Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents – On the Concept of Painting and the Plastic Language

The publication, Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents (2018), edited by Anneka Lenssen, Sarah Rogers, and Nada Shabout, offers an unprecedented resource for the study of modernism: a compendium of critical art writings by twentieth-century Arab intellectuals and artists. The selection of texts—many of which appear for the first time in English—includes manifestos, essays, transcripts of roundtable discussions, diary entries, letters, and the guest-book comments including those featured here. Traversing empires and nation-states, diasporas and speculative cultural and political federations, the book’s documents bring light to the formation of a global modernism, through debates on originality, public space, spiritualism and art, postcolonial exhibition politics, and Arab nationalism, among many other topics. The collection is framed chronologically, and includes contextualizing commentaries to assist readers in navigating its broad geographic and historical scope. Interspersed throughout the volume are sixteen contemporary essays: writings by scholars on key terms and events as well as personal reflections by modern artists who were themselves active in the histories under consideration. A newly commissioned essay by historian and Arab-studies scholar Ussama Makdisi provides a historical overview of the region’s intertwined political and cultural developments during the twentieth century.

In Morocco in the mid-1960s, the National School of Fine Arts in Casablanca offered a new cohort of avant-garde thinkers—including artists Farid Belkahia, Mohammed Chebaa, and Mohammed Melehi—a platform for developing new models of decolonized, integrated artistic practice. Such an agenda is set forth in this position statement written by Chebaa on the occasion of the three-person Belkahia, Chebaa, and Melehi exhibition at the Mohammed V Theatre gallery in Rabat, and published in January 1966 in the Arabic daily al-‘Alam. In it, Chebaa argues for an authenticity of representation in modern Moroccan art. The poster by Mohammed Melehi that advertised the exhibition, in MoMA’s collection, signals this group of artists’ contemporary practice, grounded in vernacular forms and international graphic arts and design modes.

Author Mohammed Chebaa
Date 1966
Language Arabic

On the Concept of Painting and the Plastic Language (1966)

Mohammed Chebaa

The exhibition is a fitting occasion to take a look at the situation of our plastic arts in recent years.1Belkahia, Chebaa, Melehi at the Mohammed V Theatre in Rabat, January 9–February 17, 1966.

We cannot deny that we are subject to the various problems that this situation poses, despite the impossibility of doing justice to them, with all their ramifications and complications, in a single essay or presentation. I believe that this plight comes from the fact that all of these problems have been fully raised, and now various opinions regarding them contend with one another.

Before we examine these problems, we need to take a small step back to see how the phenomenon of painting emerged in our country and what ultimately has become of it—virtually the only manifestation of the plastic arts movement that we have—and to examine the social and political influences it was subject to.

Our preliminary investigation foregrounds paintings by the oldest of the painters among us, who are now well-known figures: the likes of [Mohammed] Ben Ali Rbati of Tangier, around 1920, for example. Rbati’s paintings are not entirely primitive; rather they are symbolic figurative paintings. I believe that they are an extension of the paintings that typically accompany illuminated manuscripts—an art form still practiced by a small number of Moroccan artists, the most famous of whom is al- Qadiri of Fez—for they are closer to Persian painting than to European painting, not least because Persian artists have employed similar methods for ornamental painting on architecture as well as furniture, such as tables and chairs.

To this extent, this phenomenon remains purely Moroccan, although we notice that the abundance of painting production by these older artists often was due to the support of certain foreigners who discovered them and then exploited their production for various reasons, the most common being the quest for the exotic and the primitive. Rbati, for example, was a cook in one of the large English families living in Tangier at the time. And after this phase, which is still characterized by a Moroccan authenticity, came another phase that included many foreign patrons, most of who were expatriates in Morocco during the Protectorate and after it, whose inclinations and intentions varied.

We will only be concerning ourselves with two examples here. One of them is from the north, and the other is from the south. In the north, the Spanish painter [Mariano] Bertuchi was commissioned by the Spanish Protectorate to preside over the fine arts, and the most important of his initiatives was the founding of a school of fine arts, which, in Tétouan, is there to this day, and a school of Islamic arts. The school of fine arts played an important role in preparing Moroccan painters and sculptors to pursue studies abroad, in particular in Spain, just as the school of Islamic arts took part in revitalizing the national arts of the north: wood, metal, and plaster engraving; pottery; and mosaics. In the school of fine arts, Moroccan pupils became familiar with painting according to an academic concept of representation.

I believe the most important example in the south was undertaken in Marrakesh by the French painter [Jacques] Majorelle, who had both direct and indirect influence on the emergence of painting there. I once heard that the first female painter in Morocco was a woman who worked with Majorelle and who he guided toward painting.

In addition to these two examples, which are positive to a certain extent, there were also deleterious elements among the foreign painters, some of who exerted a negative influence on the emergence of our painting, for in their painting, they were only interested in views of daily life. This lent their work, and that of those Moroccan painters who were influenced by them, a touristic and documentary quality.

It is for this reason that those paintings are not in any way characterized by a Moroccan authenticity; rather, they are nothing more than distortions of what Moroccan painting might be, in addition to being inferior examples of what might be characterized as European art. And if we recall that European painting was, in that particular phase, in the process of distancing itself greatly from purely representational classical painting, we further realize that those foreign painters did not present us with good examples of what authentic Moroccan painting might be. After this, there came a phase that is much nearer to us, in which the phenomena of primitive painting and the naïf painter arose. The strongest examples are works by Mohamed Ben Allal and Moulay Ahmed Drissi, both of whom are from Marrakesh. It is common knowledge that the backers of these two artists were foreign patrons, led by a few foreign painters. I believe that this foreign support—first by the French Protectorate’s fine arts administration prior to independence, and by the French cultural mission after independence—was a way of highlighting an artistic phenomenon based (given our backward characteristics) upon exoticism, and not by any means upon support of popular art, as some people might believe.

Immediately after this, certain young painters emerged who demonstrated a particular openness to modern art, and especially to abstraction. They were sponsored by those same circles, and were sent to Paris to benefit from its school. All those painters did in fact return to Morocco, and most of them were greatly influenced by the city of Paris, and they are the ones who now represent the abstractionist trend in general, and Art Informel in particular, with [Jilali] Gharbaoui being their most prominent figure.

As a result, most of those painters also fail to demonstrate a trace of Moroccan authenticity, still less any African authenticity. The patrons and supporters I mentioned sense this, and so they seek a new outlet. When they opt to abandon these artists by renouncing their most prominent representative, Gharbaoui, then they soon find him wandering the streets without food or shelter, with illness gnawing away at his body!2Eds.: This is a reference to the mental illness and hospitalization of Jilali Gharbaoui, who had earlier gained fame in Paris as an Informel painter. And in their search they find “new talents,” but this time we see those talents returning to the ranks of the primitives. For the best those foreign supporters can find among the artists who come after Ben Allal—who has become too old for them—is [Ahmed] Ouardighi. And so they bring Ouardighi out into the open, and set up exhibitions for him at home and abroad, and create a market that no Moroccan painter has ever even dreamed of (some of his paintings have sold for record sums).

Although this presentation was brief due to space constraints, we can see that our manifestation of painting is closely linked to our associations with foreigners, and consequently to our lived historical and political circumstances during the Protectorate, and during the independence after it. Indeed, some of the aforementioned foreign circles imposed their patrimony on the artistic and cultural renaissance. Painting’s turn away from African and Arab traditions goes back, firstly, to the guidance of those circles, and secondly to a lack of awareness on the part of our painters with our cultural and intellectual identity, in light of the weakness of their own education—most of our painters are illiterate.

The disadvantages of that artistic orientation do not stop here, however. Their repercussions also include the fact that some of our intellectuals now associate representational painting with Moroccan reality, unaware of the fact that the essence of our art was not and will never be representational, for there is nothing representational in either our Islamic art or our Berber art. Rather, it is abstraction and symbol—the abstraction of nature in geometric painting, engraving, mosaic ornament, and Berber carpets. It is impossible for us to be authentic in our work by orienting ourselves toward representation in painting, so how would such an orientation be appropriate for us at a time when research in the plastic arts in the West is turning toward the symbolic and abstract, after abandoning their classical traditions; attempting to draw benefit in that new research from our [collective] mentalities so as to reach a rejuvenation, a symbolism and art that is in keeping with what might be a foundation for art of the future?! This leads to a certain confusion between the understanding of plastic arts and that of literary language, and consequently to a lack of understanding of the true function of painting: they demand from the painting that it tell stories, that it depict events for them, as if it were a report or a narrative record. And they also demand that the painting perform the same task that the newspaper—or writing in general—performs, or that photography performs, and here there is a serious confusion between the characteristics of languages and their identity. For if I demanded of a painting that it merely record an event for me, then it would be more appropriate for me to read an article in the newspaper, which might very well be a clearer and more faithful rendering of that event!

The language of the plastic arts is not subject to the requirements of verbal or literary language, for these are two separate entities, each with its own rules and characteristics, and neither of them needs the other in order to accomplish its task fully, although both of them do have certain points in common with other languages —mathematics, music, theater, etc.—in embodying the human intellect and its civilization.

The treatment of this topic leads us to discuss an important problem: that of commitment in art. There are many conflicting opinions concerning this principle, but those who have hitherto posed this problem have, in my opinion, made the same mistake that we mentioned earlier: for in their understanding, commitment comprises “representational” painting, and the personification of the feelings and problems that the people are subject to in their bitter struggles. They also believe—and rightly so, this time—that painting must express the people and be understood by the people.

From this erroneous perspective, it appears as if the woman who weaves carpets in the remotest tribe of the Atlas Mountains does not understand the carpets she has woven, the designs of which she herself has created. A few conclusions can be drawn from this:

“Representational realism is not at the core of our artistic mentality. Rather, it was imposed by a different, European mentality—a reactionary one—which is alien to us.

Primitive art is not the only fitting direction our plastic art movement can take.

True commitment does not necessarily mean returning to regressive artistic models that are alien to us.”

So what is the solution, then?

Just as I do not claim here to comprehensively treat all the elements that were at the origin of our current situation in the plastic arts, neither do I claim to be able to put forward solutions to the problems that this situation poses. All I can do is suggest elements of solutions, which I hope we can discuss.

My presentation should not lead anyone to think that I am defending what is called abstraction simply for abstraction’s sake. Instead, I want to have been of benefit to the reader by demonstrating that the problem is not that of “abstraction vs. realism?” Rather, it is the following: research within the plastic arts befitting our rich traditions, our mentality, and our true perspective on the future.

And I believe that the best research within our plastic arts will be none other than investigation that takes the facts that we mentioned earlier into account. In my opinion, we must stop equating representation and figuration in painting with realism, since our artistic heritage—that of geometric ornament—is more realist and expressive of our historical mentality than any image that depicts a scene from everyday life!

I believe that this is the path of our true commitment.

Translated from Arabic by Kareem James Abu Zeid.

  • 1
    Belkahia, Chebaa, Melehi at the Mohammed V Theatre in Rabat, January 9–February 17, 1966.
  • 2
    Eds.: This is a reference to the mental illness and hospitalization of Jilali Gharbaoui, who had earlier gained fame in Paris as an Informel painter.
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