Charif Benhelima: Imagem em Processo
MAC - Museu de Arte Contemporânea
6 April - 23 June
Review by Elke Segers
Come closer. A bit more please. Gaze close and long enough for lines and forms to dawn upon you. Yes: do get personal. Now step back and get entwined in this over-sensitive Polaroid play of appearing and disappearing. The exhibition ‘Images in Process’ challenges the invisible to become the context, the history, the identity itself. Its unusual time-space relation destabilises any given reference, creating an open window for the viewer’s own suppositions, where reality is to be forged. The allegory of what is not visible or what is kept unseen, is outspoken in its simplicity and consistency in the minimalist, mostly black-and-white poetics of photographer Charif Benhelima (b. 1967 in Brussels, Belgium).
With his Polaroid 600 film (and camera) experiments, Benhelima embarked on a type of counter-current to today’s inclination for digital images and new media. Slow, with hardly any technical control, this photography process results in unique images, immune to touch-ups, adding a sense of authenticity or even ‘autochthonous-ness’, forming the cornerstone of the artist’s personal quest for identity. Son to a Moroccan father and Belgian mother, Benhelima was orphaned at the age of eight. He grew up in the countryside of the catholic West Flanders and only first learned about his Sephardic Jewish origin when living in Harlem.
Ironically enough, it was the Harlem African-American community that first defined - instead of negated - his Belgian culture and identity. This inversion of roles nurtured the sense of instability, uncertainty, and transitional identity, that is found in the series ‘Harlem on my mind: I was, I am’ (1999-2002). The reflections, highlights, silhouettes, shadows, and bipartite pictures in this documentary street photography all encapsulate the ‘flou’ so typical of Polaroid photography. ‘Semites’ (2003-2005) elaborates on this notion of origin according to a common cultural Semiotic history. Taking an archivist’s perspective by appropriating and reusing pre-existing identity photographs and casual portraits, Benhelima ‘regroups’ Jews and Arabs through clouded emptiness and subjective construction.
This aesthetic of invisibility is pushed to the edge in the ‘Black-out’ (2005) street shots registering buildings, objects, passages and billboards with little or no contextual framework. In an increasingly deconstructive way, the series ‘Roots’ (2008) then portrays the symbiosis between plants and man-made elements, as well as their formation through migratory processes. The whole image remains evanescent, as if meandering at the limit between existence and nonexistence…
Questioning the very sense of exhibiting, the curators invite the spectator not to a Polaroid exhibition as such, but rather to a laboratory of tomorrow’s world where processes reveal and reflect each of us ‘as belonging to the same liquid and luminous human condition, almost invisible, but inhabiting the contradictions of existence in the contemporary world.’ The question remains - the exhibition having travelled from Brussels, Belgium to Niterói, Brazil - how this universal message, with clear socio-political overtones and with subtlety and cancellation at the visual core, is received on the Southern side of the globe.
Curators: Daniella Géo and Christophe De Jaeger