Mohamed Melehi, a leading figure in Moroccan contemporary art, is dead

Moroccan painter Mohamed Melehi.

Born rebellious and indecisive optimist, the Moroccan painter Mohamed Melehi was involved in all artistic struggles. Bulimic, he recently combined an exhibition in Dubai with a street furniture project in Agadir, on the Moroccan coast. For his friends, his appetite for life was limitless. However, death caught up with him on Wednesday, October 28 at the age of 84, at Ambroise-Paré hospital, in Paris, where he had been admitted to intensive care following an infection linked to Covid-19.

An extraordinary career as that of this artist, born in 1936 in Asilah (north-west of Morocco) in a traditional bourgeois family and who flourished in contact with the Italian and American avant-garde. ” A life built like a novel », Summarized the Moroccan critic Jamal Boushaba, in 2016, in the magazine As is.

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Mohamed Melehi was 17 years old when he enrolled in 1953 at the Beaux-Arts in Tetouan. About fifty kilometers away, in Tangier, the troublemakers of the American Beat Generation have taken up residence. Mohamed Melehi rubs shoulders with writer Paul Bowles and artist Brion Gysin, around whom many Moroccan designers revolve.

In contact with them, he understands that he must broaden his horizons. From 1955 to 1964, a series of scholarships allowed him to travel through Europe and America. Student at the Beaux-Arts in Seville, then in residence in Madrid, he freed himself from academic figuration by discovering informal and gestural art. In Rome, he was introduced to the Dolce Vita and the Italian avant-garde, then embodied in particular by Alberto Burri.

Wave figure

In 1961, the young man flew to the United States where he became an assistant professor at the Minneapolis art school before making several stays in New York. A revelation ! There he discovered new techniques but also a new aesthetic, that of optical art. Abandoning his black palette for bold colors, he therefore incorporated the figure of the wave in his paintings, which would become his signature.

In the artistic broth of Big Apple, Mohamed Melehi does not go unnoticed. In 1963, he appeared in the historic “Formalists” exhibition at the Washington Modern Art Gallery and, the same year, in “Hard Edge and Geometric Painting” at MoMA in New York.

Returned in 1964 to Morocco, Mohamed Melehi teaches at the School of Fine Arts in Casablanca, recently directed by the artist Farid Belkahia. Mohamed Chebâa, met in Rome a few years earlier, joined them there. The three men draw up a manifesto, the principles of which they will set out at an exhibition which will be a landmark in 1969 at Jemaa-El-Fna square, in Marrakech. The three men made their ranges abroad. If they have returned to the fold, it is not to transmit a rehashed Western academicism, nor to participate in the official discourse of a young nation under construction.

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Their idea? Invent a middle way by rehabilitating the figure of the craftsman and the vernacular forms. ” Melehi is in an alter-abstraction, a non-aligned abstraction to use the geopolitical vocabulary of the time, with a resolutely decorative face in the wake of the Bauhaus », Analyzes Michel Gauthier, curator at the Center Pompidou and author of a monograph on the artist published by Skira.

For the merchant Hicham Daoudi, Melehi was ” an enchanter who knew how to speak of American modernity as the place of African-Berber art, advocating dialogue while recognizing the differences “. Like his colleagues, he wanted an art accessible to all and part of society. He thus contributed to the major urban planning projects imagined in Morocco by the architects Abdeslam Faraoui and Patrice de Mazières.

Generous, the artist also wanted to defend the cause of his colleagues, notably through his brief publishing house Shoof. In 1971, with the poets Mostafa Nissaboury and Tahar Ben Jelloun, he founded the art and literature review Integral, ” a collective adventure led with candlelight, at a time when artists took their destinies in hand to tell their story », Recalls Meryem Sebti, director of the art review Diptyk.

In 1978, Mohamed Melehi became the driving force behind the Moussem d’Asilah, an international cultural festival co-founded with another city child, Mohamed Benaïssa. ” Melehi knew how to unite energies “, Greets the art historian and Moroccan curator Brahim Alaoui, recalling” in a few years he had transformed a fishing village into a cultural capital and an open-air museum ”.

Mohamed Melehi in a few dates

November 22, 1936 Born in Asilah

1963 exhibits in “Hard Edge and Geometric Painting” at MoMA in New York

1969 Manifesto exhibition of the School of Casablanca, in Marrakech

1971 Co-founded the journal Integral

October 28, 2020 Death in Paris


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