Ahmed Cherkaoui was one of the leading modernist painters of Moroccan art in the period after the country gained its independence in 1956. Born in a small town, Boujad, located in the Chaouia plain, Cherkaoui descended, from his father's side, from "a famous family of mystics" called the "Sufi brotherhood of the Cherkaoua." The brotherhood was founded in 1566 during the reign of the Saadian sultans. His mother was of Amazighi origin, belonging to the Zayanes tribe from the Middle Atlas. The tribe was known for women's traditionally made handcrafts and wool weaving.
Cherkaoui studied graphics at the École des Metiers d'Art de Paris from 1956 to 1959, and continued his studies at the Aujame Atelier at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris for one year. In 1961, during the political and cultural thaw following the death of Stalin, Cherkaoui moved to Warsaw where he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts. Later Cherkaoui returned to Paris, where he won a research grant from UNESCO to study signs and symbols in Amazighi art and Arab-Islamic calligraphy. During the early sixties, he held his first one-man show at the Atelier de Lucienne Thalheimer in Paris where he lived and worked.
Cherkaoui created large-scale abstract and symbolic canvases which negotiated an amalgam of references, ranging from Amazighi art, talismanic symbols to Roger Bissière, Paul Klee and Surrealism. The surface of these canvases are covered with burlap onto which Cherkaoui painted black-striped symbols crafted within an oval structure and laid at intervals with bright colors. The Maghreb, "the place of the setting sun," and more specifically the Amazighi tradition of the bare geometric sign are all intrinsic to the artist. Since his young age, his fascination with signs stemmed from his curiosity about the shapes and meaning of his mother's tattoos. Later on, he embraced the teachings and philosophy of Paul Klee, who wrote, "Man is not a completed product…We must…be open-minded…approach life like a child…of creation, of the creator's," and made them a guiding rule of his own spirit.
The desire to paint for Ahmed Cherkaoui is partially attributed to his interest in calligraphy and the motifs of popular talismans, and partly to his exposure to 20th century Western Modern art. Consequently, Cherkaoui's works reveal a concrete manifestation of a tangible interplay between tradition and modernity, negotiating both the aesthetic and abstract nature of signs and symbols which govern both Islamic art and new innovative techniques. However, Cherkaoui's resort to signs consists of far more than merely presenting their decorative function. He used a system of geometric signs and ciphers, including triangles, circles, lozenges, dots and broken and curved lines. These signs voice stories about a particular social system that are open to interpretation. As such, his creative artwork presented intriguing and visually complex forms which highlight his profound interest in national heritage.
In 1964, Cherkaoui held an exhibition at Jeanne Castel's Gallery in Paris, and other exhibitions in Rabat, Tangier and Casablanca in Morocco, where he explored and developed a personal modern style, he expressed in crude jute collages. After his collages, he went through a phase that he referred to as "tachiste" or formlessness, where he emphasized the value of color.
During the early sixties, his artwork depicted various forms drawn from outlines of tattoos, pottery, jewelry, weaving and motifs on handicraft ware, combining both bright and earth colors to highlight the cultural characteristics of his country of origin (al-Maghreb—"sunset in the sea"). While dark colors dominated his paintings before 1965, his colors afterwards became lighter and more lustrous with greater awareness of the use of space and additional media such as fiber, gouache and watercolor.
Cherkaoui's works received recognition early on as he won the bronze medal at the 10th "Salon Interministériel" in 1962 and took part regularly in the Salon de Mai in Paris. He participated in many solo exhibitions including his one-man show at the Ursula Girardon's Gallery in 1962 in Paris; and numerous collective exhibitions, including "20 Peintres étrangers" in the Parisian Musée de l'Art Moderne in 1963.
Cherkaoui taught drawing classes at the Technical College in Beaumont-sur-Oise. He was generally associated with a small group of painters in Casablanca including Houssein Tallal and Andre Elbaz although he was never part of the Casablanca School. Cherkaoui traveled frequently between Europe and North Africa, and died suddenly due to complications from an appendectomy in 1967 after coming back to Casablanca, Morocco.
After his death, his work was represented in a series of retrospective shows entitled Hommage à Cherkaoui organized at the Biennale de Paris and also at the Salon of Sacred Art in Paris; followed by the Biennale Exhibit of New Delhi in 1968 in India. His works were also featured at the interférences Poetes-Peintres group show at the Daniel Templon Gallery, one of Cherkaoui's watercolor works accompanying the poem 'talisman' written by Jean Guichard Meili in Paris in 1969.
|1996 ||Rétrospective: Cherkaoui ou La Passion du Signe, Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, France and the Wafabank Foundation, Casablanca, Morocco|
|1995||Regard Immortels Exhibition, uniting several Moroccan artists at the Riad Salam Hotel Forum, Espace Congrès, Casablanca, Morocco|
|1993||La Visitation Cultural Centre, Périgueux, France|
|1991||Peintres du Maroc: Belkahia, Bellamine, Cherkaoui, Kacimi, Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, France|
|1988||Peinture Contemporaine au Maroc Exhibition, au Musée des Beaux-Arts d'Ixelles, au Musée d'Ostende et à la Salle Saint-Georges de Liège, Liège, Bruxelles, Belgium|
|1985||Présences artistiques du Maroc, Centre National d'Art Contemporain de Grenoble, exposition 19 Peintres du Maroc, shown in the Musée des Arts D'Afrique et d'Océanie, Paris, France|
|1980||Collective exposition on Berber popular arts et traditions, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Grenoble, France |
|1974 ||Moroccan painting in private collections, Nadar Gallery, Casablanca, Morocco|
|_____||Les Flamboyants Exhibition, organized by Ceres Franco at L'Oeil-de-Boeuf Gallery, Paris, France |
|1971||Technique de l'Estampe Exhibition, organized by Monique de Gouvenain and Jean-Marie Serreau, Cossonerie street in the Halles, Paris, France|
|1970||Le Jardin de Matisse, Collective Exhibition, organized by Raoul-Jean Moulin at the Chatillon Arts Festival, Paris, France|
|1969 ||The Interférences Poètes-Peintres collective show at the Daniel Templon Gallery, Paris, France|
|_____||Winter and Automn Exhibition (two of his Four Seasons paintings were stolen and were never recovered) at the Goethe Institute, Casablanca, Morocco|
|1968||Hommage à Cherkaoui, the Biennale Exhibit of New Delhi, New Delhi, India|
|_____||Watercolors exhibition at the Solstice Gallery, Paris, France|
|_____||Hommage à Cherkaoui, Salon de Mai, Paris, France and Bab Rouah Gallery, Rabat, Morocco|
|_____||Jean-Jacques Lévêque presents Analogies et Résonances, Galerie Vercamer, Paris, France|
|1967||Six Peintres du Maghreb, Gallery of Arts, Tunis, Tunisia |
|_____||Solstice Gallery, Paris, France|
|_____||L'Age du Jazz, Musée Galliéra, Paris, France|
|_____||Hommage à Cherkaoui, La Ve Biennale des jeunes de Paris, Paris, France|
|_____||Hommage à Cherkaoui, Le Salon de l'Art Sacré au Musée d'Art Moderne de Paris, Paris, France|
|1966||Festival International des Arts Nègres de Dakar, Six Peintres du Maghreb, Galerie Peintres du Monde, Paris, France|
|_____||Collective Exhibition, the Solstice Gallery, Paris, France|
|1965||Solo Exhibition, Karlstad, Sweden |
|_____||Goethe Institut, Casablanca, Morocco|
|_____||Peintres Marocains Collective Exhibition, Bab Rouah Gallery, Rabat, Morocco|
|_____||L'Art actuel au Maroc, Madrid, Spain|
|1964||Tendances, collective exhibition, Le Fleuve Gallery, Paris, France|
|_____||The International exhibit, the National Museum of Fine Arts of Algiers, Algeria|
|_____||Du Labyrinthe à la Chambre d'Amour Exhibition, organized by J.-C Lambert, Tokyo, Japan|
|1963||The French Cultural Center of Tangiers, Rabat and Casablanca, Morocco |
|_____||Rencontre Internationale, Rabat, Morocco|
|_____||Peintres du Maghreb, Galerie du Gouvernail, Paris, France|
|_____||2000 Ans d'Art au Maroc Exhibition, Charpentier Gallery, Paris, France|
|_____||Formes et Couleurs, Casablanca, Morocco|
|_____||IIIe Biennale des Jeunes, Paris, France|
|_____||"20 Peintres étrangers" in the Parisian Musée de l'Art Moderne, Paris, France|
|1962||Peintres de l' École de Paris et Peintres Marocains, organized by Gaston Diehl, Rabat, Morocco|
|_____||Autour du Jeu, one-man show at the Ursula Girardon Gallery, Paris, France|
|_____||Salon de Mai, Paris, France |
|_____||Options, Ursula Girardon Gallery, Paris, France|
|1961||2e Biennale des Jeunes with Mohamed Melehi, Paris, France|
Awards and Honors
|1962 ||The bronze medal at the 10th "Salon Interministériel," Paris, France|
Amazighi art, Amazighi cultural heritage, iconography, identity, Islamic art, Modern Moroccan art, mystic Sufi brotherhood of Cherkaoua.
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