Words by Martin Holman
Recent years have witnessed the revival of interest in Morocco’s art revolution of the 1960s. In Casablanca’s innovative art school, Modernism was given a North African flavour.
In 1962, painter Farid Belkahia returned to his native Morocco and, in the course of the next few years, was instrumental in bringing about one of the great moments in modern art in the global south. The current exhibition at Tate St Ives gathers paintings, objects in metal and textiles, ceramics, graphic design, drawings and photography to tell that story and, in the process, infuse its galleries with colour and line that seem in constant motion. Few people know this work; most visitors will embark on a voyage of discovery.
Belkahia was born into a wealthy middle-class family in Marrakech. His father had worked as an interpreter in Paris in the 1920s and, being friends with artists there, bought their work and displayed it in his home. So Farid grew up around a collection of progressive European art, an environment that played its part in his decision at an early age to become an artist.
Three key events were also influential. The first was learning from the Polish painter Olek Teslar, whom his father met in Paris before both men returned to Morocco. Teslar’s wife Jeannine later married Nicolas de Staël, one of post-war Europe’s most important abstract painters, known for his impastoed and strongly coloured canvas; Belkahia met him in 1937. Those encounters likely contributed to the second event, Belkahia’s move to Paris where he widened his knowledge of modern European art during four years’ study, until in 1959, he arrived in Prague, the third key that unlocked his future. Czechoslovakia was still an authoritarian state behind the Iron Curtain. There he met leading exiled intellectuals, such as poets Louis Aragon and Pablo Neruda, but had no liking for their communist sentiments. But he did admire the engagement of artists in education and social causes which, at the start of the 1960s, included Africa’s struggle for independence from the European colonial presence. In his paintings of the time, Belkahia featured the bloody conflict as Algeria fought to free itself from France.
Until recently in Europe, little attention has been given by writers and galleries to the post-war cultural life on the southern shores of the Mediterranean. That region has usually hit headlines on the north side with reports about troubled political events. Most recently they have been about the ‘Arab Spring’, the popular revolution that swept through Tunisia, Libya and Egypt in 2010-11 and on into the Middle East. Long entrenched dictatorships were toppled until the democratic aims of that uprising were thwarted and the strong men returned or chaos ensued (as in Libya).
Yet, as we are discovering, important developments had been taking place for four decades that put artists near the forefront of major change. In Morocco, makers of all sorts were helping to build a new national identity following the country’s recovery of independence in 1956. For over half a century it had been governed by France as a protectorate, though what was being protected – apart from French interests – remains unclear. The colonists had set about the rapid remodelling of the local population’s lives around European models – of working, education, commerce and even language. The immense influence of Europeans extended to the arts. Of course, traditional artisan work continued at local levels but was viewed from above as exotic and unsophisticated. In elite education, French teaching methods held sway: in painting a figurative easel-based approach was promoted that was foreign to Muslim tradition and portrayed Morocco as a land of tranquil romantic mystery – which the Europeans wanted to believe.
But in the complex social and political fabric of post-independence Morocco, the opportunity arose to reset that national image. Belkahia returned with ideas about how it could be done. He became director of the Ecole – better known as Casablanca Art School in the west – when he was not yet 30 years old: a young man for a new nation. As politicians set about decolonising the country, Belkahia’s aim was to ‘decolonise’ the imagination.
One route was his own example as an artist. Belkahia practised several disciplines simultaneously – a diversity he had developed in Europe where he branched out of painting into theatre design, and which reflected age-old artisanal methods. On the one hand, he applied the European modernism and ideological edge he observed in Prague. As his commitment to civic-centred artworks grew, he gravitated towards a fusion of Arab and European traditions. Using copper and other local craft materials like leather, and natural pigments such as henna used in tattooing, cobalt and saffron, he made wall-mounted, low-relief panels that assimilated distinctly Moroccan cultural forms, like calligraphy and ways of decorating the body.
A second, complementary route was a new education programme that stressed this hybrid of abstract modernism and Moroccan tradition. Indeed, Belkahia imposed non-figurative art with vigorous commitment, rejecting as much as he reintroduced. He recruited other young artists to the school who, like him, had refocused their technical and aesthetic training in Spain, Italy and France onto rephrasing colour, shape and symbol with essentially local relevance.
Mohammed Chabâa practised several interconnected disciplines as painter, muralist, sculptor, educator, interior designer, critic and graphic designer. A socialist, he derived his diagrammatic, jagged, non-objective compositions from how people worked or behaved in the street, capturing the sensations of motion and activity.
Ceramicist Rahoule Abderrahman had studied in Delft, a centre for tin-glaze pottery in Holland since the 1600s, and in Czechoslovakia before returning to teach in his native Casablanca. Although Abderrahman was also a painter and sculptor in clay whose style in 1970s adapted rhythmic Berber patterns to the geometric abstraction associated with Chabâa and their important colleague Mohammed Melehi, his pottery on his arrival at the school reflected artisanal techniques and looser shapes, combined with the clean, functional outlines of 1930s European design.
The painting style that typifies the Casablanca Art School in its heyday from Belkahia’s appointment until the mid 1980s – the period covered by the exhibition at Tate St Ives – is most associated with Mohammed Melehi. The recurrent ingredients in his work are bold and forceful geometric forms (diagonals, squares, circles) and curvaceous, organic shapes with clear profiles; strong colour (green, red, orange, yellow, blue); and occasionally a slight optical effect where line and colour meet to stimulate the eye into perceiving movement that, in reality, is not there. In fact, compositions have the emphatic quality of corporate logos but without the verbal Art branding, or quintessential 1960s design that loved repeating motifs. The reason is that both originated in the same source, the abstract modernism of pre-Second World War Europe and especially the inspirational design school called the Bauhaus in Germany.
Yet the young Moroccan artists were not swapping one form of imperialism (the French colonists) for another (German and, later American advanced culture) although that opinion is not without justification. Instead, Belkahia and his colleagues were injecting into the emerging state an international perspective, in place of its artificial French veneer, with a distinctly Arab flavour. Melehi embodied that blend in his life and his work. After studying in Tetuan in Morocco’s northern zone then administered by the Spain of fascist dictator General Franco, Melehi went to Madrid and Rome before going to the US.
He met the leading modern artists everywhere he stopped, and in New York was selected for two group shows at the highly prestigious Museum of Modern Art. In America he encountered the style defined by areas of flat colour with sharp, clear edges called ‘hard-edge painting’; it went on to characterise his production in Morocco. The local element in his paintings (which, like his contemporaries, were usually made in acrylic on wood rather than with the French preference for oil, canvas and a frame) shows itself in wave patterns that have openly African and Berber sources, such as the painted ceilings of rural mosques.
For most Moroccans, the 1960s was a decade of massive upheaval. Local people were in charge of their affairs again; new institutions had to be created; a political system needed to evolve quickly. Little of this happened smoothly. These years also witnessed experiments in response to the opportunities of independence. In 1969, the Casablanca Art School organised an exhibition to showcase its approach and to demonstrate that art was not a possession of the wealthy; it belonged in everyday life, helping to transform environments and encourage personal growth.
By passing the official museums and galleries, the show took place on the pavements and in the porticos around the principal city square of Marrakech. Paintings were installed on open-air screens and walls were painted with murals that merged image and architecture. It lasted 10 days and was later seen in Casablanca before touring to high schools. It offered a new way of seeing art and it reached people who would never visit an art school or attend a culture festival. Art was seen as part of life. Interviewed years after by The Guardian, Melehi said that “Our works were in Jemaa el-Fnaa square for a week, exposed to the sun and wind. It was an ideological message about what art could be.”
Eventually that type of show became a regular event; an annual festival continues with open-air exhibitions and workshops with artists in the northern town of Asilah. But from the 1980s onwards, Casablanca Art School and the emancipatory programme it pursued for professional artists and gifted students ran out of steam. The country was changing, too.
Government crackdowns against the opposition intensified after two failed coup attempts in 1971 and 1972. Intellectuals with left-wing sympathies were arrested and publications banned, including the magazine that steadfastly supported the school and its vision, and for which many tutors worked. Indeed, Mohammed Chabâa was imprisoned for two years. Belkahia left the school in 1974. As the political climate stabilised and became cautiously liberal, antagonisms weakened. Melehi took various government positions, including arts director at the culture ministry and cultural consultant to the ministry of foreign affairs.
By then, the moment had passed. The artists continued to work, mostly in the same way. This century, however, Morocco’s interest in its modern heritage has thrown fresh light on the cultural revolution that artists helped bring about. Once again it is inspiring students, and Europeans are, at last, finding out what their neighbours were up to while they looked away.
The Casablanca Art School: Platforms and Patterns for a Postcolonial Avant-Garde 1962-1987 continues at Tate St Ives until 14 January 2024.