Moroccan Art of the Last Seven Decades Surveyed

Art History, Exhibition Reviews

April 8, 2021

The beautiful African country of Morocco, surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the west, has inspired numerous artists in the 20th century for its remarkable culture and natural beauties. From the exoticized images of interwar Hollywood (such as Josef von Sternberg’s feature film Morocco) to the Beat Generation's getaway in the 1970s, the country has been celebrated, adored, and written about by the Western culture. But what do we know about the Moroccan art and artists?

The postwar development of arts was challenged by numerous social and political events, which led to a rich and often socially engaged production that challenged the notions of race, gender, and colonialism. The current exhibition titled Moroccan Trilogy 1950-2020 [Trilogía Marroquí 1950-2020] at Museo Reina Sofia revisits the last 70 years of Moroccan art with 250 works by the country’s most relevant artists and film-makers.

Miloud Labied – Composition, 1974. Oil on canvas, 77 x 107,5 cm. Private collection, Marrakesh © Miloud Labied

The Stories Behind The Moroccan Trilogy

The curators Manuel Borja-Villel and Abdellah Karroum Leticia Sastre decided to establish a chronologically framed selection around three historical moments, from independence to the present day, to underline the diversity of initiatives and the interdisciplinary practices established in Morocco.

The exhibition will highlight the leading proponents of each period from the transition to independence (1950-1969), over the so-called "Years of Lead" (1970-1999), to the present day (2000-2020) with a special emphasis on three urban centers of Tétouan, Casablanca and Tangier.

The first period marks the social and political turning point after four decades of the French and Spanish protectorate. From 1956, the year Morocco gained independence, visual arts became the site of numerous debates regarding the appearance of the nationalist movement and the need to construct a discourse of identity. After returning to their native country from studying in the world’s artistic capitals, the first generation of Moroccan artists (Mohamed Melehi, Mohamed Chabâa with Farid Belkahia, Mohamed Hamidi, Mohamed Ataallah, and Mustapha Hafid) felt empowered by the latest international theoretical debates and embraced abstraction as the dominating tendency that fitted their quests for national identity.

Several alternative publications, most often independent festivals and biennials mark the second period or the years of great internal conflict marked by a gradual Arabization of cultural life, internal conflicts, the annexation of Western Sahara, and greater state control. The leading avant-garde publication Souffles that featured the radical voices of poets, writers, and theater makers, served a great deal of innovative ideas until it was banned in 1972.

Another characteristic of this period is the emergence of non-academic art practiced by self-taught men and women such as Chaïbia Talal and Fatima Hassan. The late 1980s brought new artistic approaches that culminated in the 1990s with artists like Mounir Fatmi, Mohamed El-Baz, and Yto Barrada, while the last years of the 1990s were marked by the country’s transition to democracy when a new form of openness in the media appeared.

The last section of the exhibition covers the last twenty years and the formally, technically, and politically innovative work of young artists among them many women who tackle the notion of feminine identity in the Moroccan context.

Bernard Plossu – Marrakesh, 1975. Dry plate photography on paper, 18 x 24 cm. Artist’s collection © Bernard Plossu

The Exhibition Highlights

Among the highlights in the first exhibition chapter, the visitors have a chance to experience the works of Ahmed Amrani, the artist who studied in Spain under the influence of Francisco de Goya, Diego Velázquez, as seen in his work Protest (1969). On display are the works such as IBM (1962), IBM-Song (1963), Moon landing (1963), and Solar Nostalgia (1962) by Mohamed Melehi who was inspired by Jasper Johns and Frank Stella during his stay in the United States; as well as the paintings such as Les trois soeurs (The three sisters) (1963) and Talisman no 3 (1966) by another key player at the time, Ahmed Cherkaoui, who combined the Moroccan iconography and Western modernist aesthetics.

The second section of the exhibition features several highlights including Before the Dying of the Light (2019) by Ali Essafi, a documentary about 1970s cultural life made of archival materials to recreate the atmosphere of that turbulent period in Morocco’s history. Also on display are the works such as The Marriage Ceremony (1983) by Chaïbia Talal, an artist who most often portraits women, as well as the work Scene (1992) by Fatima Hassan, and a documentary fiction About Some Meaningless Events (1974) by Mostafa Derkaoui that was only shown in Paris in 1975. One of the best examples of the 1980s Moroccan visual arts is the installation My Life (1984-2021), an autobiographical work by Mohamed Larbi Rahhali who was a fisherman, artist, and citizen of Tétouan.

The last chapter includes the works by Generation 00, a term used to describe the artists active in the first decade of the century marked by the rise of populism and technological development, and the so-called Arab Spring. The highlights include works such as Al Jazeera (2007) by Mounir Fatmi, an artist that works with various media, most notably sculpture and installation, as well as films such as Beau Geste (2009) by socially engaged multimedia artist Yto Barrada, The Show Is Over (2011) by Karim Rafi, one of the most creative and visible performers in Morocco, and the film Bab Sebta [Ceuta’s Gate] (2019), by Randa Maroufi.

Mustapha Akrim – Bidoun (without), 2011. Wooden, metal and plastic worktools, 39 x 18 x 17 cm. Courtesy of the artist and L’Appartement 22, Rabat © Mustapha Akrim

Moroccan Trilogy at Museo Reina Sofía

Throughout the months to come, Moroccan Trilogy 1950-2020 will offer a dense program of activities titled Entretanto [In the Meantime], curated by Susana Moliner. The aim of round tables, conversations, lectures, workshops, and performances is to thoroughly analyze the development of modern and contemporary art in Morocco after decolonization.

This exhibition project was jointly conceived by Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Ministry of Culture and Sport of the Government of Spain, and National Foundation of Museums of the Kingdom of Morocco in close collaboration with Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art – Qatar Museums and Qatar Foundation.

Moroccan Trilogy 1950-2020 will be on display at Museo Reina Sofía’s Sabatini Building in Madrid until 27 September 2021.

Featured images: Exhibition views Moroccan Trilogy 1950 – 2020. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. March, 2021. Photographic Archive of Museo Reina Sofia.