The Moroccan gallerist and co-founder of Casablanca-based Loft Art Gallery discusses with Rebecca Anne Proctor her encounter and work with the late Mohamed Melehi
Rebecca Anne Proctor (RAP): You had a strong relationship with the late Moroccan modernist Mohamed Melehi and were one of his primary gallerists. How did you discover him?
Yasmine Berrada (YB): The story is a beautiful one. For the opening of the gallery in 2009 we opened with a solo show of Chaïbia Talal—one of the most famous Moroccan artists from the twentieth century with work that resembled very much the trends of the western Cobra group, with brilliant colours and violent abstract brushstrokes. It was a few years after her death and it was complicated to organise the show but my sister and I went ahead and it was very successful. We had around 600 people on the first day. Mohamed Melehi was at the opening and he was introduced to me. He kept looking at me and we immediately had this connection and we began working together.
RAP: So you had this immediate feeling, recognition and affinity for each other—you knew that you wanted to work together?
YB: Yes. I believe greatly in have this “feeling”—whether it is for a work of art or for working with someone. At the time Melehi didn’t have the success he has today, he wasn’t as famous, yet when I saw his work I was immediately transfixed. I knew he was a great artist. I told myself and my sister did too: “This is an artist we must work with.” And we did. My sister and I became very close to him and his wife, Khadija. For about 10 years he worked exclusively with us but our relationship wasn’t just about his work at the gallery and staging shows. We ate together, traveled together to Paris and toured the Centre Pompidou together and also the Mathaf in Doha. We spent much time conversing about many things and I learned so much from Melehi. He became a dear friend.
In the beginning not many people knew of his work but after staging many exhibitions people came to understand his work more, the way he used colour and form to depict the world around him.
RAP: Melehi’s last solo exhibition Melehi et Le Déluge was held at Loft Art Gallery at the end of 2019. What did the show capture?
YB: The exhibition was groundbreaking in that it showcased the artist’s reflections through art on climate change. Melehi had been concerned with subject since the 2016 International Climate Conference (Cop 22) in Marrakech. During that time Loft Art Gallery had shown his work under the title Hymne au climat (Climate Hymn). These works are filled with the artist’s vibrant colours and forms. Undulating lines that he once referred to as “flames” become symbolic of rising water, and shapes that look like threatening storm clouds, ready to burst with rain now become thunder bolts and ready to light up the night sky. Like all of the artist’s works, the viewer really gains a sense of the natural world, its sensations, changes, and emotions.
RAP: Melehi is part of numerous Moroccan artists that make up the gallery’s roster. Why?
YB: Art history in Morocco as quite recent and it was really important for us at Loft Art Gallery to showcase the art history of Morocco to the world. I began the gallery in 2009 with my sister. I studied finance and was initially working as an asset manager at a bank but then I desired to work in a more creative field. All my life I had watched my father collect art. I couldn’t understand why he was buying so much art and just storing it without hanging it. He kept buying and buying as if to satisfy and unconscious need. While I didn’t study art history, I grew up surrounded by the art that my father collected and I loved it. His collection gave me an intuitive sensibility towards art. Once again, for us the most important aspect of the gallery was to place Moroccan art history at the forefront of the gallery’s mission.
RAP: Melehi was part of the Casablanca School. What exactly did the school focus on and importantly, what are the elements that make up Moroccan art?
YB: Again, Moroccan art and its history is very recent. It was only during the sixties that a group of artists in Morocco, known as the Casablanca School, came together to reflect upon the modern and contemporary world through their art. Moroccan art is not just folkloric art or naïf art or work that reflects just on Morocco’s French influences. Moroccan art has a universal language. It comprises many different influences, just like the work of Melehi, but always while keeping a Moroccan identity through abstract forms and colors that reflect upon the country’s natural and urban landscape as well as its heritage and culture.
RAP: I love the sense of visual poetry in much of the Moroccan modern and contemporary art that I see, particularly pertaining to Melehi’s art. How would you describe the visual poetry that he incorporates?
YB: Melehi is very poetic in his work. His art is a poem—a visual one. There’s the sense of the unknown and of emotions that are rendered in Melehi’s work through colours and forms that come together always with much movement. There are coloirs that reflect skin, greenery, animals and people—but always abstract so that we use our imagination to decipher what he might be saying. You also find visual poetry in the works of Amina Agueznay and Malika Agueznay—we are currently showing the latter’s works in a solo show at the gallery entitled Malika Agueznay Comme en 68. Abstraction in form, colour and movement and even in the use of materials in these artists’ works offers visual poetry. Ultimately, that is what Melehi left us: Beautiful works of art that forever connect us to Morocco and his undying and passionate spirit for exploration, his homeland and the world around him.