Dalloul Art Foundation

Dalloul Art Foundation

MOHAMED MELEHI MOHAMED MELEHI

MOHAMED MELEHI, Morocco (1936 - 2020)

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Bio

Written by Arthur Debsi

Born in the Atlantic coastal city of Asilah in 1936, Morocco, Mohamed Melehi grew up in a cosmopolitan environment, which included people from Spanish, and Sephardic-Jewish communities. This social diversity made him open to other cultures, religions, and liberties[1]. Despite the expectations of his father, who wished him to become an agricultural engineer[2], Melehi studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Tétouan from 1953 to 1955. Yet, he had always felt the desire to escape the country, especially when he contemplated the sea, and the boats during his time in Tangiers[3]. He eventually fulfilled his dreams, going to Europe, where he pursued his education in many institutions. In 1955, he enrolled in the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de Santa Isabel de Hungria in Seville, Spain, completing his studies on a scholarship in fine art. The following year, he went to Madrid to study sculpture at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. Still determined to stay in the continent, he obtained another scholarship, and traveled to Italy in 1957. There, he trained in the department of sculpture in the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome, for three years. In 1960, he arrived in France, but couldn’t finish the school year at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he started practicing engraving. Due to the internal context, which stressed the tensions between France and Algeria, Mohamed Melehi didn’t feel comfortable there, and decided to go back to Morocco. However, he quickly left again to go to the United States in 1962, where he became assistant professor in the painting department at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. After one semester, he moved to New York, on a grant from the Rockfeller Foundation, and attended courses in Art History of the 20th century, at Columbia’s University for two years. In 1964, he returned to Morocco for good, and was very active in its new artistic development, that the École des Beaux-Arts in Casablanca stimulated. Thereafter, he played an noteworthy role in publishing: he founded the art, and literary magazine called Intégral in 1972, and co-founded Shoof two years later, a publishing house for artistic, and cultural publications, and cinema productions. Through his career, he also held positions in politics, when he was appointed Head of the Arts at the Ministry of Culture in 1978. The same year, he inaugurated with the Moroccan poet, writer, and journalist Mohamed Benaissa (1937-), the annual Cultural Musim Asilah, in their hometown of Asilah. This event would gather for a month poets, writers, economists, journalists, to discuss a specific subject at the Afro-Arab Forum, an offspring of Cultural Musim Asilah[4]. In 1996, he became advisor to the Cabinet of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs for one year.

    The city of Tangiers occupied an important place in Mohamed Melehi’s mind, as it represented a place of freedom, and joie de vivre. He remembered the time when the Spanish troops left the zone in 1945 – after a presence of five years. He saw the blue, red, and white colors of the American, British, and French flags, which replaced the black, and yellow colors of the Spanish, and German ones. Since then, he understood the visual impact of the colors, and the symbolic strength, that they can carry[5]

Through his years of studies, whether in Morocco, or Europe, Mohamed Melehi noticed an academic teaching, which appeared to him to be constraining. And at that time, the student was in search of freedom, and certainly learned more from his personal experiences on the spot. As a matter of fact, he discovered all the riches of culture, art, and history, while visiting prestigious museums, institutions, and galleries. In Italy, he frequented the local artistic circle, and encountered lots of renowned artists from the abstract movement in the mid-20th century, like the painters Carla Accardi (1924-2014), and Giulio Turcato (1912-1995. In parallel, he started exhibiting his works in some galleries, for example at the famous Trastevere Gallery, where he hold his first solo show in 1962. All this time marked the primary step of the artistic journey of Melehi, who furthered his research into abstraction, and work on textures: he would bring with him materials like canvas, wool, and jute from his vacation in Morocco[6]. From 1959 to 1960, he showed an interest in the black color, that he experimented with geometrical shapes, or stripes, on a black background. He wanted to extract light, even if it wasn’t apparent. In New York, the artist moved from a dark palette to the integration of bright colors in his new compositions. The latter are the reflection of his own visual experience, and demonstrated his fascination for the dynamism of the city. Big advertising posters, lights, and jazz music, constituted the urban landscape, which Mohamed Melehi wanted to capture in a series of works. Part of the Dalloul Art Foundation’s collection, the two pieces respectively entitled Zipper (1962), and Time Square (1963), illustrate the observation work of the painter. He imagined light signals like small yellow, and red squares, and insisted on a rigorous symmetric order, giving an electronic aspect to the representations. He somehow referred to the development of technology, and communication, which characterized the era, through which the United States were going during the 1960s[7].

The West did have an effect on Mohamed Melehi’s oeuvre, but the artist sometimes saw himself disconnected to its system, saying: ‘Being Moroccan was, even there, a form of exclusion’[8]. He was aware of his both Muslim, and Moroccan identities, into which he aimed to delve, upon his return to Morocco. When he joined the pedagogical team at the École des Beaux-Arts in Casablanca in 1964, he headed the workshops of painting, sculpting, and photography. In his program, he tended to crossbreed multiple disciplines, namely plastic art, and craftsmanship. Therefore, Mohamed Melehi perfected another method, with his colleagues the Italian art Historian Toni Maraini (1941-), and the Dutchman anthropologist Bert Flint (1931-). Different from a classical teaching, this method proposed to look towards the Moroccan traditional culture, and integrate it in a modern artistic language. The German Bauhaus movement from the beginning of the 20th century was a source of inspiration, because it also promoted the combination of fine arts, and craft[9]. During the courses that he gave, he introduced materials such as rural rugs, and silver jewelry, coming from several regions of the country, so the students could work on them[10].

On May 9th, 1969, Melehi organized an original exhibition in Marrakesh, where a group of artists – mainly from the École des Beaux-Arts in Casablanca – displayed their works in the square, and market place Jemaa el-Fnaa. The objective was to bring art to people, and familiarize them with something that belonged to them, as the group stated: ‘We also wanted to arouse interest in this person, to awaken his curiosity, his critical spirit, to stimulate him so that he integrates new plastic expressions into the rhythm of his daily life, into his daily space’[11]. This event signaled the stage of the independence of Moroccan modern art, affirming its historical, and cultural authenticity. Mohamed Melehi said: ‘Moroccan culture is present; it has developed over the course of centuries. In Morocco, man knew to benefit from all the continental and foreign contributions by integrating them into his own creative genius. In addition, we cannot develop a culture without seeking to identify with a pre-established heritage’[12]. In the process of building a national culture, he asserted the importance of the elaboration of painting, which thoroughly led to the rediscovery of the past.

The oeuvre of Mohamed Melehi is linked to this process, but he is above it all, an experimenter. He is attached to abstraction, and demonstrates a total absence of figuration in his works. However, although coming from a religious family[13], he said that this was not because of religious reasons, but for a more different mindset[14]. As seen in the work called Composition (1976), part of the Dalloul Art Foundation’s collection, he focused on the colors, and the shapes, that are his main experimental ground. He applied bright colors – ‘industrial colors’[15] –, and drew sharp edges, without leaving any brushstrokes on the canvas. He filled the space by interlocking the geometrical forms with each other, like constructions. He created waves that are associated with straight, and broken lines. In some other works such as Untitled (1982), also part of the DAF’s collection, Melehi extended his practice to a symbolic painting. He conveyed the energy forces of the night, by illustrating the moon in the sky, and employing blue nuances. Or, the intensity of what could appear to be the rays of the sun, in Composition (1976), another piece in the DAF’s collection. These ensembles recall the Arabic-Andalusian decor, for example present in the urban architecture, which is based on geometrical order. Here, Mohamed Melehi deconstructed, and re-organized in balance the order of the space, and the forms. The dynamic rhythm that he imposed manifests his innovative approach of abstraction.

Mohamed Melehi worked between Tangiers, and Marrakesh. He passed away in Paris in 2020. 

[1] Gayet-Descendre, Nadine. ‘Mohamed Melehi, Une Vie’ in Malīḥī Muḥammad, and Pierre Restany. Melehi: Galerie Bab Rouah, Rabat, Du 18 Au 31 décembre 1997. Rabat, Morocco: Galerie Bab Rouah, 1997. [P.37]

[2] Gayet-Descendre, Nadine. ‘Mohamed Melehi, Une Vie’ in Malīḥī Muḥammad, and Pierre Restany. Melehi: Galerie Bab Rouah, Rabat, Du 18 Au 31 décembre 1997. Rabat, Morocco: Galerie Bab Rouah, 1997. [P.39]

[3] Gayet-Descendre, Nadine. ‘Mohamed Melehi, Une Vie’ in Malīḥī Muḥammad, and Pierre Restany. Melehi: Galerie Bab Rouah, Rabat, Du 18 Au 31 décembre 1997. Rabat, Morocco: Galerie Bab Rouah, 1997. [P.40]

[4] Ali, Wijdan. Modern Islamic Art: Development and Continuity. Gainesville, USA: University Press of Florida, 1997. [P.75]

[5] Gayet-Descendre, Nadine. ‘Mohamed Melehi, Une Vie’ in Malīḥī Muḥammad, and Pierre Restany. Melehi: Galerie Bab Rouah, Rabat, Du 18 Au 31 décembre 1997. Rabat, Morocco: Galerie Bab Rouah, 1997. [P.39]

[6] Gayet-Descendre, Nadine. ‘Mohamed Melehi, Une Vie’ in Malīḥī Muḥammad, and Pierre Restany. Melehi: Galerie Bab Rouah, Rabat, Du 18 Au 31 décembre 1997. Rabat, Morocco: Galerie Bab Rouah, 1997. [P.44]

[7] Bergeron, Marie-Anne, and Benjamin Erb. “Vert Le Changement.” Les Dossiers Histoire Et Civilisation,8, no. 1, 2014. [P.32]

[8] Translation from French: ‘Être marocain, restait, même là-bas, une forme d’exclusion’. Mohamed Melehi quoted in Gayet-Descendre, Nadine. ‘Mohamed Melehi, Une Vie’ in Malīḥī Muḥammad, and Pierre Restany. Melehi: Galerie Bab Rouah, Rabat, Du 18 Au 31 décembre 1997. Rabat, Morocco: Galerie Bab Rouah, 1997. [P.49]

[9] Universalis‎, Encyclopædia. “BAUHAUS.” Encyclopædia Universalis. Accessed June 26, 2020. https://www.universalis.fr/encyclopedie/bauhaus/.

[10] Vlotides, Maria. “Memories - Articles.” bauhaus imaginista. Accessed June 29, 2020. http://www.bauhaus-imaginista.org/articles/13/memories.

[11] ‘Action Plastique : Exposition Jamaa lfna, Marrakech’, Souffles, nos.13/14, 1969, pp.45-46. Translated from French by Emma Ramadan, in Lenssen, Anneka, A. Rogers, Sarah, and Shabout, Nada. Modern Art in the Arab World, Primary Documents. New York, USA: The Museum of Modern Art, 2018. [P.324]

[12] Mohamed Melehi’s response to the Artists’ Questionnaire, Souffles, nos.7/8, 1967 in Lenssen, Anneka, A. Rogers, Sarah, and Shabout, Nada. Modern Art in the Arab World, Primary Documents. New York, USA: The Museum of Modern Art, 2018. [P.278]

[13] Gayet-Descendre, Nadine. ‘Mohamed Melehi, Une Vie’ in Malīḥī Muḥammad, and Pierre Restany. Melehi: Galerie Bab Rouah, Rabat, Du 18 Au 31 décembre 1997. Rabat, Morocco: Galerie Bab Rouah, 1997. [P.37]

[14] Goldenberg, André. “1956 - 1986 : Trente Ans De Peinture Marocaine.” Cahiers De La Méditerranée, 1989. [P.47]

[15] Maraini, Toni. ‘Melehi : un itinéraire d’action, une géométrie visionnaire’ in Malīḥī Muḥammad, and Pierre Restany. Melehi: Galerie Bab Rouah, Rabat, Du 18 Au 31 décembre 1997. Rabat, Morocco: Galerie Bab Rouah, 1997. [P.18]

Sources

Ali, Wijdan. Modern Islamic Art: Development and Continuity. Gainesville, USA: University Press of Florida, 1997.

Adam Jürgen Axel, and Florian Hufnagl. Marokkanische Teppiche Und Die Kunst Der Moderne, Moroccan Carpets and Modern Art. Stuttgart, Germany: Arnoldsche, 2013.

Aroussi, Moulim el., and Brahim Alaoui. Peinture Marocaine 1950-2010: Collection Elisabeth Bauchet-Bouhlal. Marrakech, Morocco: ES-SAADI Garden & Resort, 2010.

Bergeron, Marie-Anne, and Benjamin Erb. “Vert Le Changement.” Les Dossiers Histoire Et Civilisation, 8, no. 1, 2014.

Eigner, Saeb. Art of the Middle-East, Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World and Iran. London, UK: Merell Publishers Limited, 2011.

Goldenberg, André. “1956 - 1986 : Trente Ans De Peinture Marocaine.” Cahiers De La Méditerranée, 1989.

Lenssen, Anneka, A. Rogers, Sarah, and Shabout, Nada. Modern Art in the Arab World, Primary Documents. New York, USA: The Museum of Modern Art, 2018.

Malīḥī Muḥammad, and Pierre Restany. Melehi: Galerie Bab Rouah, Rabat, Du 18 Au 31 décembre 1997. Rabat, Morocco: Galerie Bab Rouah, 1997.

“À Propos · School of Casablanca.” School of Casablanca. Accessed June 23, 2020. https://schoolofcasablanca.com/fr/.

Powers, Jean Holiday. “Published.” Casablanca School - Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism, 2016. https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/casablanca-school.

Sefrioui, Kenza. “La Revue Souffles (1966-1973): Quand Culture Rime Avec Politique.” Revue Interculturel/Francophonie, (Lecce, Alliance Française, n°16), Ss. Dir. Bernoussi Saltani : "Abdellatif Laâbi : Un Intellectuel Tout Simplement", 2009.

Lakrissa, Fatima Zahra. “École Des Beaux-Arts De Casablanca (1964–1970) - Articles.” bauhaus imaginista. Accessed June 10, 2020. http://www.bauhaus-imaginista.org/articles/2413/e-cole-des-beaux-arts-de-casablanca-1964-1970?0bbf55ceffc3073699d40c945ada9faf=ppq3kadfmlm2tm02ime94tk3q0.

Universalis‎, Encyclopædia. “BAUHAUS.” Encyclopædia Universalis. Accessed June 26, 2020. https://www.universalis.fr/encyclopedie/bauhaus/.

Vlotides, Maria. “Memories - Articles.” bauhaus imaginista. Accessed June 29, 2020. http://www.bauhaus-imaginista.org/articles/13/memories.

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