C.A.S.A.– Casablanca Art School Archives
by Zamân Books & Curating
The Casablanca Art School: A Golden Age or a Revolutionary Parenthesis?
The arrival of Farid Belkahia in 1962 at the helm of Casablanca’s Ecole des Beaux-Arts (where he would remain until 1974) opened a new and drastically different chapter in the long history of an institution born under the French with a more or less colonial influence (the school remains active to this day). One might speak of a golden parenthesis, or 12 years of a vast pool of position statements and artistic revolutions. Belkahia demonstrated the radical yet coherent nature of his project for the school by gradually expanding the teaching staff to integrate personalities such as Mohamed Melehi and Toni Maraini, followed by Mohamed Chabâa and Bert Flint—while at the same time joining forces with them in what has proven to be the most legendary art collective in the history of Morocco. Three other artist-facilitators, Romain Ataallah, Mustapha Hafid and Mohamed Hamidi, would occasionally join the ranks of the aforementioned artists.
Teaching methods such as easel painting, working from life models or statues, or more generally the Western tradition (post-cubist, post-impressionist, even orientalist) were replaced by an alternative pedagogy; resolutely oriented to the creative emancipation of students, sourcing perspectives for the future from within the Moroccan arts and tradition. A system which offered strictly commercial and artisanal opportunities was abandoned in favor of training that would produce authentic ‘artists-artisan’.
The challenge was even greater for many young Moroccans who felt that independence meant that they needed to train for a ‘career’ which would allow them to take part in the country’s new economy. Paradoxically, new theoretical and practical courses restored a place of honor to the master artisan, in a non-traditional sense, drawing from his repertoire of gestures, forms and symbols to be reconsidered. Hence, Chabâa’s teaching method, oriented towards the applied arts, would redefine classical calligraphy for use in the art of typography and poster design; Melehi’s painting classes encouraged students to reinterpret the patterns and visual organisation of Berber carpets, thus evolving them into mural art (a media he shared with Chabâa). Meanwhile, Flint invited students to explore his collection of folk art and Berber jewelry, revealing to them the secrets of their symbolism as well as their plastic potential. Toni Maraini, the daughter of Italian writer and anthropologist Fosco Maraini, acted as the principal theoretician of the group. It was she who wrote the manifestoes, critical texts and catalogues for Belkahia, Chabaâ, and Melehi, from Marrakech to Baghdad. Furthermore, she initiated students to a transversal and previously unseen art history, claiming Africa and the Mediterranean as centers for outreach.
Together, they would contribute to the modification of mindsets and formal references for students; whether in the school’s workshops or during field research, to rediscover an entire heritage concentrated notably in rural zones, the mosques and habitats created by villagers in the Souss and the High Atlas Mountains.
These experiences would give rise to Maghreb Art, a journal published between 1965 and 1969, in which all of this knowledge would be presented, not only classified and analyzed, but also supported by a real aestheticism. The carpets, jewelry and painted ceilings create their own ‘montage’ of rigorous photographs shot by Melehi and analytical texts by Flint and Maraini. A journal that would become a valuable document, fundamental to understanding this reversal of the modernist paradigm via the light cast by a creative community that, though anonymous, was undeniably powerful in the collective sense—which might then be thought of as Afro-Berber.
Ultimately, as an activist and pedagogical group, the Casablanca Art School group tended to fuse two separate dimensions: the initiatives of artist-teachers (beginning with Belkahia, Chabâa and Melehi), their publications and beyond-the-wall exhibitions (or even ‘without walls’, such as the Présence Plastique exhibition in 1969); but also, the polymorphous and less visible space of studio work, in constant interaction with students, thus relativizing factors of pedagogical hierarchy. Certain artists who were associated with the studio of the Casablanca Art School in the 1960s (Hossein Miloudi, Malika Agueznay, Abderrahmane Rahoule, among others) carry its traces in their work to this day.
Mohamed Ataallah (1939–2014)
Painter, sculptor, designer, and archaeologist Mohamed Ataallah taught at the Casablanca Art School between 1968 and 1972.
After studying at the Fine Art School of Tetouan, Ataallah followed his own path from 1958 in Seville and Rome before studying restoration in Madrid. He returned to Morocco in 1963 to conduct archaeological excavations in the province of Tangiers. Increasingly focused on his artistic practice, yet informed by his intimate knowledge of popular arts and crafts, Ataallah’s development juxtaposed Op Art strategies and industrial design.
As a professor of decoration and design at the Casablanca Art School from 1968, he opened new possibilities for the curriculum, including installation art and environmental paintings. His landmark exhibition at Bab Rouah gallery in 1972 envisioned a new relation to the art space, presenting his works as “multiple” and “molecular.” Upon his return to France and the city of Caen, he opened the Workshop of Aesthetics Research, which he ran throughout the 1970 and 1980s, making connections with Latin American Op artists such as Carlos Cruz-Diez and Jesús Rafael Soto.
Farid Belkahia (1934–2014)
Painter and sculptor Farid Belkahia was the director of the Casablanca Art School from 1962 to 1974.
While studying at the Fine Art School of Paris in 1955, Belkahia discovered Paul Klee and the Bauhaus. Upon his return to Morocco in 1962, he was appointed as the director of the Casablanca Art School, a position he held until 1974. In Prague, he studied at the Academy of Performing Arts and met with communist artists such as Pablo Neruda and Paul Éluard. After two years as a very young (twenty-eight-year-old) Casablanca Art School director, Belkahia expanded his vision for an artistic revolution: between 1964 and 1965 he appointed Mohamed Melehi and Mohammed Chabâa as visual arts professors alongside Toni Maraini and Bert Flint for art history courses. Belkahia’s own work took a radical turn by the mid-1960s as he concentrated his efforts on debunking the Western painting apparatus, resorting instead to copper, animal skin, or shaped and decorated frames. His work was inclined toward a combination of Arabic calligraphy, Amazigh alphabet, and archetypal geometry.
Belkahia’s work is represented in museum collections such as Centre Pompidou, Paris; Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris; Tate Modern, London; Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha; and Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah.
Mohammed Chabâa (1935–2013)
Painter, sculptor, muralist, and graphic designer Mohammed Chabâa taught at the Casablanca Art School from 1966 to 1969.
Chabâa graduated from the National Institute of Fine Arts in Tétouan in 1955. He went on to work in the architecture department of the Ministry of Youth and Sports. In 1962, he obtained a scholarship from the Italian government to continue his studies at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome. Teaching was an integral part of his career, first at the Casablanca Art School, where he was in charge of the decorative arts, graphic arts, and calligraphy workshops, and later at the National School of Architecture in Rabat.
Chabâa developed early expertise in and tools for art pedagogy, which became an integral part of his practice. He explored the possibilities of a postcolonial context with a multifaceted program of integrating the arts into society and the everyday. Chabâa opened his design studio in 1968 and provided interior design, furniture, and integrated arts services to companies such as Royal Air Maroc and the Casablanca International Fair. He was also the main graphic designer for the journal Souffles, founded by Abdellatif Laâbi.
His work is mainly represented in Moroccan private and bank collections and in museum collections such as Tate Modern, London.
Bert Flint (1931–2022)
Eminent collector and anthropologist Bert Flint taught at the Casablanca Art School from 1965 to 1968 and was an expert in the “Afro-Berber” arts, a category that he patiently forged and grew to actualize, notably through the Musée Tiksiwin, which he founded in Marrakech in 1996. The culmination of a lifetime of research, this museum—where it was not uncommon to meet its founder strolling through his own collection—continues to be open to the public.
Flint’s connection with Morocco began in 1957, when he arrived in the country in the wake of its independence, that is to say, driven by a sense of renewal and the context of cultural openness. It was there that this Dutch student of Hispanic languages and literature was able to carve a path for himself, and he soon discovered traces of Arabo-Andalusian civilizations in his ethnographic studies of Moroccan art.
At the heart of his research, which was particularly intense in the High Atlas and Anti-Atlas Mountains, Flint understood how to reveal the fundamental role of Saharan populations within the multicultural heritage of Morocco. They represent, for him, the genuine vector of Afro-Berberism, demonstrating that civilization is not produced by urban and trading centers alone, but also by the desert and its nomadic populations. His research thus makes the case to retrace the deep cultural transfers from one side to the other of a sub-Saharan border that self-dissolves, as these exchanges take place far beyond the context of national or colonial borders.
Mustapha Hafid (b. 1942)
Mainly known as a painter, Mustapha Hafid studied at the Casablanca Art School (1958–61) and later served there as teacher (1968–81). On two separate occasions (1981 and 1985), he was appointed as the temporary director by the school.
Hafid enrolled in the Casablanca Art School before going to Warsaw, where he studied for five years at the Academy of Fine Arts in the painting and graphic arts department. In 1966, he obtained a Master of Arts diploma. Once back in Morocco, he became a professor at the Casablanca Art School. In 1969, he participated in the manifesto-exhibition at the Jamaâ el Fna Square in Marrakech and the 11 November Square in Casablanca, with Mohamed Ataallah, Farid Belkahia, Mohammed Chabâa, Mohamed Hamidi, and Mohamed Melehi. Hafid also served as the acting director of the Casablanca Art School.
In his artistic practice, he combines organic and synthetic matter such as sand and lacquer, which he applies heavily and vigorously to canvas. In 1973, his works were shown at the Bab Rouah gallery in Rabat, alongside works by his Polish wife, Anna Draus-Hafid, who opened a weaving studio at the Casablanca Art School the following year. The Hafids became a vector of interaction between Moroccan and Polish avant-gardes as they organized another group show in 1978 in Rabat, uniting with artists Halina Chrostowska and Edmund Piotrowicz.
Hafid’s work can be found in private and bank collections in Morocco.
Mohamed Hamidi (b. 1941)
Well-known as a painter, Mohamed Hamidi studied at the Casablanca Art School in the 1950s, and later served there as teacher (1967–75).
Hamidi studied in Paris, where he first enrolled at the Fine Art School (1959) and later at the Arts and Crafts School (1962), where he studied fresco painting and techniques. Upon his return to Morocco in the mid-1960s, he developed his Africanist and erotic style of compositions, combining sexual elements with popular arts and crafts patterns. He joined forces with the core group of artists—Mohamed Ataallah, Farid Belkahia, Mohammed Chabâa, and Mustapha Hafid—who invented the most radical postcolonial arts platforms, starting with the manifesto-exhibition Présence Plastique in 1969. As an active member of the group, he also took part in the 1974 Baghdad Biennale and the new manifesto exhibition of the Jmaa el-Fna Square in Marrakech in 1978. He was one of the primary actors for the murals painted for Morocco’s first Cultural Moussem of Asilah arts festival in 1978.
His work is represented in museum collections such as Centre Pompidou, Paris; Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris; and Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah.
Toni Maraini (b. 1941)
Toni Maraini (born in Tokyo) is a poet, writer, art historian, and anthropologist, as well as a specialist in North African literature. She lived in Morocco from 1964 to 1986, where she contributed to the emergence of a postcolonial artistic avant-garde.
When she arrived at the Casablanca Art School (1964–72), she established the first modern art history course in Morocco, pointing out three main goals: “the understanding and practical knowledge of integrated and applied arts”; “the notion of anonymous and collective creation” inspired by “the traditional artistic past”; and finally, the need to seek “a future perspective,” that of “the reality of a country that is being built”—where the artist is called to participate in social and economic reform.
She played an active part in magazines such as Souffles, Maghreb Art, and Integral, which have helped to reinforce the links between artists in the pan-Arab world, especially in the 1970s. As an emblematic figure in a Mediterranean and cosmopolitan modernity, she is still at work on a cross-cultural œuvre, where poetic experimentation and art studies intersect. Among her numerous works illustrating this “science,” which is as heterodox as it is militant, are Écrits sur l’art (2014), Dernier thé à Marrakech (1994), and La Lettre de Bénarès (2007).
Mohamed Melehi (1936–2020)
Painter, sculptor, photographer, muralist, and graphic designer Mohamed Melehi taught at the Casablanca Art School between 1964 and 1969.
Following his primary studies in Tetouan, Melehi studied from 1955 in Seville and Madrid, and from 1957 in Rome, where he would also become the first African-Arab artist to exhibit his work in the avant-garde gallery Topazia Alliata, which would later recommend him to museum minds such as Lawrence Alloway. Melehi’s journey in transnational abstraction earned him an assistant professor position at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 1962. He then moved to New York and was included in the 1963 Hard Edge and Geometric Painting exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). He returned to Morocco in 1964, when Farid Belkahia appointed him as a professor to teach painting, sculpture, collage, and photography at the Casablanca Art School. He joined the core group of artists—Mohamed Ataallah, Belkahia, Mohammed Chabâa, Mustapha Hafid and Mohamed Hamidi—to set up the most radical postcolonial arts platform to date with the inauguration of the manifesto-exhibition Présence Plastique in 1969. Melehi co-founded the journal Integral (1971–78) and the Cultural Moussem of Asilah.
His work is represented in museum collections such as Centre Pompidou, Paris; Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris; Tate Modern, London; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha; and Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah.
Edited, revised and expanded transcript of a conversation between Mohamed Melehi and Morad Montazami that took place at The Mosaic Rooms, London, on 6 June 2019, during the exhibition ‘New Waves: Mohamed Melehi and the Casablanca Art School’, 12 April – 22 June 2019.
MELEHI, a documentary by Shalom Gorewitz, (New York, 1984) a film commissioned by The Bronx Museum of the Arts about the artistic process and influences behind M. Melehi’s works and achievements for his solo exhibition at the Museum in 1984. 26min. © Courtesy of Shalom Gorewitz and The Bronx Museum of the Arts. Archives SM.
Talk | Mohamed Melehi x Shalom Gorewitz (Paris, 9.10.2020) © Courtesy Alserkal
Morad Montazami – The Casablanca Art School: platforms and patterns of the postcolonial avant-garde © Courtesy Lenbachhaus München