Fundamental Process: Charif Benhelima
Process is as fundamental as the concept and the aesthetics
The photographic oeuvre of Belgian artist Charif Benhelima demand attention. Notable for phases clearly delimited by different aesthetic, formal and conceptual research, his images are recurrently allegories of what is not visible or what one tries to keep unseen. First, they represent sentiments and concepts, before events and actions. The situations or the elements photographed are not the author’s central subjects; rather they are simply components of questions that go beyond them, which are generally confrontational, discomforting to deal with and, thus, difficult to recognize.
In his first work, Welcome to Belgium, which took nine years to be fully completed and resulted in an homonymous book, the artist combined four photographic series, family photos, statements, decree definitions and an historic document, to deal with the sentiment of being a foreigner.
Beginning with his own portrait and ending with one of his mother is an indication of the work’s autobiographical nature, with Benhelima obeying a well-established chronology in order to display the series he photographed between 1990 and 1999. The children of the first and second generations of immigrants, playing in the streets of Brussels; the day-to-day lives of the individuals and families who waited in a refugee center to learn whether their requests for asylum had been accepted or not; men, whose requests were denied, illegal immigrants residing clandestinely in an old shelter; the daily activities of a young single mother, Hélène, chemically dependent and an illegal alien, in her small apartment.
In somber black and white, the photographs enunciate, as the research advances, a range from an optimism characteristic of the ingenuous through to the canceling out of the many people who are living clandestinely as a result of the lack of documentation, imprisoned between worlds. Opening each series is a decree that defines and categorizes immigrants, refugees, gypsies, illegal aliens, foreigners. In parallel, a little-known pamphlet that was distributed by the Belgian government in North African countries in the 1960s is presented, inviting workers to migrate and set themselves up in the country. Short texts, written by Benhelima, once again offer a personal perspective, courageously denuding his sentiment of incongruence and his personal growth, until he has become capable of declaring, among other things, that his father was one of these guest workers, coming from Morocco. Despite the obstacles and the struggle pictured in Welcome to Belgium, the final image of the last series, the ultrasound picture of Hélène’s newest pregnancy, reveals the cyclical construction of the oeuvre, alluding at the same time to a new beginning and to Benhelima himself.
Each image’s index is merely its first possibility of reading, the most evident one. The scenes that have been documented are simple, sometimes ordinary; by not using the facility of dramatic situations, which are abundant in such contexts, the artist distances himself conceptually from the notion of a photo-event. What is documented was less what happened in each image and, rather, the sentiment and the ideas represented, which are not visible and that, in general, one avoids examining and understanding. Moving from one image to another gives the overall photographic work, supported by verbal paratexts, a complexity of meanings, from the personal to the historic, where the ultimate question resides in this feeling of not belonging to or not corresponding to that which a given society appreciates.
Benhelima never had enough family photographs to make up a personal album. The lack of the materialization of a nearly immemorial past not only influenced him in the choice of photography as a medium of work, but also motivated him to construct a poetic history. Not a fictitious history of invented situations and performed acts, but rather his own history through the lives of others. In a certain sense, Welcome to Belgium is an album of Benhelima’s own trajectory, a portrait of his process of development as an artist and as a man.
Averse to the trap of successful artistic formulas, in 1999 Benhelima initiated his experiments with Polaroid 600 film (and camera) - right through to today his main support – embarking on a type of counter-current to today’s inclination for digital images and new media. Also indifferent to the aesthetic trends of the snapshot or official document type color photography - frontal, sharp and “anti-aesthetic” – besides the up to then omnipresent landscapes theme, typical of the so-called German School, Benhelima developed quite a personal style. Moreover, by offering little technical control and having distinctive timing, the use of instantaneous film obliged the artist to establish a new relationship with photography. The tougher and more economic aesthetic of Welcome to Belgium is less employed, allowing space for reflections, counterlight, shadows, bipartite images along with the flou that is characteristic of Polaroid, creating a type of abstraction, even if figurative. This greater distancing from the notion of evidence – intrinsic to photography – was the way encountered to deal with the circumstances that Benhelima would experience and witness. Harlem on my mind: I was, I am, developed in New York between 1999 and 2002, inaugurates a new phase in his work.
Having lived in Harlem for three years, Benhelima was confronted with a certain inversion of roles he was not used to. For the first time his nationality and culture were not opposed by his given name. Ironically he embodied the notion of discrimination face-to-face with the so-called African-American community. He was once more an outsider, but now one with a defined identity.
In the street photography genre, the artist documented streets, buildings, passers-by, animals, objects, posters and billboards in a manner creating images of manifest ambiguity. Whether through undefined facial expressions, reproductions of previously existing images, reflected images or its timeless quality — highly explored in this series – Benhelima projected the sentiment of transition that he was living onto the Harlem community that, for its part, is constantly making an effort to mold its image. The documentary potential of photography is used to question reality itself: what is real is only a component of personal reality.
Added to the black and white images are red monochrome shots — a solution forced by the discontinuance of the 600 B&W film and an artistic strategy. Besides its vividness, quite appropriate for life in Harlem, and the rhythm created by interspersing the black and white and monochromatic photos, the color red generates paradoxical allusions such as fever, passion, intensity, brutality, emphasizing the idea of the daily conflict in each one of us. In Harlem on my mind: I was, I am – that besides exuberant blowups in cibachrome was put out in the form of an artist’s book in a luxurious publication of 54 copies (V-Editie) — Benhelima portrayed more than the New York neighborhood. Rather, he represented the feeling of instability and the idea of uncertainty, of passage — that normally is intended to be suppressed or masked.
Each work is like a turning point, yet a continuation of the artist’s research. Benhelima develops his projects over long periods of time, reflecting personal experiences and seeking new perspectives and approaches, nevertheless without losing coherence. It could be said that his most recent projects are the ones that most deconstruct the way of looking at things, presenting a singular proposal. Out of an abundance of elements and information contained in his first works, Benhelima has been experimenting the extreme opposite through Black-Out and Roots I.
In the images of the Black-Out series – which also made use of the Polaroid 600 for support – almost none or no context of what has been photographed is offered. At times the background and the surroundings have almost or completely disappeared, while at other times the entire image is barely discernible. A white haze layer covers most of the image, as if it were fading or still to be fully developed. It is as if the images were at the limit of existence and non-existence, a kind of non-image.
In an effort to break out from the political and social issues that Berlin — where the artist began his research on the occasion of his participation in the Künstlerhaus Bethanien artist-in-residence program – inspires, Benhelima then began to concentrate on documenting ordinary daily scenes, objects, using extreme overexposure in a manner to wash out most of what normally would be visible.
The photographs challenge the viewer’s perception; yet one can realize what the depicted thing is. Still, and ironically, they suggest - through the wide void created by the mist and by their individual titles - there is much more in the image that you do not know. Perhaps this is an allusion to the entire load of historicism that Berlin carries and that Benhelima prefers not to touch upon, at least not directly. Black-Out, as the title itself suggests, reflects the idea of memory and oblivion. A great emptiness resides in this work; the invisible is the context itself, the history itself, the identity itself. The unusual time-space relation destabilizes any given reference, creating an open window for the viewer’s own suppositions. Reality is explicitly to be forged.
In his poetics of the document, Benhelima observes that in fact identity, memory, history, the current moment do not simply exist but, rather, are the result of subjective constructions.