Sharqawi, Ahmad (1934–1967)

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Sharqawi, Ahmad

Moroccan painter Ahmad Sharqawi is one of the leading figures of modern Moroccan art. His work shadowed the first generation of self-taught, unschooled Moroccan artists whose paintings were typically described as naïve and undisciplined. Sharqawi's artistic upbringing within the French school of art influenced his choice to combine Western artistic concepts, Islamic art, Arabic calligraphy, and Berber symbolism. After independence, Sharqawi, André El Baz, and Mohammed Bellal, among other artists, urged the national agencies to establish museums throughout the country as a means of exposing the general public to modern art. For Sharqawi, art was an expression of national identity and he believed it should reflect its multiple dimensions. His use of Muslim, Arab, Berber, and modern Western tokens reflected his attempt to expose his viewers to the complex Moroccan identity.


Sharqawi (also Ahmed Cherkaoui) was born on 2 October 1934 in Boujad, east of Khouribga, Morocco. Boujad houses the Sufi (Islamic mystic) religious brotherhood of al-Shaykh Sidi Muhammad bin al-Arabi bin al-Ma'ti bin al-Salih al-Sharqawi (d. 1601). Ahmad Sharqawi was a descendant of the Sharqawiyya religious brotherhood that emerged as an influential political player in the seventeenth century by supporting the Alawite Sultan Moulay al-Rashid against the al-Dilaiyya brotherhood. At the end of the eighteenth century, the Sharqawiyya brotherhood of Boujad was one of the most prestigious religious and economic centers of Morocco.

Sharqawi attended the local Qur'anic school of his hometown. His passion for Arabic calligraphy was nurtured at an early stage of his Qur'anic and primary education. He moved to Casablanca to pursue his secondary education. The loss of his mother at a young age, combined with his inability to adjust to urban life, led to a feeling of loneliness he was able to fulfill with his artistic vocation. In 1956, Sharqawi was admitted to the École des Métiers d'Art, where he earned his diploma in 1959. During this period, Sharqawi was able to master modern artistic techniques while contributing intuitive personal sensibilities to his artistic paintings.

In 1959, Sharqawi was hired by Pathé Marconi in order to draw cover models for musical discs in the Oriental department and carry out preliminary research in the field of painting. He produced a number of paintings that departed from traditional styles in Morocco at the time. Later, Sharqawi shifted his style from figurative compositions of Moroccan sceneries to abstract art. This dramatic shift was propelled by the influence of Paul Klee and Roger Bissière. Klee's combined use of oil paint, watercolor, and ink affected Sharqawi's abstract nonrepresentational style. Bissière's influence on Sharqawi was also important, especially in terms of his use of oil paint. Monique de Gouvenain, the director of Galerie Solstice, encouraged Sharqawi to exhibit his canvas works for the first time at the Ateliers de l'Imprimerie Lucienne Thalheimer.


Name: Ahmad Sharqawi (Ahmed Cherkaoui)

Birth: 2 October 1934, Boujad, Morocco

Death: 17 August 1967, Casablanca, Morocco

Nationality: Moroccan

Education: École des Métiers d'Art (Paris); École des Beaux-Arts (Paris); College of Fine Arts (Warsaw)


  • 1961: Wins bronze medal, Tenth Interdepartmental Meeting, Paris
  • 1962–1967: Exhibits in Paris, Rabat, Casablanca, Tangiers, Tokyo, and European cities

In 1960, after he attended the École des Beaux Art of Paris and joined Aujame's workshop, Sharqawi's career would forge the way for the modern Moroccan school of abstract art. During that year, he became the first Moroccan to inject Arabic calligraphy and Berber signs into his abstract art. The influence of his Berber cultural origin was reflected through geometric patterns and signs that copy Berber tattoos. This artistic synthesis of Berber traditional forms, Arabic calligraphic forms, and modern Western artistic styles summarized Sharqawi's personal style which inaugurated, along with Jilali Gharbaoui's work, the school of abstract art in Morocco at the beginning of the 1960s. In order to expose the common Moroccan viewer to this new style, Sharqawi organized his first exhibition in Rabat at the Salon de la jeune Peinture.

In 1961, Sharqawi began living in Warsaw for a year after obtaining a fellowship from the Académie des Beaux-Arts of Warsaw (Poland) to study under the supervision of the painter Stajewski, a leading figure of geometric abstraction in modern art. This Polish avant-garde school significantly influenced Sharqawi's later paintings, as he began to combine both French and Polish teachings into his style. In June 1961, he exhibited a series of paintings at the gallery of Krzwe-Kolo. However, despite the intense artistic training, Sharqawi's style had not yet reached its stage of maturity by his Warsaw experience.

He returned to Morocco in August 1961 and began a phase of internal questioning about his style. As he reflected on some of his earlier paintings bought by the Goethe Institute of Casablanca, he noticed the dominance of signs in his old works. At that point, he decided to conduct fieldwork on Berber tattoos and geometric signs in the Atlas Region to gain a better understanding of them. After this ethnographic journey in Berber areas, he departed from the figurative allusions to Berber signs by allowing himself the freedom to give the signs other meanings within paintings. This break from the reproduction of the sign was complemented by new personal use of light and colors (namely green and red). In October 1961, Sharqawi, along with Gharbaoui and Mohammed Melehi, represented the Moroccan school of abstract art during the second annual meeting of young artists in Paris. Here, he stayed on to prepare another exhibition that was organized at the gallery of Ursula Girardon in Paris in March 1962. After this success, Sharqawi held a number of exhibitions in Morocco and France.

In 1963, Sharqawi spurred artistic discussions after he presented a number of paintings that were dominated by a gloomy background and three colors (blue, red, and green). Sharqawi continued to travel back and forth between Morocco and Paris as his exhibitions reflecting his artistic stature flourished in France. In early 1967, he decided to leave his growing fame in Paris and go back to Morocco to train a new generation of modern artists. His return reflected the beginning of a national consciousness among many artists to introduce new expressions of modern art into the national public sphere. Unfortunately, Sharqawi was not able to achieve his dream, dying from a simple appendicitis complication on 17 August 1967 in Casablanca. He was only thirty-three years old.


Jilali Gharbaoui (1930–1971) was born in Jorf El Melh (near Sidi Kacem), Morocco. Unlike Ahmad Sharqawi, Gharbaoui did not come from a prestigious family background, as he was born to a humble family. At the age of ten, he lost his parents and was adopted by his uncle. After he finished his secondary education, he attended a school of painting in Fez in 1950, working as a newspaper vendor in order to pay for his evening classes. In 1952, Gharbaoui was awarded a scholarship to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In 1957, he joined the Académie Julian. After this French experience, he moved to Rome when he received a fellowship between 1958 and 1959. He returned to Morocco in 1960, settling in Rabat. Gharbaoui's work was influenced by French impressionism, the Dutch school of painting, and German expressionism. In 1952, Gharbaoui became interested in abstract painting and became the first Moroccan artist to use geometric expressions in his compositions. After his return from Europe, he emerged, with Sharqawi, as one of the leading national figures to call for a new interpretation of the traditional forms of expressions. He emphasized the use of light in his painting in order to create an aura of sensitivity in his paintings. Gharbaoui also shared with Sharqawi a feeling of loneliness that was usually reflected in their work. However, unlike Sharqawi, Gharbaoui experienced moments of neuroses which led him to commit suicide on 8 April 1971 in Paris.


Sharqawi's family background and his Western education influenced his art. His childhood upbringing in one of the most influential religious centers of Morocco left within him an intuitive knowledge of Islamic calligraphic symbols that he encountered during his religious education. These calligraphic signs were replicated throughout his works as he became engrossed in painting. His encounters with European schools of art provided him with an artistic discipline that gave his artistic techniques a personal touch. On a personal level, Sharqawi's relationship with his mother's Berber culture also influenced his works, as Berber signs and symbols were often reflected in his paintings. These forms of stylistic repre-sentation were personalized as Sharqawi added emotive feelings and expressions that he reflected through color and light in nonrepresentational forms.


Sharqawi is still acclaimed in Europe as one of the most innovative artists in the history of postindependence Morocco. After his death, his paintings continued to be exhibited in museums in Europe and Morocco. The stature of Sharqawi is celebrated worldwide because of his peculiar ability to understand modern European styles of cubism and abstract art and reinterpret them from his indigenous Moroccan perspectives.


During his short life, Sharqawi organized about thirty-two exhibitions in Rabat, Casablanca, Madrid, Tangiers, Warsaw, Tokyo, Paris, and Algiers. These exhibitions became means to encourage and promote modern abstract art in Morocco. Sharqawi's legacy is a combination of his ability to introduce a new form of artistic expression that veered away from representational art, while managing to institutionalize it on the eve of Moroccan independence. In fact, he played a major role in demanding the creation of modern museums in Rabat and Casablanca. In addition, Sharqawi was able to merge Western techniques of paintings with Moroccan traditional styles without a blind imitation of Western art.


Boutaleb, Abdeslam. La peinture naïve au Maroc. Paris: Les Éditions du Jaguar, 1985.

El Maleh, E. A., et al. La peinture de Ahmed Cherkaoui. Casablanca, Morocco: Shoof, 1976.

Flamand, Alain. Regard sur la peinture contemporaine au Maroc. Casablanca, Morocco: Société d'Edition et de Diffusion Al-Madariss, 1983.

Menfalout, Salifa. "La creation contemporaine au Maroc l'exemple d'Ahmed Cherkaoui." Ph.D. diss. Université de Paris I (Sorbonne), 1997.

M'Rabet, Khalil. Peinture et identité: l'expérience marocaine. Paris: L'Harmattan, 1987.

Sijelmassi, Mohamed. La peinture marocaine. Paris: Arthaud, 1972.

―――――――. L'art contemporain au Maroc. Paris: ACR Édition, 1989.

                                               Aomar Boum


When I saw Bissiére for the first time, I was so moved that I cried. I felt a terrible shock as I stood in front of his paintings. I have in front of me incarnated beauty.