Melehi’s Waves Complicate Waving Goodbye
By Daniel H. Rey
Published on November 16, 2020
Do waves ever end? After visiting Mohamed Melehi’s New Waves in Alserkal Avenue, this question has kept me awake at night. In late October we mourned the artist’s sudden passing. However, Melehi’s waves in the global art scene are bound to outlive him.
I first encountered Melehi’s work earlier this year after hearing it was coming to Concrete. Immediately carried away by the “new waves” curated by Morad Montazami and Madeleine de Colnet of Zamân Books & Curating, I have spent the past two months connecting, digesting and questioning Mohamed Melehi’s work. An artist whose work I knew nothing about until September suddenly became one of my main sources of artistic, political, and cosmopolitan inquiry. As New Waves departs from Dubai, what did the show give me and what did it leave me craving? Given that the exhibition closes on November 21st, this is a last-minute attempt at inviting others to check out the exhibition brought by the Alserkal Arts Foundation.
An artist whose work I knew nothing about until September suddenly became one of my main sources of artistic, political, and cosmopolitan inquiry.
New Waves is a retrospective introduction to Melehi’s multi-faceted career as well as the Casablanca Art School where he was an educator (1964-1969). The show arrived in Dubai to give “UAE audiences a unique insight into a practice that feels critical and relevant for contemporary concerns in this region.” Balancing between the artist’s practice, forms and media, the exhibition, also grounded in post-independence Morocco, evokes conversations on Pan-Arabism, people’s liberation, and cross-cultural dialogue that continue to be in force. In the curators’ words, Melehi’s “wavy Third World frescoes take us on a cosmopolitan journey, drawing together the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.”
Let’s talk about space. Concrete, the Rem Koolhaas-designed building in Alserkal is without a doubt an architectural tour de force. The space built on the former premises of an actual concrete factory, fully integrates the material into its design. Massive panels anchored to the high ceiling rotate granting versatility to a building whose name would otherwise imply rigidity. But here is the catch: unless its patio-facing gates are opened, the place remains pretty dark. Visiting the venue both during the morning and evening feels exactly the same, ligthing-wise.
Exhibition view. Photography by Mustafa Aboubacker for Seeing Things. Courtesy of Alserkal Avenue.
The exhibition is designed as an enclosure by way of the building’s rotating panels. On the outer walls, we are able to survey Melehi’s travels while being invited by way of video, posters, album covers and books to investigate a bit of the cultural products he consumed. Some of the objects feel isolated, like the album covers, for example. Had Melehi designed them? A staff member tells me later that these was music that he listened to, not albums whose covers he had designed —I left wanting a text with this important clarification.
Past the walls, within the “enclosure” we are inevitably carried by the waves. His milestone pieces apprehend us and the sound of his voice from videos playing on a loop subtly floods the space. No matter where we turn, colorful, pristine waves ebb and flow around us.
Exhibition view. Photography by Mustafa Aboubacker for Seeing Things. Courtesy Alserkal.
No matter where we turn, colorful, pristine waves ebb and flow around us.
The placement of the waves in the space ultimately choreographs my movement in the room. The colors and compositions, which speak for themselves, act as magnets that pull visitors into corners. The video installations ultimately confront me with Melehi’s signature pieces on the wall. Some spatial arrangements feel cluttered, and the texts and videos in French overlapping with Arabic leave my English-minded spectator mind slightly overwhelmed. Can I enjoy the waves with more silence? Or should I experience both visible colorwaves and invisible soundwaves? The waves are presented in such a way the exhibition space acquires movement, rhythm, color, and even its own architectural melody.
The colors and compositions, which speak for themselves, act as magnets that pull visitors into corners.
This playful exhibition is chronologically structured. The curators categorized Melehi’s works into four sections that help us dissect his practice, his experiments and mediums, community-building efforts, and travels. The time periods, although not strictly linear or decade-by-decade (1950s to 80s), have a remarkable asset, they help the curators place Melehi’s work in a comprehensive genealogy of Afro-Berber art history.
The curators place Melehi’s work in a comprehensive genealogy of Afro-Berber art history.
In the space we can find wooden pieces, baskets, textiles, jewelry, and paintings made by Afro-Berber crafts masters who preceded Melehi’s trajectory yet laid the foundations of his style. With these objects, we can start to imagine how Melehi encountered, studied, and reinvented the wave. Such a detailed contextualization of the artist’s work is what ultimately enables visitors to grasp Melehi’s activism with postcolonial Moroccan art and transnational modernism, yet the exercise could have included more evidence from Melehi’s own personal artistic process. Such a journey is left to the audience’s speculation as the exhibition does not present many sketches, or halfway/unfinished pieces from the artist to fully dive into his experiments. Rather, in the true spirit of a curated “survey”, the audience is invited to ride on Melehi’s waves as the stunning finished products that they are.
The audience is invited to ride on Melehi’s waves as the stunning finished products that they are.
Archival by definition, New Waves offers plenty of access points into Melehi’s world and particularly unravels his key presence in the Casablanca Art School of the 1960s. What is more fascinating is that by way of letters, artist group photos, flyers, letters and printed press releases, we witness — five decades later — some of the first highly significant contacts between a MENA artist and the leading modern art voices of the Western world. The exhibition carefully walks us through the possibilities, challenges, and back-and-forths of Melehi entering the Rome and New York scene. He became many people’s “firsts:” first North African, first Moroccan, first foreign artist. What I am left wondering, however, is how exactly places like Galleria Trastevere, the Bronx Museum or the Guggenheim Museum came to know about Melehi without tokenizing his attractively foreign identity, let alone his work.
We witness — five decades later — some of the first highly significant contacts between a MENA artist and the leading modern art voices of the Western world.
The visceral experience of being in the New Waves exhibition space is further upgraded by all the digital content available. On top of the exhibition being fully digitalized in light of the pandemic, the Alserkal Arts Foundation scored a remarkable collaboration with The Mosaic Rooms, MACAAL and other partners to provide a deep biographical dive into the artists career. The film MELEHI by Shalom Gorewitz is fully available online until the exhibition closes and the organizers were timely enough to give us a playlist and talk with Melehi himself.
Melehi may have physically left us but his waves, unmistakably his, are here to stay in our senses, in our next steps, and in our community. Melehi, we may have never struck a conversation, but your work spoke to me just on time. Even if I tried to bid you farewell, I can only hope your spirit stays in motion, just like your waves. I will not wave you goodbye while I can still catch your waves and walk on your path, hopefully forever. To leave us in your words:
“Any type of art you see, if you used it as a way of communication, a way of awakening attitudes, it could help broaden minds.”
- Mohamed MelehiMohamed Melehi. Headshot provided by Alserkal Arts Foundation.
Learn more about Mohamed Melehi’s New Waves at Alserkal Avenue.
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