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LONDON — Born in 1936, Mohamed Melehi — a Moroccan painter, photographer, muralist, graphic designer, teacher, and cultural activist — has his first UK exhibition dedicated solely to his art and life, at The Mosaic Rooms. Curated by Morad Montazami, the exhibition is organized chronologically. Heavy on archival materials on the artist, it also tells the story of the pioneering Casablanca Art School, of which Melehi was a key member. Thematically the exhibition pivots on what has become the artist’s trademark motif: the wave.
Aptly titled New Waves: Mohamed Melehi and the Casablanca Art School, the show opens without any curves at all. The first work to be encountered, the somber “Wounds” (1959), consists of dark vertical strips of colored paper applied to sacking. It is a stark juxtaposition to the brightly colored, energetic curls that come later in the artist’s career. Melehi made “Wounds” while at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome, where he attended Tony Shallojia’s Bianco e Nero (Black and White) workshop.
Prior to Italy, Melehi studied in Spain before accepting a scholarship to study at Columbia University in New York between 1962 and 1964. In New York (where he kept a studio in the same building as artist Jim Dine), he began to develop his own distinctive style and, inspired by New York’s bright lights and skyscrapers, he introduced the big blocks and strips of color into his works for which he is known. “Vertical” (1960) is smoother and cleaner than the works made in Italy. While its colors are still predominantly neutral, a stripe of red makes an appearance; similarly, several works titled “Solar Nostalgia” (1962) see the introduction of yellow rectangles with rounded edges, as if morphing into ellipses. These works signal the entry of the curve into Melehi’s compositions. At this point it may seem like there is no wave in sight, but the storm is coming.
Around the next corner, The Mosaic Rooms takes us from New York City to Casablanca, with a pink gallery covered in posters, photographs, paintings, and, finally, waves. Upon returning to Morocco in 1964, Melehi — along with artists Farid Belkahia and Mohammed Chabaa and collector Bert Flint — led a radical development of art education at the Ecole des Beaux Arts de Casablanca, encouraging its students to look at local art production for inspiration. Promoting the interconnection between graphic art, architecture, and painting, Melehi also worked to bridge the gap between local Moroccan-Berber crafts and modernist architecture, something he photographed extensively, with his prints on display at The Mosaic Rooms.
The exhibition also includes photo-documentation of the Casablanca Art School’s public exhibitions, including the 1969 exhibition Exposition-Manifeste/Présence Plastique in Jemaa-el-Fna Square, Marrakech. The exhibition was held in opposition to the state-run Salon du Printemps, which served as a reminder of the colonial era as it consistently sidelined Moroccan artists. The group involved with the Casablanca Art School was committed to bringing Moroccan art onto the street and into everyday life, painting public murals and creating outdoor sculpture installations. In 1978, with Mohamed Benaïssa, Melehi co-founded the Asilah Arts Festival for this purpose. Located in the coastal town of Asilah, it still takes place annually.
In Melehi’s painting practice, the flame shape began to emerge in the 1970s. In “Flamme” (1975) the waves morph from water into fire, rising upward, cutting through with beams of orange and yellow, like a rays of light. This flame motif first appeared on the cover of the debut issue of Integral (1972), a Pan-Arab magazine for poetry, visual arts, and graphic arts, which Melehi designed. The artist founded his own graphic design studio, Shoof Publishing, in 1974. Shoof issued art books and created commercial design for shops and private companies. As a graphic designer, Melehi’s work impacted both artistic networks and political causes. The Casablanca Art School was involved with a number of exhibitions of Arab artists, mostly from Morocco, united with Palestine, and his flame appears at The Mosaic Rooms on a black-and-white poster titled “Palestine.”
The wave flows downstairs into The Mosaic Rooms’ lower gallery, across all four walls. Entering the 1980s, more archival material documents the Casablanca group’s in-situ reliefs, frescoes, and furniture designs. This period saw the artists come together to collaborate with architects, as they extended their promotion of public art to building design. Several models represent the artists’ work with the studio Faraoui & Patrice de Mazières to design hotels across Morocco. A series of Melehi’s cedar wood table feet are exhibited alongside paintings and Berber carpets and jewelry, the curves, patterns, and colors of which are reflected in the artist’s paintings. During this time, the Casablanca group called for a return to African and Berber sources, presenting indigenous jewelry, tapestry, and pottery as an endless well of shapes and colors to be absorbed by Melehi’s entire generation, who were looking for a distinct visual identity. The tighter waves present in works like “Cross A” (1984) and “Composition” (1981), show the inspiration of zigzag shapes in the Berber textiles they are exhibited beside. As Melehi’s style progressed, he moved away from acrylic to more industrial cellulose paint.
From public murals, to teaching, to publishing, to architecture, Mohamed Melehi contributed to the cultural scene of Post-Independence Morocco on a grand scale. New Waves succeeds in illustrating not only Melehi’s painted waves, but how those waves spread across Morocco to create a cultural scene that celebrated tradition and brought it to the masses.
New Waves: Mohamed Melehi and the Casablanca Art School continues at The Mosaic Rooms (Tower House, 226 Cromwell Road, London, UK) through June 22.