Nominated in 2008 for his photographic oeuvre for the Robert Gardner Fellowship in Photography (Harvard University), Charif Benhelima (1967, Brussels) comes from the practice of street photography and, since 1999, has been experimenting with Polaroid. The artist’s documentary approach gradually gave way to a more unconventional photographic imagery, going from a frontal depiction of a reality to the exploration of reflections, shadows, reproductions of pre-existing photos, bi-partite and monochromatic images. The investigation of abstraction within a figurative context evolved up to an acute thinning of their boundaries in his current work, Occupancy, the first part of the series Roots.
In Roots – research derived from and complementary to Black-Out, in which the artist virtually brings the studio form to the streets – Benhelima uses the idea of void as an element of language. With no digital manipulation, but rather making use of the limitations of his support (Polaroid 600) to wash out much of what normally would be visible, the artist creates images that seem to be fading or yet to be fully developed, as if they were at the limit of existence and non-existence. The impression of emptiness or the sense of invisibility created by the white haze challenges the viewer’s perception. Benhelima pictures the real in an illusory image, which unsettles the understanding of indexical representation.
Index and (the illusive) void become blended, sometimes diluted in one another to the point that it is hard to tell them apart, as in Occupancy #2, where a kind of bindweed spreads its tendrils in the image logically attached to a wall but seemingly floating on a neutral, dematerialized background. In Occupancy #1 and #7 somehow the opposite occurs. The plants in the foreground appear to have been cut out of the image, leaving only their spectrums or the spaces that they once occupied. It is as if, at the same time, they were and they were no longer there.
A strange sense of depth and volume is created, in a disturbing experience of space. Both the title and the spatial relations suggest the plants to be expanding, growing, anchoring themselves on a given place, occupying, but also having their space occupied or shared by other elements.
The employment of Benhelima’s unmistakable street photography approach to seeing things to a classic artistic object, in combination with his aesthetic and formal strategy, makes Roots I more than a common observation of static photosynthetic organisms.
The choice of plants within a planned nature area, is neither limited to the relation of mankind and (natural or artificial) environment. It refers rather to a social space and its structure of intersections, exchange, migration – in which the artist has his roots - adding as well to the ambiguousness of the resulting images – a characteristic of Benhelima’s oeuvre. It is not always clear what is occupying what: the wall, the climbing plant, the tree, the grass, the cement; the street or the studio; the void, or the index; the real or the illusory. The only sureness is that they are transforming and being transformed.