Abu Dhabi

Mohammed Chabâa, Untitled, 1977, acrylic on canvas, 29 1⁄2 × 37 1⁄2".

Mohammed Chabâa, Untitled, 1977, acrylic on canvas, 29 1⁄2 × 37 1⁄2".

Mohammed Chabâa

Cultural Foundation - Abu Dhabi

Organized by Fatima-Zahra Lakrissa for Paris-based Zamân Books & Curating as a follow-up to the traveling retrospective of Mohamed Melehi, “Visual Consciousness” was the first retrospective of Mohammed Chabâa (1935–2013) outside his native Morocco. Bringing together six decades worth of paintings, sculptures, graphic art, interior-design models, and archival material, it revealed the depth, complexity, and influence of Chabâa’s multifaceted practice as an artist, designer, and pedagogue.

Born in Tangier, Chabâa, like Melehi, belonged to a generation of artists who grew up under colonial rule but had the opportunity to study abroad. Shortly after Chabâa’s return to Morocco from Rome, in 1966, Farid Belkahia recruited him and Melehi to teach at the École des Beaux-Arts de Casablanca, which quickly became the country’s primary center for modernist experimentation and production. Inspired by the transdisciplinary nature of both the Italian Renaissance and the Bauhaus, Chabâa strove in his pedagogy to synthesize art, architecture, and Morocco’s rich artisanal traditions—what he termed the “3 A’s”—incorporating the study of Amazigh textiles and other crafts as well as Arabic calligraphy into his design curriculum. The study of traditional crafts, devalued under the colonial regime, was a vehicle through which to simultaneously decolonize and localize the teaching and production of art. 

Organized in four chronological “chapters” plus an archival display showcasing Chabâa’s multi-decade design practice, the exhibition opened with a selection of work Chabâa made in Rome in 1962, revealing the influence of Abstract Expressionism and other postwar avant-garde movements. Employing an earthy palette (largely ocher, brick red, and black, with the occasional blue), he experimented with gestural abstraction, but the energy of his flourishes remained hemmed in by the frame. A year later, his work had become flatter, more graphic and colorful, featuring figurative and ornamental elements drawn from Moroccan rural crafts. Exhibiting together, Belkahia, Chabâa, and Melehi came to be known as the Casablanca School. Aiming to directly engage a broader public, they presented their 1966 debut in the atrium of Rabat’s Mohammed V National Theater. Three years later, the group (with a few additional members) famously mounted an open-air exhibition of their paintings in Marrakech’s Jemaa al-Fna, the city’s storied central market square. Here, their colorful, hard-edge geometric abstraction represented not a departure from but a return to their cultural heritage, Morocco’s largely abstract arts-and-crafts tradition offering them an alternative path to modernity.

In a set of works from 1974, painted in cellulose automotive paint on wood panel, rainbow-like bands of vibrant color float in gleaming white fields, tracing the straight edges and sharp angles of geometric shapes. The bands flare out at either end into unruly arabesques and swirling eddies, like licks of flames or hair blowing in the wind, formal order opening up to intuitive flourish. The grid makes an appearance later in the decade, not as a fundamental structure but as one more ornamental motif clogging busy allover visual fields. Depth reappears in these so-called algorithmic compositions, with grids occasionally extruded into cubic arrays. The final section showcased work from 1983 through 2012, the year before the artist’s death. Reiterating many of the idiosyncratic motifs Chabâa had developed over the previous decade, these pieces were more personal and playful. Rendered with softer contours, textured surfaces, and a more comic than graphic sensibility, they represented a loosening up that was both ideological and formal. A series from the late 1990s and 2000s brought the exhibition back full circle with compositions composed of layers of short calligraphic strokes. But whereas in the ’60s Chabâa’s brushwork felt exploratory, here it was more assured, filling up rather than fighting against the frame.

In a manifesto published in the radical literary magazine Souffles, the Casablanca School artists described their iconic 1969 exhibition as an “action plastique,” the phrase encapsulating their desire for disruption, transformation, and liberation as at once aesthetic and militant. Though in retrospect and out of context their art may not appear that radical, their importance in the history of Arab modernism lay in their conviction that art could be undeniably political without devolving into propaganda, as this exhibition subtly revealed.