Bury Me Up Standing

Mika Hannula

How do we deal with something that touches and concerns all of us? How can one say something at the same time specific and singular of a theme that is so general such as identity? What are the routes and the roots that make and shape a particular identity?

I am convinced that the only way we can deal with and confront with the question of identity is to allow it to be truly a process. Not a universal and common matter, but always a time and space bound situated and embedded process. A process constantly troubled with inner conflicts and confusions. A process that does not rely on the juxtaposition of either or, but is based on the attitude of both-and. An attitude that helps us to realize and to comprehend how to focus on the values, wants, desires, fears and interests that construct and conduct the process of an individuals identity.

My conviction is not grounded on abstract theory. A conviction that is neither set on stone. It is a conviction, like any belief of substance, which is tested all the time – on and on. But it is a conviction that gets fuel, air and the elements of crime and punishment it absolutely needs in order to keep on keeping on when meeting, talking and walking with the works of Charif Benhelima.

A work, such as, Semitics, 2005, shown at a solo show as a part of his residency at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien. A work that gives an example of how what we see and are let to see is not necessarily pre-determined. In this particular case, Benhelima experimented with the spatial dimension and structures of our perception. The work in itself was a framed board filled with altogether 135 Polaroid shots. They were pictures of pictures that he had collected and taken. Pictures that were of either people from Jewish or Arab background - or to be more precise, in the former group there are also the sub-group of Sephardic Jewish people included. The persons with Jewish identity were set on the back, and the Arabs in the front. You could not get close to the work, and you cold not so easily make out the layers within the surface of the work. The entrance to the gallery space was blocked by a see-through plexi-glass. What’s more, the board with the Polaroids was mounted into the wall that stood about two meters away from the viewer.

So what did we see? We saw a complex work that gave hints of dealing with the identities of what one can connect to the word Semitics. A word that cover! s at least as much that it exposures. A work that is linked to Jewish and Arab heritage, not to forget Christian heritage, but a word which so often gets a strong either pro or anti Jewish connotation. We also saw the plurality of faces that Charif distracted by adding extra light to them. Faces that certainly were there but which at the same time were fading, just like a distant memory that goes away but still disturbs you. All individuals, all within the same main frame. All lost and all found.

But where does Benhelima come from? The work in question is his personal journey into the domain of this whole and unruly bag of intimidating questions that arises with it. The facts are not that difficult to state. Benhelima is born in Belgium with Belgian mother and Moroccan guest worker as father. Very early, his father was send back to Morocco, and his mother died. He was raised in host-families and governmental institutions. He thought of himself as a Belgian but experienced it as someone from an Arab background, with a name Benhelima that caused so often a strong negative reaction.

Well, yes, this was until some years ago when he was working and living in a place called New York. It is not a fairy tale, but a tale of curiosity, and of search for an identity. As it happens, it was in a photo shop run by Hasidic Jews in New York where the clerk typed his surname to a computer and mentioned that he has a Jewish name. This was so called news to Charif who calmly denied it and just said that he had Arab relatives. But the clerk insisted and insisted. And Charif got seriously hooked. What followed was a trip to visit grandmother in Morocco, and a lot of thinking about who he is and where does he come from. And sure, a fantastic work displaying hard-fought integrity of it’s own shown at Bethanien.

What also follows in a continuation of a process called identity. A process which Charif Benhelima so well understands has no answers and no clear-cut solution. What it has is a continuation. A continuation that perhaps naively can be articulated with the words of Ian Dury’s song called Reasons to be Cheerful in which he claims that “all I want for my birthday is another birthday.”

It is a process in which it is relative futile to reach out to something solid and authentic. A process during which the point is what you make with the ingredients that are given to you, how you mix them and how you achieve new ingredients to your daily life called mess. It is not a soup, but a game for survival. A game within which you know that you have to be innovative, but also honest to yourself, because that is all you got – and get. It is a game of identity in which, in fact, anything can potentially be part of it, but in which not everything is. It is again what you make with it, how you define yourself and your surroundings, and ultimately, how you negotiate your being-in-the-world with people next to you.

I guess one of the most fascinating details of Charif Benhelima’s artistic work is that he has a very strong background in classical documentary photography. Photographical series that address questions of immigration, of belongingness and longing for something else. Series that are build upon his own participation and nearness to the themes and people. It is a background that provides Charif the power and encouragement to play with fact and fiction, to flirt with the real while at the same time twisting it into directions that he wants to take it. It is not a cul-de-sac, and it is not a glorification of otherness or difficulties of whoever.

Instead, for me, the work of Benhelima delivers a promise. A promise of a process that aches and hurts but also shouts with joy and pleasure. A process that celebrates, and for a very good reason, the specific singularity of a situated self as an individual. A process that has been crystallized in the old Gypsy wish; a saying that graciously recognizes our limitations as human beings: Bury Me Up Standing.