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In 1963, the artist Mohamed Melehi, then living in New York, was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s Hard Edge and Geometric Painting and Sculpture show.

Had she stayed in town, Melehi, who died aged 83 from Covid-19, might have enjoyed a similar level of fame to her American peers who paint in the same style, such as Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella and Kenneth. Noland. . Instead, forced to return to Morocco, he instigated a local form of modernism that mixed the avant-garde of Milan and New York with the traditions of his home country, and was a founding member of what became known as the Casablanca school.

The resulting paintings have been recently appreciated by museums and critics internationally, who have belatedly praised Melehi for his exuberant use of color, his combination of American geometric abstraction and Islamic art, and his use of cheap, everyday materials that are inspired by crafts. culture of Morocco.

Flame (1975)
Flamme (1975): After studying in New York, Melehi introduced vivid colors to her work. Photography: Mohamed Melehi

“Hard-edge painting made me rediscover the abstraction inherent in Islamic art,” he told The Guardian last year. “Moroccan art was always tough.”

A work recently purchased by Tate is typical. Titled House, the painting features a multicolored orb of red, orange, and yellow, partially obscured by a cascade of fluctuating, parallel lines of green and mauve. Made in 1970, it is also one of the first works in which Melehi switched from canvas to painting on wood, rejecting the acrylic paint that he had previously used to paint lacquered cars. “I wanted to use materials that were not removed from the working classes,” he said. “I started using cellulose paint in solidarity.”

Melehi’s return to Morocco came in a context of violence and state repression, with the country in a state of emergency, while King Hassan II, an ally of the United States, clung to power. “People were trying to claim their freedom and their right to live in a democracy,” Melehi recalled. From 1966 to 1969 he volunteered as the art director of Souffles, a radical left-wing magazine that was driving change at home and abroad.

In 1969, he and his fellow artists organized the first Moroccan open-air exhibition in Marrakech.

“We took a stand against the government,” Melehi recalled. “Our works were in Jemaa el-Fna square for a week, exposed to the sun and the wind. It was an ideological message about what art could be ”.

Solar Nostalgia (1962)
Solar Nostalgia (1962), the year Melehi came to New York on a Rockefeller scholarship. Photography: Mohamed Melehi

Born in the port city of Asilah, Melehi was the son of Ahmed Mohammed Melehi, a food wholesaler, and his wife, Aicha Ben Benaïssa. He attended Koranic school, where his interest in art was fostered and, from 1953 to 1955, he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts de Tetouan. At 19, frustrated by how traditional his education had been so far, he went to study in Spain, Seville and then Madrid. “There were almost no Moroccan artists to admire,” he said, “without schools, without artistic tendencies, without ideology in art.”

However, Spain under Franco proved to be equally claustrophobic and in 1958 Melehi moved to Italy. “Because Italy lost the war, it was open to new movements at that time, to a new culture.” Met the artists Alberto Burri, Lucio fontana and Jannis Kounellis, and was impressed by the use of found materials, prompting him to re-evaluate the souk’s crafts and materials from Berber culture. “I found my local identity in Rome,” he said.

That year he mounted his first solo exhibition, at the American Legation in Tangier, which exhibits a series of radically abstract constructions, using sewn and printed burlap bags as a support, as well as textiles traditionally used for making North African Djellaba tunics.

The opening of the Rome-New York Art Foundation gallery space in 1957 and a Jackson Pollock solo show at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna the following year provided further inspiration, and in 1962 he went to the United States on a Rockefeller scholarship. for study. at Columbia University in New York. Took a studio under the pop artist Jim dine, he befriended Stella and hung out with the hip crowd at the Leo Castelli gallery, where Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns had their first shows. It was under his influence that Melehi introduced vivid colors to his work (he had previously favored an austere palette).

Poster for Melehi's solo exhibition at Galerie l'Atelier, Rabat, in 1971
Poster for Melehi’s solo exhibition at Galerie l’Atelier, Rabat, in 1971: Design by Mohamed Melehi. Photography: Mohamed Melehi / Pauline de Mazières Archive

The terms of his scholarship dictated that he return to his home country after graduation, and by accepting a job at the School of Fine Arts in Casablanca, Melehi encouraged his students to take a multidisciplinary approach to their work. Easel painting, working from life models, and teaching Western art history were replaced by radical collective learning and an appreciation of craftsmanship. In 1965, along with an exhibition of his angular paintings at the Galerie Bab Rouah in Rabat, Melehi displayed a Berber carpet.

Along with other members of the Casablanca school, Melehi participated in the Pan-African festival in Algiers in 1969, which brought together radical left artists and anti-colonial thinkers, followed by the Pan-Arab festival of fine arts in Damascus in 1971. The Bagdad Al- festival Wasiti in 1972 and the first Baghdad Biennale in 1974. In 1978 he founded an annual arts festival in his hometown of Asilah. And in 1984 he had a rare one-man show in the West, at the Museum of the Bronx in New York.

As state repression abated, Melehi assumed various government positions, including art director at the Ministry of Culture (1985-92) and Cultural Consultant at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation (1999-2002).

In the last decade his work gained greater international attention, and was picked up by the Tate, the Pompidou in Paris, the MoMA in New York and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, where Melehi was the subject of a survey in 2017. In 2019 he had a solo exhibition at the Mosaic Rooms in London, returning in October 2020 for an exhibition at Cromwell’s Place.

Three marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his fourth wife, Khadija; two sons, Kamal and Youssef from his first marriage; two daughters, Nour and Mujah, by his second; and two daughters, Louloua and Ghita, by his third.

• Mohamed Melehi, artist, born November 22, 1936; died on October 28, 2020

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