation to reconnect the crafts within an integrative vision. Inspired by the latter’s vision, from the beginning our team at the Casablanca School of Fine Art had studied and conducted field research into Morocco’s popular arts and crafts traditions, relegated until then to the field of colonial ethnography. We documented how male and female artisans had been considered “master artists,” which traditionally was well-integrated into architecture and the production of household goods, and in many respects already “modern.” The ideas of the twentieth century international avant-garde movements had reaffirmed the Casablanca Group artists’ own quest for a modernist North African identity, offering answers very different from colonial propaganda. It may be difficult today to grasp this generous, free-spirited, and audacious page of history if, as some authors avow, we live presently in a postmodern time—one marked by, among other things, a loss of historical memory, a narrow species of mercantilism, and the ascendance of the simulacral. Yet, it is exactly for these reasons that it remains important to continue analyzing their legacy, as it may yet furnish a response to the new generation’s quest.
On the other hand, the obverse is also true. By turning to a number of non-Western movements related to the Bauhaus and to the very idea of modernity as a network of dissemination, bauhaus imaginista not only honors the legacy of the School as a major part of world heritage but also documents the importance of transculturality as such. The Weimar and Dessau Bauhaus schools were cosmopolitan, open to ideas from outside official academic culture and beyond the West’s geographic boundaries. As August Macke had written in the Der Blaue Reiter Almanach years before, “forms speak all over an absolute language.” By connecting with the arts, crafts, forms, iconologies of world culture—as well as with non-Western philosophical and religious thought—the founding artists of the Bauhaus experienced in their turn a passionate and instructive “transhumance journey.”
The solution to today’s nationalist conflicts and self-enclosures lies not in erecting walls or imposing worldwide mono-cultural policies, but, as Noam Chomsky has written, in the “glocal”—that combination of global and local perceptions, engagements, and forms of knowledge where affinities are highlighted and diversity is learned from. By providing documentation of different hybrid cultural formation, bauhaus imaginista has indeed delivered a major message on the importance of these processes.
- 1 In 1953, issue no. 8/9 of the Italian avant-garde Magazine Arti Visive informed its readers that a new movement—called in France “Mouvement International pour un Bauhaus Imaginiste” and “Bauhaus Immaginista” in Italy—had been created by a group of European artists who had taken a polemic stand against the new “Bauhaus” in Ulm, the Hochschule für Gestaltung (HfG, or Ulm School of Design). They considered the school, founded by Bauhaus alum Max Bill, “only a simple industrial art school,” claiming it had abandoned the creative and internationalist spirit of the original Bauhaus.
- 2 See Maud Houssais: Les Intégrations: Faraoui and Mazières. 1966–1982. From the Time of Art to the Time of Life; http://www.bauhaus-imaginista.org/articles/2387/les-integrations-faraoui-and-mazieres-1966-1982 or Toni Maraini: The Bauhaus and Morocco; http://www.bauhaus-imaginista.org/articles/256/the-bauhaus-and-morocco