Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 5 December 2020

Renowned Moroccan painter Mohamed Melehi, 84, dies after contracting Covid-19

The artist died after being admitted to intensive care in a Paris hospital

Moroccan painter Mohamed Melehi has died at a Paris hospital after contracting Covid-19. He was 84.

Melehi had flown to the French capital for surgery on his ankle scheduled for October 21, but it was cancelled after he started to feel unwell. He was admitted to intensive care at Chu Ambroise Pare hospital, where he died on October 28.

The news was confirmed by the Lawrie Shabibi gallery in Dubai, which represents the artist. "We are so shocked and sad," says Asmaa Al Shabibi, director of Lawrie Shabibi. "We are so grateful that we were able to know him and work with him – the honour was truly ours."

Melehi was one of Morocco’s most significant modernist figures, and his work has been exhibited across the world.

Born in the coastal town of Asilah, Melehi left for Spain when he was 19 to study fine art. He moved to Italy and eventually New York after being awarded a scholarship by the Rockefeller Foundation. Throughout his career, which spanned more than half a century, he filled the roles of painter, photographer, graphic designer, publisher and teacher.

The undulating form of the wave became his emblematic motif – in Melehi’s hands, it flows sideways, evoking transmission signals, seas and horizons, it ripples and pulses like jazz rhythms or it springs vertically like a flame, all cast in striking colours.

In 1963, he became the first North African artist to be included in a group show at the Museum of Modern Art.

Cromwell Place Gallery in South Kensington, London. Artwork: Mohamed Melehi. Rob Greig for The National
A Mohamed Melehi work in Cromwell Place Gallery in South Kensington, London. Rob Greig for The National

Melehi’s years in New York, from 1962 to 1964, were formative to his practice. Its jazz scene enticed him, and its cityscape inspired his painting Sleeping Manhattan, in which colourful squares dance against a backdrop of blue like a shimmering skyline.

By 1964, the wave became his predominant geometric form. That same year, the artist, who before his death was living in Morocco, joined the Casablanca Art School, where he taught painting and collage, working with artists Farid Belkahia and Mohammed Chabaa.

At this stage, Morocco’s colonial period had recently ended, and the country was experiencing upheaval during the rule of King Hassan II. The 1960s and 1970s witnessed protests and assassination attempts against the monarch. It was also when the Casablanca Art School flourished with its radical experimentation and artistic collaborations. Theirs was an avant-garde movement that stood against elitist salons and academic systems.

Melehi and his contemporaries also sought to democratise art. In 1969, for example, they staged the street exhibition Presence Plastique in Marrakesh’s Jemaa el-Fna square. Later on, in 1978, he founded the Asilah Moussem Festival of the Arts, placing his home town on the country’s cultural map, exhibiting paintings, sculptures and ceramic works and organising workshops for young people. The festival is held annually to this day.

Eager to deliver art to public spaces, the artist joined forces with architects too, designing interiors for hotels and other buildings.

His affinity with the masses is also evident in his cellulose paintings, for which he used car paint as a way to incorporate materials familiar to the working classes.

A retrospective of Melehi’s work, New Waves: Mohamed Melehi and the Casablanca Art School Archives, recently showed at Concrete in Alserkal Avenue.

Many have paid tribute to the artist on social media following the news of his death.

“Saddened to hear that the Moroccan artist Mohamed Melehi passed away. He had been in intensive care for the last few days, reportedly for a covid-19 infection,” Moroccan-American novelist Laila Lalami.

“Sad to hear that Mohamed Melehi passed away today, he was such an inspiration and he contributed in a big way to the Moroccan modern arts, may his soul rest in peace,” another wrote.

Updated: October 29, 2020 03:16 PM

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