If not the very first, Mohammed Ben Ali Rbati is certainly one of the earliest modern Moroccan painters. He is often referred to as an easel painter, though he eschewed canvas for watercolors on paper. Much of the history of modern painting in Morocco began with Rbati. Little has been written about him, and much of the information is contextual. It is clear that he received early support by European artists in Tangier, where he was based for most of his life. Many European painters came through Morocco and especially Tangier in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Tangier was, at the time, an international zone, and was therefore a place conducive to international encounters. In 1903, Rbati became the cook for Sir John Lavery, a portrait painter from Ireland, who discovered that Rbati was a talented painter that practiced watercolor painting in his spare time with care and attention to detail. Rbati had his first exhibition at the Goupil Gallery in London in 1916. Although Rbati had no formal arts training, his exposure to painting and the availability of watercolors in Tangier, thanks to the sizeable British population, awakened within him a desire to paint the daily scenes by which he was surrounded.
Rbati's figurative watercolors on paper focus on Tangier, its Kasbah, and its inhabitants. The paintings depict an extensive cross-section of the local population, showing men gathered around musicians or snake charmers, halqas (story-telling circles) in the Kasbah, and people walking through the streets, as well as scenes in cafes, at festivals, and in lavish interiors. Figures are often simplified and demarcated with clear strokes, the folds of djellabas suggested by well-placed lines, highlighting the brightness of the multiple colors. Many of the watercolors feature large groups of men or women, and the focus is often more on the larger scene than on individualizing details. The geometric lines of city walls, mosques, or intricate geometric tiling contrast with the curved and flowing lines of the figures in their traditional dress. In many examples of Rbati's work, the plane of the picture is entirely flat, with no reference to dimensionality, and the paintings sometimes include decorative borders. However, there are also numerous examples of watercolors that go beyond a flat plane in order to document more closely the scenes the artist witnessed. In these, shadows are clearly placed under each figure, showing the artist's experimentation and study into ways of showing light and multi-dimensionality. While often described in terms of the spontaneity of his expression, the varied treatment of the picture plane suggests the artist's interest in deliberately simplifying the forms as part of a style, not as a default. Rbati consistently signed the front of his canvases, always in Arabic.
Rbati is often left out of histories of painting in Morocco, which in general focus more on the latter half of the twentieth century. However, as a 1918 exhibition of easel paintings at the Hotel Excelsior in Casablanca suggests, there were visiting and local artists working in Morocco through the protectorate era (1912 - 1956). There are a few examples of self-taught figurative Moroccan painters whose works have been preserved. Many of these artists captured daily life and locales, including Abdeslam El Fassi Ben Larbi, who painted daily scenes in central Marrakech. Early painting in Morocco is not a well-documented field, but Rbati's place in many national and international collections pays tribute to his important foundational role.
Selected Group Exhibitions
|Exhibition in the Mamounia Palace, Rabat, Morocco
|2nd Exhibition, Marseille, France
|Goupil Gallery, London
Modern Moroccan Art, Tangier, watercolor, Protectorate.
Khalil M'Rabet. Peinture et Identité: L'expérience marocaine. Paris: L'Harmattan, 1989.
Rachdi, Mohamed. Partager: une collection d'art ouverte au public. Casablanca: Espace d'art-Société Générale, 16 December 2011-13 July 1012. Accessed March 20, 2014. http://ettouffahi.artblog.fr/551711/Mohamed-BEN-ALI-RBATI/.
Wahman, Ahmad. "His Artistic Tatent Exceeds his Culinary Skills." Kuwait: al-Arabi Magazine. The Ministry of Information, 2003. Accessed May 28, 2014. http://www.alarabimag.com/little/Article.asp?Art=3804&ID=15.
Rondeau, Daniel, Abderrahman Slaoui, Nicole de Pontcharra. Mohammed Ben Ali R'bati: un peintre à Tanger en 1900. Casablanca: Malika: Fondation Aberrahman Slaoui, 2000.