REVISITING MOROCCAN MODERNISM | MOHAMED MELEHI

Mohamed Melehi inspired mural in Alserkal Avenue. Photography by Seeing Things, Courtesy Alserkal Avenue
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New Waves: Mohamed Melehi and the Casablanca Art School Archives in Concrete, presented by the Alserkal Arts Foundation, is a group exhibition retracing a body of work produced between the 1950s and ‘80s, at a time when Moroccan modernism was booming. Curated by Zamân Books & Curating, the exhibition showcases neverbefore- seen artworks and archive material documenting an influential moment in the MEASA region’s art history.

The exhibition presents a collection of Melehi’s colourful arrangements in what is being billed as one of the artist’s most important retrospectives to date. Melehi, an avid painter, photographer, muralist, graphic and urban designer, art teacher and cultural activist, achieved notoriety for capturing the golden age of the Asilah Festival, which he co-founded in 1978 in a small town on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, south of Tangiers.

Melehi is a major figure of post-colonial Moroccan art and Arab modernism, and this exhibit includes a number of previously neverbefore- seen works and archives that present the artist’s diverse and far-ranging practice in a new light. “My question was, what could we find in Morocco that was an expression of modernism?”

Originally displayed at The Mosaic Rooms in London in 2019 and then at MACAAL in Marrakech through January 2020, the exhibition of New Waves at Alserkal Avenue in Dubai highlights Meheli’s role as an interlocutor to artists from across Africa, Asia and other Arab countries.

Between 1964 and 1974, Melehi and his cohorts became a tightly knit community of artists who supported themselves through radical approaches to art education, which ultimately led them to form what became known as the Casablanca Fine Art School.

Mohamed Melehi, Photography by H. Chergui, 2017
Mohamed Melehi, Photography by H. Chergui, 2017

There, Melehi developed experimental classes that combined collective knowledge production with hands-on practical experience in art-making, using pedagogy as scaffolding in which to encourage students to look beyond Western art history for inspiration.

Accompanying some of Melehi’s works on canvas, there is also a significant archive and photographic material from the mid to late 20th century, visual documents that breathe new life into Melehi’s diverse output.

After returning from a group show in the United States at the MoMA in 1963, Melehi began to infuse the hard edge of colourful abstractions with Arabic calligraphy. Melehi also often worked outdoors, encouraging his students to go on field trips to study Berber crafts and architecture.

As his work developed, however, rather than employing the craft traditions of the ancient medina, Melehi starting using industrial materials that were easily accessible by the working class, including car paint instead of his usual acrylic.

New Waves: Mohamed Melehi and the Casablanca Art School Archives in Concrete will be open on the 19th of September at Alserkal Avenue in Dubai following its postponement from March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dorian Batycka

Dorian Batycka is a Canadian curator, art critic and DJ based in Muscat, Oman. He is currently curator at Bait Muzna for Art Film. Previously, he was assistant curator for the first ever Maldives National Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale and has contributed to numerous publications, including Art and Education, Frieze Blog, and Nero. He can be found on Twitter.

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