This paper proposes a new reading of Moroccan abstract painter Jilali Gharbaoui through the lens of decolonization. Gharbaoui fits uncomfortably into the narrative of modernism in Morocco. Unlike other painters, interested in direct connections between their shapes or abstractions and traditional visual culture or Islamic art as a postcolonial claim of local identity, Gharbaoui’s work is more elusive. Many critics have framed his abstraction primarily through his schizophrenia, as Gharbaoui died from suicide in 1971; this continual recourse to biography over the actual art objects puts Gharbaoui definitively at the margins of narratives of modernism. Moreover, this analysis precludes close attention to the ways in which Gharbaoui, like other painters of his generation, was shaped by the discourses of decolonization and the role that art could play in the new nation. Within this paper, in contrast, staying close to the work itself allows the possibility to understand the active ways in which Gharbaoui was negotiating questions of what postcolonial modernism could be. He sought to position himself as an international artist that was continually trying to bypass traditional aesthetics as a statement about modernity, but equally saw himself as deeply marked by his homeland. Read in dialogue and confrontation with cosmopolitanism, Gharbaoui’s oeuvre can be analyzed in terms of the multiple ways in which Gharbaoui tried to understand the materiality of the art itself, his relationship to the space of production, and the political stakes of abstraction.

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