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New Waves: How Moroccan Artist Mohamed Melehi Shaped an Aesthetic

In more recent years, museum exhibitions and academics have tried to refute the fallacy that abstract art was solely an American art movement by presenting works by artists whose artworks not only fall within the category of abstract expressionism, but also illustrate a mastery of the art form. Such is the work of Mohamed Melehi, a Moroccan artist who established the radical art movement the Casablanca Art School from 1964 to 1974 and, with it, a regionally-inspired paradigm of abstract painting and expression.

New Waves: Mohamed Melehi and the Casablanca Art School is a retrospective currently on display at the Mosaic Rooms in London that highlights Melehi’s career, illustrating his mastery and the significant contribution he has made to the canon of abstract art. The exhibition was curated by Morad Montazami, and tells the story of an artist who was also a photographer, muralist, graphic designer and educator.

Divided into the three chapters of Melehi’s artistic development and career, the exhibition traces his movement from Morocco to Seville and Rome in the early 1950s, and then the two years he spent in New York from 1962 to 1964. It was in Rome in 1957 that his works were exhibited internationally for the first time at Galleria Trastevere, a visionary gallery owned and run by Topazia Alliata. Melehi’s geometric experiments of horizontal and vertical lines in muted shades of maroon, brown and yellow were heavily influenced by his studies at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome where he studied alongside now-recognized contemporary artists, including the late Greek-Italian Jannis Kounellis.

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While Melehi was developing his own “soft-edge” painting technique, the iconic wave aesthetic that would come to dominate his later works started to take shape in New York. In 1963, Melehi’s work was exhibited in the group exhibition Hard Edge and Geometric Painting at the Museum of Modern Art. His geometric aesthetic invoked the shapes and lights of New York’s skyscrapers and urban landscapes, but it was perhaps jazz that ultimately catalyzed Melehi’s later works, not simply visually but intellectually.

The verticality of his geometric lines corresponds to the linear nature of music. Living and working close to the famous Five Spot Café, Melehi’s love for watching live jazz music made its way to the canvas: His paintings started to exude an energy that is uncontainable and bounces off the surface, each color a note in a piece of inaudible music, bringing to mind jazz’s confluence of disparate instrumental elements that ultimately harmonize. Melehi’s hard angles of geometry gave way to circular volumes and, ultimately, waves.  Just as sound waves carry all the characteristics of music, Melehi’s painted waves signify a multitude of elements.

Returning to Casablanca in 1964 to teach, he set out to look into the traditions of Morocco to create art that was in line with the contemporary art of the time, with cultural and historical references to the art, crafts and traditions of Moroccan-Berber heritage, including jewelry, pottery and architecture.

Color is Melehi’s forte; no more than five colors are present in any one painting, yet so much is said within such a limitation. Melehi’s waves suggest many things: the natural relationship between the sun, sea and horizon; cosmic relations between the planets; and the relationship between man and the moon. In a Moroccan television documentary that’s part of the exhibition, Melehi says that “waves transmit extraordinary sensuality,” going on to explain how the moon’s basic circular shape contains a miscellany of cultural reminders.

There is poetry too in the depiction of the moon, like “the poetry in Muslim religion of marking days by the waning and shape of the moon in the sky.” His paintings thus do not stand solely for the purely visual abstract expressionist statement of shapes for shapes’ sake; rather, they use abstraction as a means of highlighting and celebrating cultural references and realities.

The waves in Melehi’s work further took on a mystical element as he evolved them into flames, painting great swoops that emanated from the center of the painting with force that belies a strength of earthly magnitude.

The exhibition’s curatorial proposition of Melehi as a massive contributor to the development of a regional art aesthetic is strengthened with an extensive number of primary sources displayed alongside the artworks of Melehi’s assorted activities, including covers he designed for the avant-garde journals Souffles (1966-69) and Integral (1972-77); photographs with his students at the Casablanca Fine Arts School, where he taught between 1964 and 1974; and photographs he took of Moroccan-Berber crafts and buildings of modernist architecture. The documentary, which shows Melehi talking about his own history and art, helps in understanding some of the more transcendental aspects of his work.

The exhibition requires a visitor’s attention and focus so as to fully appreciate the extent of Melehi’s work and understand how he was not only an artist, but also an activist fighting for greater cultural development and appreciation in his native Morocco and throughout the Arab World. He also led major restoration projects in Morocco from 1985 to 1992 while working for the Ministry of Culture, and such efforts are documented in the final stage of the exhibition, which shows examples of Moroccan crafts alongside Melehi’s works and photographs.

New Waves: Mohamed Melehi and the Casablanca Art School runs through June 22 at the Mosaic Rooms in London.


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