As the interest in modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art is on the rise, London’s hidden gem – the Mosaic Rooms continues to bring some of the most interesting art from the region to the international audience. The gallery is currently presenting the UK’s first solo exhibition of the Moroccan painter Mohamed Melehi, one of the founders of the Casablanca Art School. Between 1964 and 1974 Melehi, together with Farid Belkahia and Mohamed Chabâa, taught at the École des Beaux-Arts in Casablanca, where they championed for the spread of Modernism in Morocco, ultimately helping to spread the modern art movement across the Arab world.
Melehi (b.1936) first started to paint his signature waves in the 1960s. The exhibition traces his artistic development beginning from the late 50s. Superficially those simplified wave forms resemble abstract geometrical compositions by European and American artists that Melehi first encountered in Rome and New York. Some of his critics even accused him of copying Western art with little original input. However, this is hardly the whole story. Delving deeper into the artist’s biography and the body of work produced over many decades, it becomes clear that the inspiration behind these colourful images of waves combines an eclectic mix of sources in a very original way. Waves in various configurations symbolise powers of nature, such as water or air, occasionally the wavy designs become flames. The edges are sometimes sharp, but soft and almost organic forms dominate Melehi’s paintings, graphic designs and sculptures.
Undoubtedly there is a certain fascination by the simplified geometrical composition derived from Western modernism. Islamic calligraphy and traditional arts and crafts of his native country are equally important ingredients in this mix. On display are exquisite examples of traditional Berber jewellery, too beautiful to be described as mere craft. As evidenced by his sketchbooks, Melehi saw the potential of those works, as well as of traditional weaving and woodwork, and started incorporating some of their elements in his own art. Finally, hiding in plain view is the scientific part, the moon controlling the tide in the ocean appears in several paintings, bringing the art closer to the real world than we might at first acknowledge.
Bringing together the aesthetics of Western Modernism and traditional North African elements Melehi’s colourful and energetic compositions appear fresh and relevant to contemporary audience. Providing a wider context for these works the exhibition highlights Melehi’s significance as an artist in Morocco and beyond.
New Waves: Mohamed Melehi and the Casablanca Art School is free of charge at the Mosaic Rooms, London (12 April – 22 June 2019). Highly recommended.
Exhibition website: https://mosaicrooms.org/event/new-waves/
Artist’s biography: http://www.encyclopedia.mathaf.org.qa/en/bios/Pages/Mohammed-Melehi.aspx
Photos: Ground Impressions