In the midst of auction cancellations and postponements, many global sales have been moving to digital bidding platforms with key lots sustaining active interest among online buyers. Today, bidding in Sotheby’s London online sale of 20th Century Middle Eastern Art ended with 60 percent of the 67 lots offered outperforming their estimates, and a solid total of £2.2M ($2.7M) that nipped at the pre-sale total high estimate of £2.3M.
Among the highlights was Moroccan artist Mohamed Melehi’s The Blacks, an abstract geometric painting dated 1963, which saw a full 30 bids and eventually sold for £399,000 ($494,147). The work reached more than seven times its low estimate of £55,000 and set a new auction record for Melehi’s work by a significant margin, the previous record being Solar Nostalgia, which achieved $1,900,000 MAD ($199,567) at Morrocan auction house, Compagnie Marocaine des Œuvres et Objet d’art (CMOOA) in 2018.
Mohamed Melehi is a foremost postmodern artist and seminal figure of the renegade Casablanca school whose pioneering artistic style and representation of 1960s political activism has recently seen global recognition. After receiving formal arts training in Rome in the late 1950s and then at Columbia University in New York, Melehi began developing his signature abstract style. The painting sold at Sotheby’s was made at a seminal moment in his early career, when he was emerging as an influencer alongside major Italian and American abstract painters; in 1963 it was selected to be shown in MoMA’s group exhibition “Hard Edge and Geometric Painting.”
After returning to Morocco in the mid-1960s, Melehi rose to prominence as a leading Maghreb cultural figure during the resistance against autocracy in the country’s post-Independence era. In 1969, the radical group of emerging artists in the Casablanca school organized a street exhibition at Jemaa el-Fnaa square in Marrakech that would become a critical cultural moment. Merging recognizable influences of global modernism and local emblem — architectural styles of Bauhaus, as well as the cultural signifiers of Islamic art became visual markers of the group’s commitment to carving out a new national identity in post-colonial Morocco.
With this democratic imperative, Melehi made work accessible for wide distribution. He designed covers featuring his signature graphic wave — a modern adaptation of the arabesque in Islamic art — in collaboration with national cultural magazines such as Souffles (1966-69) and Integral (1972-77). Each were publishers of contemporary socio-political criticism key to the national protest movement.
In 2019, a selection of such formative works was included in the retrospective “New Waves: Mohamed Melehi and the Casablanca Art School Archives” at London’s Mosaic Room.
Among the other lots in Sotheby’s sale that set new artist records and saw active bidding was renowned post-modern painter Farid Belkhahia’s Jerusalem, an abstract work made in the 1980s. The piece saw a total of fifteen bids, more than doubling its high estimate of £90,000 and realizing a price of £200,000. Like Melehi, Belkhahia was a member of Morocco’s Casablanca school—his work nods to Arabic architectural influences and traditional local materials—and the two artists’ strong results reflect an increased interest in that movement.
A Family of Farmers, an abstract figurative work by Iraqi artist Mahmoud Sabri from the early 1960s also outperformed its expectations at Sotheby’s. Receiving a total of 17 bids, the work tripled its low estimate and realized a selling price of £300,000. A forerunner of Middle Eastern modern art, Sabri spent periods in his native Baghdad, and in Soviet Russia. Like that of Melehi and Belkhahia, his art shows a commitment to modernism’s ideals against a backdrop of political transformation.