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'King of colour': tributes paid to Moroccan artist Mohamed Melehi who has died of Covid-19, aged 84

The abstract painter transformed the art scene in post-colonial Morocco

The leading Moroccan artist Mohamed Melehi has died aged 84 after contracting coronavirus. Melehi transformed the art scene in post-colonial Morocco with his own brand of Modernist art centred on his ongoing configuration of the “wave” motif. The UK writer Arsalan Mohammad posted on Facebook that Melehi was “a huge figure in post-colonial North African art, design, photography and even town planning, as well as of course, a rare painter: the shrewd purveyor of mind-bending abstraction and a king of colour.”

Melehi was born in Assilah, Morocco, in 1936, graduated from the École des Beaux-Arts, in Tétouan in 1955 and in the early 1960s studied at Columbia University, New York, for two years before returning to Morocco in 1964. In 1963, his work featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

“It was during this time that Melehi began to explore his cultural heritage as a primary source of inspiration and started using a bolder, more brilliant colour palette,” says a statement from Lawrie Shabibi Gallery of Dubai, which organised a show of the artist’s works at Cromwell Place in London earlier this month.

In the late 1960s, Melehi was a leading figure at the Casablanca Art School , where he taught from 1964 to 1969, which favoured abstraction and looked to Moroccan visual traditions. “The major figures from the school were to go on to exhibit in the street exhibition Exposition-Manifeste in Jma el-Fna Square, Marrakech, in 1969, an event which remains a central point of reference in the study of Arab modernities,” says a statement from the Mosaic Rooms in London, which showed the artist’s works last year in the exhibition New Waves: Mohamed Melehi and the Casablanca Art School.

In an interview last year with the Guardian, Melehi said: “We took a position against the government. Our works were in Jma el-Fna square for a week, exposed to the sun and wind. It was an ideological message about what art could be.”

Osei Bonsu, the curator of international art at Tate Modern, wrote on Instagram: "I was saddened to hear about the passing of Mohammed Melehi (1936-2020). As a key member of the Casablanca Art School with Farid Belkahia and Mohammed Chabâa—an avant-garde group that radically questioned cosmopolitan abstraction and art pedagogy within the context of post-colonial Africa—he was an influential figure in Moroccan modernism.”

He adds: “Acquired by Tate in 2018, his painting Casa (1970) refers to the common shortening for the city of Casablanca in the artist’s native Morocco. It can be read as an abstracted cityscape, informed by Melehi’s nomadic lifestyle which saw him travelling from Marrakech to Rome, Paris and New York.”

In 1978, Melehi co-founded the Asilah Arts Festival with the aim of bringing art into the streets and squares of the coastal town of Asilah. Lawrie Shabibi Gallery says: “Asilah is now celebrated for its vividly coloured murals, many of which have been created by Melehi.” During the 1980s, Melehi made reliefs, frescoes and furniture for buildings and hotels in Morocco.