Mohamed Melehi’s signature composition features thick lines of paint, in bright and alternating colours, zig-zagging across canvas. In ‘Untitled’ (1975), they migrate diagonally corner to corner until the square edges of two lines touch. In ‘Flamme’ (1975), waves form an oscillating diamond bisected by straight lines jetting out from one corner. In Melehi’s complex geometry—as rigorous as it is divergent—waves of colour redirect linear trajectories, break symmetrical structures or leave shapes open while pointing towards other intersections somewhere off the page.
These innovations of line, colour and form are presented alongside their sociopolitical significance in the context of twentieth-century decolonial struggles waged by the cultural avant-garde in Morocco and worldwide. Each of the gallery’s three rooms stage a different chapter in Melehi’s life and practice, as situated in a global vision of concurrent historical and art historical transformations.
In the first room, early pieces introduce Melehi’s roaming artistic education which took him to study in Spain and Italy before establishing a studio practice in 1960s New York. Sober compositions hint of the colour and movement that would burst from his work on return to Morocco during the country’s tumultuous post-independence years.
The middle period presents Melehi’s practice as it flourishes beyond painting into avant-garde publishing and the radical pedagogy of the Casablanca Art School. We encounter Melehi’s vision for a decolonised Morocco, which harnesses the progressive aspects of artistic modernism while rejecting its colonial ideology. Bauhaus principles of reintegrating art into craft and architecture, which the artist first encountered in Italy, prove particularly useful for Melehi’s efforts to construct new forms of society. Amplifying Melehi’s commitment to this philosophy, the exhibition uses the gallery walls as a space to extend the artwork, and a site for layering historical context. Particularly impressive is the display of Melehi’s graphic design for avant-garde journals Souffles and Intégral. Prints, posters, and journal covers designed by Melehi hang on a wall painted to resemble his signature wave, signalling the aesthetic vision that animated Morocco’s fervent cultural and political activity.
The exhibition culminates in a selection of works showing Melehi’s mature efforts to fuse art and everyday craft. Through extensive research into Moroccan carpet-weaving, jewellery design and architecture, Melehi enables Berber, Islamic and African traditions to enter new dialogues with the geometric forms of postwar abstraction.
The first UK showing of Melehi’s work is thorough and succeeds in establishing his waves as a pivotal vector of transnational modernism. Yet by condensing a full-scale retrospective into a three-room gallery, the exhibition also obscures and encumbers Melehi’s work with history. The sheer volume and density of pieces on display is at times slightly claustrophobic and strikes a nostalgic tone which curtails potential contemporary resonance. Nevertheless, by widening the history of modernism to create a space in the narrative for Melehi, this exhibition is an important precursor for successive shows in which his waves could flow and speak more freely.
Kylie Gilchrist is a London-based writer and researcher.