Warsaw

Ahmed Cherkaoui, Autoportrait en larmes (Self-Portrait in Tears), 1961, oil on jute on canvas, 25 5⁄8 × 17 3⁄4".

Ahmed Cherkaoui, Autoportrait en larmes (Self-Portrait in Tears), 1961, oil on jute on canvas, 25 5⁄8 × 17 3⁄4".

“Ahmed Cherkaoui in Warsaw: Polish-Moroccan Artistic Relations (1955–1980)”

Zachęta National Gallery of Art

There is something intrinsically ambivalent about Western art history “discovering” forgotten or marginalized artists. But what happens when this kind of “discovery” is made in a country, such as Poland, that is itself considered peripheral? “Ahmed Cherkaoui in Warsaw: Polish-Moroccan Artistic Relations (1955–1980)” nominally focuses on the eponymous pioneer of abstract art in Morocco, and reflects more widely on the relationship between the margins. Not long after Morocco gained its independence in 1956, Cherkaoui relocated to Paris, where he studied at the École des Métiers d’Art before traveling to Poland in 1960 on a yearlong residency that lasted into 1961.

In Warsaw, Cherkaoui studied in the graphic arts department of the Academy of Fine Arts under Henryk Tomaszewski, a founding father of the Polish Poster School—whose style blended Surrealism, Pop art, and socialist realism—and met Henryk Stażewski, a pioneer of Polish Constructivism and a member of the Parisian Cercle et Carré group. Cherkaoui quickly became an insider. Photographs by Irena Jarosińska show him at café tables and dinner parties with the crème de la crème of the Polish art world, among them the legendary sculptor Xawery Dunikowski and the painters Alfred Lenica and Erna Rosenstein. Cherkaoui’s time in Warsaw marked his breakthrough into what can be called his mature style, given that he was just thirty-two when he died in 1967.

The earliest of Cherkaoui’s paintings in this exhibition, such as Reflet (Reflection) and Varsovie la nuit (Warsaw by Night), both 1961, balance on the cusp of representational art and abstraction. Cherkaoui drew close to Kandinsky’s spiritualism and mysticism, as well as to Klee’s abstract figuration. At the same time, he evolved a unique form of matter painting, with objects, including painted elements such as jute and other traditional Berber fabrics, affixed to the canvas. Cherkaoui sought to invent a universal language of signs that would express modernity by way of Berber traditional folk art as well as Islamic art more generally. He saw that his culture was not an exotic addition, but was at the core of modern art. He didn’t have to legitimize his “authenticity,” so instead of merely “speaking back” to the West, he produced a hyper-reflexive but very idiosyncratic reclamation of his own tradition.

The exhibition is eye-opening in its comparison of the development of abstraction in Poland with the emerging art of the newly independent Morocco. Like Cherkaoui, postwar Polish painters such as Rosenstein were mostly influenced by artists in Paris. But while Rosenstein’s dense and dramatic Znaki (Signs), 1961, is an elegant, lyrical abstraction tinged by Surrealism, Cherkaoui’s compositions seem rougher, blunter, in their ambivalent mixture of disjunctive cultures. In a key Warsaw work, Autoportrait en larmes (Self-Portrait in Tears), 1961, an oval head is cut from jute. Incised vertical and horizontal lines form rudimentary facial features, but are also, according to Przemysław Strożek (who organized the exhibition, with Sara Laganaoui), a reference to the letter ezza, the Berber symbol for imazighen—the name, meaning “freemen,” by which the Berbers refer to themselves.

Cherkaoui succeeded in expressing his own culture and identity within the idiom of modernist abstraction. Abstract art as such was of course a product of the collective genius of artists, often migrants, in many countries who readily switched codes between local, “peripheral” artistic idioms and an internationally understood one. The Warsaw show applies a staunchly decolonialist approach to art history, exploring the complex role Poland and the former Eastern Bloc played in it and complicating the idea of the avant-garde as a possession of the West. While Cherkaoui is the show’s central figure, several other Moroccan artists, including the painters Mustapha Hafid and Aziz Sayed, soon followed Cherkaoui to Poland, as did several film students, after he himself had returned to Morocco. Most stayed; some went back, changing Moroccan art and cinematography. His effect on his Polish colleagues is harder to gauge. Perhaps their culture was too steeped in nationalism at the time to allow them to admit a non-Western influence.