Written by Brahim Alaoui
Ahmed Cherkaoui is considered as one of the pioneers of contemporary painting in Morocco. During the post-Independence period of the 1960s, visual artists in Morocco forged ahead in expressing their desires for establishing a new society, and Cherkaoui was a leading proponent of this movement. It was an important time for contemplation around processes leading towards modernity, and when artists were questioning their identity and relation to the 'other'. Cherkaoui's creative achievements in developing a fresh pictorial sensibility, whilst also incorporating elements of local culture, seemed to offer answers to the younger generation of artists.
Unfortunately, the promise of Ahmed Cherkaoui's work was cut short by his untimely death in 1967 at aged thirty-three, and at the point when his paintings were reaching a new stage of maturity. He seemed destined to produce great works of art, building on his dynamic interactions and experiments with different visual mediums, the Arab and Amazighi traditions and the language of modern art. His reputation gained ground while still in the 'School of Paris' during the 1960s and spread quickly across borders; his work and unique symbiotic approach was seen to hold great symbolic value. He died at a crucial moment in the debate between East and West: over the search for identity, values and modern cultures while remaining true to the tracing of historical paths.
Visual training in Morocco
Ahmed Cherkaoui was born in the small town of Boujad located in the plain of Chaouia. His father hailed from a famous family of mystics, the Sufi brotherhood of the Cherkaoua, founded in 1566 under the reign of the Saadian sultans. And his mother was of Amazighi origin who belonged to the Zayanes tribe from the Middle Atlas, where women traditionally made handcrafted objects with particular skills in wool weaving.
Ahmed Cherkaoui experienced a peaceful childhood amid two cultures: his Amazighi maternal inheritance and his paternal Arab-Muslim traditions. He first attended Quranic school learning to read and write in Arabic, before his primary education in the town of Beni-Mellal at the foot of the Middle Atlas, a location featuring the stronghold of Amazighi tribes.
It should be noted that the Amazighi, considered as the original inhabitants of North Africa, had their own alphabet, the Tifinagh, which is still used by the Tuareg people today. This alphabet is similar to that found in the Saba manuscripts and in other sites of ancient civilisations in Yemen. Some historians claim that the Amazighi were originally from Yemen who then spread to Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Mauritania, as well as to the south. Their artistic production made use of geometric abstractions with symbols that had once served to identify tribes, determine the rite of passage or to ward off bad luck. These same symbols formed an ornamental reservoir that flowed from one space to another, being used across their architecture, pottery, weaving, and tattoos, and is preserved today in the collective visual memory of this population. The proximity to the Amazighi culture and their arts would make a lasting impression on the young Cherkaoui, and he remembered them significantly in one of his later works,
The Signs of My Mother.1
Cherkaoui moved to Casablanca as a teenager to pursue his secondary education. Adapting to city life in a modern metropolis was not without difficulty. At the end of World War II, and under the French protectorate, Casablanca witnessed a major expansion and housed the largest European community in Morocco. During this period, the city found itself at the heart of the movements for independence. Cherkaoui adapted slowly to the cosmopolitan life of Casablanca surrounded by such aspirations and benefited from the cultural potentiality and economic opportunities which the city offered. While attending high school, he worked to hone his Arabic calligraphy skills under the pupilage of a reputed master; an apprenticeship that helped him to earn a living and prepare for his departure to Paris, undertaking different graphic projects for a workshop that produced advertising billboards.
Calligraphy proved to be a significant influence in his practice and remained a source of inspiration to him, as he considered the form as an art in itself. It partly determined his future artistic calling and his pursuit of studying art in France. He felt mature enough to face exile. His young life had been surrounded by multiculturalism, in a society marked by a diversity of artistic expression: pre-Islamic tradition and the Amazighi traditions from his mother, Islamic traditions and Arabism from his father, and finally French traditions acquired while studying in Casablanca at the time of the Protectorate. Such cultural diversity would contribute in structuring the memory of the young Cherkaoui and had an impact on his future artistic expressions.
The School of Paris
Armed with these rich experiences, Cherkaoui arrived in Paris in 1956, where he enrolled in the School of Crafts and specialised in the graphic arts. Through this discipline, he was introduced to the art of visual expression and its ability to shape ideas and communicate emotions. His work during that time already reflected his artistic aptitude and his use of free lines. After graduating, Cherkaoui immersed himself in Parisian artistic life, much like the scores of other artists from diverse backgrounds who congregated in this capital, which had become a hub for research on artistic modernity.
Coming from a newly-independent Morocco, Cherkaoui lived in the Latin Quarter in the Maghreb Students House - a meeting place of the future elite, who had all trained in France. Among those he befriended was the sociologist Abdelkebir Khatibi, with whom he spoke passionately about the future of their country. 'We discussed issues such as national culture, the quest for an art that examined the fundamentals, that of going back to the roots and indicating a different path', wrote Khatibi.
In this context, Cherkaoui found innovative thoughts in motion which presented favourable conditions for the development of his personality and his talent. He embarked upon a career in the arts stimulated by a persistent learning of the artist's trade, exploring the 'real' and stylistically reflecting its different elements by using an economy of means. Gradually, his paintings began to break free from all references to an objective universe.
In 1960, Cherkaoui joined the École des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) in Paris and before long, had become part of the School of Paris that was governed by the practice of abstract art. He discovered the paintings of Roger Bissière and Atlan. He also admired the art of Paul Klee, whose work with symbols would act as a powerful catalyst for Cherkaoui by stirring memories of the 'calligraphy of his roots', according to Khatibi.3 The works of such respected artists formed a valuable reference during his meditations on visual language and the means of expressing an 'inner necessity'.
At the heart of the 'School of Paris' Cherkaoui found a field of activity in which he aspired to contribute. However, he was aware that this was not an easy task and that 'the frenzy of wanting to incorporate contemporary Western knowledge without some understanding of its foundations immediately appears as a ridiculous experience, an inexorably ridiculous one'.4 He provided himself with the means to learn and understand, embarking on a long journey of meditation on the modes of representation, their means and their properties. It also became clear to him that it was not easy to gain a place in the 'School of Paris', facing similar constraints to those experienced by French-speaking North African writers during the colonial period, where 'the North African artist finds both a welcoming reception of an expression and a confirmation of internal exile', as described by Edmond Amran El Maleh.5
Conscious of this dilemma, Cherkaoui attempted to overcome the inevitability of this pattern and followed the examples of the founders of French-speaking North African literature, who produced a unique form by creating a new language that is of the 'other', but that was also not completely foreign. Convinced of the need to situate his art and his works in relation to a creative modernity, he began to explore his own artistic identity.
Cherkaoui begain to invest in experimenting with burlap and in exploring its plastic and expressive properties. So he began cutting it, transforming it, and gluing it onto classic canvases to give new shape and meaning. He used textures of raw burlap cut into geometric shapes, with designs and colours that evoked certain figurative meanings. Yet, Cherkaoui wanted to break free from the shackles of pictorial similarities and soon took a step back from the 'School of Paris'. He decided to travel in search of new ways of expression. So in 1961, he went on a study trip to Poland and enrolled in the School of Fine Arts in Warsaw at the workshop of Henryk Stazewski, the founder of the local avant-garde artistic movement. This trip allowed Cherkaoui to interact with a different cultural and political environment and helped him nourish and renew his pictorial practice.
A Passion for Signs
The Warsaw experience was followed by a trip to Morocco in 1962 for some rest and relaxation, during which Cherkaoui took the opportunity to conduct research on folk art, enabled by a grant from UNESCO.
Returning to Paris with new observations and a strong sense of belonging to an age-old culture of signs and symbols, Cherkaoui began to develop a personal style that brought to the surface the symbols that had inhabited him since childhood and he started to give shape to their creative reverberations. His works underwent a major turning point and resulted in compositions he is now most recognised for.
He produced a series of large canvases covered with burlap onto which he painted black-striped symbols enclosed in an oval structure and interspersed with bright colours. These works were marked by a primacy of symbols that became his artistic signature. They paved the way for a confrontation between painting and symbol writing, as well as creating a full use of their potential.
Cherkaoui's work undertook a dark and dense period 1963 - 1964, where tensions appeared in a kind of incarnation of the pictorial symbol, which became part and parcel of his painting and seemed to grow and develop from the material and the colour.
Hence, in 1964, we see the advent of a phase where the symbol reappears gradually through the material, cutting into the colours that give it form and splendor in his work. As a result, the works gained more light through an increased appearance of the colour white that framed the black pictograms strewn on the canvas. It evolved towards a more mature spirituality, with iridescent material and brighter monochromes. This particular period of rich productivity is also marked by a quest for the absolute and a growing interest in Sufism. Edmond Amran El Maleh was probably right to see in Cherkaoui's oeuvre, a 'transposition in the pictorial experience with an undeniably Sufi inspiration'.6
Parallel to painting, Cherkaoui also explored a variety of mediums and techniques. He produced many paintings using watercolours, as well as drawings executed in pencil and ink on blotting paper. These drawings form a kind of corpus of symbols invented by the artist and serve as a matrix transposed into his painting technique. Such paintings certainly represent the major concerns of the artist, but they further highlight the specificity of each medium. It is easy to see reflections and echoes of the symbols from his heritage, for he understood their essence, their geometric density and expressive potential. These symbols are certainly one of the secrets of his ingenuity. Cherkaoui relentlessly persevered in refining his art and methods until his untimely death in 1967.