Niteroi Museum of Contemporary Art, Mirante da Boa Viagem, s/no, 24210-390 – Niterói (Rio de Janeiro – Brazil)
Since the end of Welcome to Belgium (1990–1999) – a project that addressed the feeling of not belonging, made in 35mm black and white film – Charif Benhelima (Brussels, 1967) has photographed almost exclusively with Polaroid film. The adoption of this self-developing photography, widely expected to be just a fleeting fad, marked a new phase in the artist’s creative process, drawing on the establishment of a new relationship with the act of photography – a much slower process with hardly any technical control, the result of which is unique and immune to touch ups. As if in the countercurrent of the abundance of digital images, Benhelima develops a new aesthetic, conceptual and, at times methodological, investigation in each series, with this “instant” media that enjoyed the peak of its popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. His studies establish relations with specific Polaroid features and make use of the technical limitation of the adopted amateur model, the Polaroid 600 (film and camera), giving shape to a complex and consequent work.
One of Belgium’s leading exponents of contemporary art in photography, Benhelima reasserts his art as representational object open to reflexive criticism. Whether by applying the documental approach of so-called “street photography” to the Polaroid 600, or by focusing on an archivist perspective through appropriating and reusing preexisting pictures, the artist places the photographic sign itself at stake. Notions like truth, document and also identity, origin, time, space, memory/oblivion and obliteration are central to the work of Benhelima, whose family history is made up of big gaps.
The son of a Moroccan father and Belgian mother, the artist was orphaned at the age of eight. He grew up in the countryside of the Catholic West Flanders and learned about his Sephardic Jewish origin when already an adult. The development process of his own identity in the face of the contradictions, conflicts and intolerance triggered by cultural diversity forms the basis of his photographic research. Although deep-down autobiographical, Benhelima’s work goes beyond questions of a personal nature. On the contrary, it is formed by and forms sociopolitical discourse of a universal dimension, especially associated to the issues of immigration and discrimination, as well as image – both photographic and social – as construction. The notion of visual and/or symbolic invisibility explored in the various series is, therefore, fundamental.
Largely composed as kinds of figurative abstractions, Benhelima’s Polaroids are imbued with ambiguity. The perception of time, space, the real and simulacrum is destabilised, and the observer’s subjectivity when faced with the images and the questions they raise assumes its constructive role before every representation.
Initiated by the Palais de Beaux-Arts (BOZAR), Brussels, the exhibition Charif Benhelima: Polaroids 1998-2012 is presented at the MAC-Niterói, bringing a selection of over 100 Polaroid pictures, split into four series: Harlem on my Mind – I was, I am (1999-2002), Semites (2003-2005), Black-Out (2005 – ) and Roots (2008 – ). The exhibition also features three large-scale works, products of this research. Like an intimate visit to the artist’s studio, this panoramic exhibition offers the public the opportunity to access the heart of Benhelima’s artistic process, which paradoxically can be seen as a work of art in itself.
Curators: Daniella Géo and Christophe De Jaeger