Mahi Binebine


Mahi Binebine is a painter, sculptor and writer. Born in 1959 in Marrakech, he grew up during the reign of Hassan II. He lived in Paris and New York before returning to settle in Morocco. His pictorial work, centered on the human figure, evokes the violence and tensions of the Eastern and Western worlds and the tragic situation of human beings.

A major painter of his generation, Mahi Binebine constantly explores the issue of humanity and extreme conditions. His figures, reduced to silhouettes, intertwining and colliding bodies, are locked in but undefeated. They inhabit a hostile and troubling world. Of great plastic beauty, rich in tension and confrontation, the work of Binebine evokes loneliness and despair, but also harmony and joy. Influenced by artists such as Goya, Picasso and Bacon, Mahi Binebine constantly explores the strength and dignity of the human face of horror and despair.

His work has been shown in France, Germany, and the United States. It has been noticed by important art critics and is part of numerous public and private collections, notably the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Mary Balaban, Mahi Binebine. Master of Melancholy Luminosity.

Mahi Binebine’s art is large and refined in its ambition, filled with traditional modernist intensities, personal experience and humanistic attention to the inhuman. He is a master of melancholy luminosity and the calligraphy of loneliness. Streams of heartrending and poignant distress flow like undercurrents through his depictions. The pictorial volumes and spaces are constructed upon grievous experience that profoundly renders the ephemeral and fragile nature of the human condition both politically and existentially.

When I first saw Binebine’s work, I was surprisingly moved. Comfortably secure in my own cynicism and world weariness, I felt there was nothing more to be learned about the brutality and hardships of life; there were only more instances to become aware of. I was taken aback by the delicacy of Binebine’s draftsmanship, which did not diminish but rather heightened and invigorated one’s sensitivity and compassion for those who struggle with the painfulness of life. Thus, I must fully and happily admit to being an unexpected and very long time admirer of his beautiful, complex works.
The first time I met Binebine, I felt I had known him my entire life; he has that type of personality; he makes everyone feel like a dear friend, and I felt the same about his paintings. As I came to know him better, I understood that this feeling arises in part from his love of family, and for his brother Aziz, who for political reasons suffered for eighteen years in a brutal desert prison. One quickly comes to understand Binebine’s endless argument with the past, with memory and identity. His work speaks of one’s inner self, while his narratives engage with issues of suffering, marginalization, imprisonment, isolation, individuals’ relationships to one another, and unidentified, interpenetrating, or partially understood and realized selves. That which is individual merges into the collective and universal. Although Binebine was born (1959) and raised in Marrakesh, he moved to France as a young adult to study mathematics at the University of Paris, after which he worked for a number of years as a mathematics teacher. In mathematics there is a point at which a function takes an infinite value, a point in the future beyond which reliable predictions are possible, it is at this point that his love of painting and creating co-exists with a spiritual element. After Binebine’s sojourn in the world of mathematics he turned his attention to painting and literature. Having mastered the latter with eight successful novels written in a realistic literary style, one is forced to admit that while a picture is “worth a thousand words,” Binebine’s paintings, in order to compete with his novels, quadruple that narrative value. In looking at Binebine’s paintings one sees how his lyrically interpenetrating lines and hazy, subtly variegated color fields create a narrative of conscience and burden in which the unknown becomes known, and the anonymous becomes each and every one of us.

Looking at the properties of his paintings one is struck by the ways in which Binehine combines elements of Conceptual Art, Neo-Expressionism, Dada and Surrealism, and echoes other great masters. Like Giotto’s backgrounds in his frescoes, Binebine’s expressive minimalist lines, sense of depth, emphasis on the evanescent blurring of one moment into the next, with details and background at a minimum, increase the illusion of depth and the passage of time. Binebine models space, creating a heroic stillness with delicately changing colors, colors with a transparent quality. He adds a shading technique using darker and lighter values of the same color, building hues up side by side. The result is a sense of mutating physicality in and across time and space.

Like Cy Twombly’s gestural drawings using thin lines that appear to be scratched and embedded into surfaces or revealed as underlying hatchings and nerve networks, Bi- nebine’s body contours, simplified and universal African mask-like faces, and abstract spaces are often penetrated by other lines with hatchings scratches, half-letters, and mysterious curlings, crisscrosses and jagged lacings. These markings appear to be unknown or partially translated and often whispered words, phrases and sentences expressing restraint, pain, agitation, energy and animation. He creates surfaces in relief, surfaces which obscure, and surfaces which reveal a discourse at the level of cellular striations. The precise meaning of the lines are unknown but the meaning and force of the conversation is understood.

Like Mark Rothko’s color field masterworks, Binebine’s work in color fields gives rise to a sense of spiritual engagement, exceeding the boundaries of the purely aesthetic. The shimmering mutating hues cause many of the pain- tings to reveal themselves as memories or recollections of dreams. Masses are left deliberately opaque to challenge viewers to find their own meanings.

Finally, like the twisted expressive lines and body shapes that characterize Egon Schiele’s paintings and drawings, Binebine evinces an extraordinary use of line to express emotions and states of being. The delicacy of his line is indicative of a feminine poetic, wrapping itself around masculine sculptural shapes. There is a great poignancy to the universality of endurance and solitariness of the characters depicted.
Most of all what creates a unified vision of the world at any and all points one enters in viewing Binebine’s work, is the underlying sense of loneliness. This throbbing sense of aloneness is compassionately rendered; it is as beautiful and inspiring as it is sad and haunting. It brings to mind a very special poem-like extract in a story entitled, “A Saucer of Loneliness,” by the American science fiction writer, Theodore Sturgeon: There is in certain living souls a quality of loneliness unspeakable, so great it must be shared as company is shared by lesser beings. Such a loneliness is mine; so know by this that in immensity there is one lonelier than you.
Mahi Binebine is indeed that very treasured consolatory companion.
(By Mary Balaban, New York).

Joachim Pissarro, Mahi Binebine. The Paradox of Conscience.

1959 : Mahi Binebine is born. At that point, an era of modern art (that of the first generation of American abstraction) seems to come to an end, while another era, more complex, polymorphic, difficult to seize or define, threatens to take over. 1959 : three years after the fateful moment when Jack- son Pollock, drunk, smashes his Cadillac down against an oak tree and dies. 1959 : one year after the first one man show of Jasper Johns at the gallery Castelli - exhibition which propels this very young artist to the front of the international artistic scene. 1959 : one year before the appearance of the Nou- veaux Réalistes in France - time which more or less coincides with the fulgurating start of Pop art, in the United States and the United Kingdom - movement which changed forever the new order of the world of art: everyday life, in its thorough banality - Andy Warhol more ironical than ever and comple- ting the conceptual premises established by Marcel Duchamp - becomes a paramount concern of the world of art.

The birth of Mahi Binebine does come, indeed, at a turning point in the history of modern and contemporary art - a time bringing redefinition, or better, «de-definition», to use the expression of Harold Ronsenberg. From childhood to his full artistic career, Binebine grows and works, not only in the critical era of history where one movment abolishes another, but he also works between three distinct geographical areas - and three continents in full transformation. He lives between Morocco, France, and the United States, in this «interworlds», run through by tensions, clashes, oppositions, whose complex artistic scenes, carrying various contradictions, seem to be the most obvious symptoms. Binebine grows up in Morocco under King Hassan II who negotiates and imposes, sometimes with extreme toughness, the position of Morocco in the violent era of post colonialism. Binebine makes then his artistic training in France after 1968, there again, he is the witness to the clash between two types of traditions which reject one another: a tradition that was practically dead, made of secular and academic conservatism, against another tradition which barely started, that of the libertarian ideology of May 68 which thrusts forward its slogans of the type : «it is forbidden to forbid». Binebine finally reaches his full artistic maturity in Reaganian America, passing from the anarchistic libertarian post-1968 artistic France, to the economic and moralizing conservatism of the Eighties America. At last, in 2002, Binebine decides to return to Morocco where he lives and works now. Like a superb echoing room the work of Binebine resounds with these multiple tensions, rich and sometimes disconcerting ambivalences of the inter worlds which he chose to live in, and which live in (or haunt) his art. In fact, Binebine juggles admirably with several doublets of languages which underlie his protean practice. Like so many Moroc- cans, he goes, almost without being aware of it, from Arabic to French, and vice versa, instantaneously, living truly in a perfectly mixed linguistic world, combining at any moment, in his very thought and his expression, two cultures, two histories. In addition, very quickly, his artistic work also moves between two artistic languages, painting and literature. Here again, Binebine can be seen, perfectly comfortable, practicing one or the other, one and the other of these two arts. In addition today, within his pain- ting, at the top of his maturity, one can see the combining of two distinct practices which intermingle painting and sculpture ; surface and relief; color and object.

If sometimes the painting of Binebine seems heavy - «as heavy as an internal organ» as Francis Ponge could have said about the painting of Fernand Léger - it is because it functions, in fact, a little like a drain of the recent history, entirely woven with strong tensions, and itself heavy with vectorial forces which clash unceasingly. Right now, I think of the paintings of Binebine representing headless characters. In fact, one should rather call these characters «apocephalous». They are not exactly without heads (acephalous) : their heads are not ab- sent ; they do exist, but elsewhere (apo) ; they are separated by a vacant space, a reducible break, from the body to which they belong - obviously without belonging to them. Thus, this painting of apocephalous beings appears to be a powerful and unbearable, disconcerting and, almost literally astoun- ding embodiment of these inter-worlds, these inter-stories, these ambivalences which mould the life and the identity of Mahi Binebine.
The paintings of Binebine - I think of one totemic work, vertical, accumulation of masks both spectral and sculptural, these objects, remnants or sham faces, full with vacant spaces, with a density and a physical solidity betrayed by the interior empty spaces of these masks - sternly put us in front of this strange paradox of the modern conscience that Maurice Merleau-Ponty described as a source of «perpetual uneasiness».

It is the «ambiguous self» of which Montaigne spoke, which seems to haunt the work of Binebine - this «self», riddled with mysteries, frustration, and miracles. Neither angel, nor animal, the binebinian characters seem very well tied to this interworlds, that of the paradox of the conscience, through which any object that we perceive is, forever, refused to us in its total presence, or under all the facets of its existence ; and yet (this is where the paradox of the conscience lies) through this act, necessarily missed, necessarily incomplete, of perception, we have really the impression to have full access to the object which we perceive, in its absolute plenitude. Perfect illusion, therefore, but illusion carrying a miracle. This is how, in a few lines, Vincent Peillon summarizes the essence of the paradox of the conscience (worked out by Merleau- Ponty) - to me, these very words seem to resonate with the pictorial en- terprise of Binebine, and thus, I quote them from the text : - Whether he pretends to be an animal, thinking of himself as a thing among things, or whether he pretends to be an angel and starts flying over the existence and the world in a dreaming and placeless eternity, one way or another, all his en- ergy gets exhausted untying the bonds which link him to what he is and cannot cease being. For refusing to look into «the abyss of the self», refusing to examine his true face, the phi- losopher [and I add here : The Binebinian character] is led to this paradox by which, when he is finally able to know himself, he does not recognize himself. (Vincent Peillon, La Tradition de l’esprit, p. 27).

Thus, it seems to me that all the way through, the «sub- ject» which haunts, or inhabits the work of Binebine, is embodied by these characters, made out of the «perpetual uneasiness», «equally unable to remain in ourselves and in the things, sent back from them to us and from us to them» (M. Merleau-Ponty, Signes, p. 251) in an infernal going back and forth. The ultimate force of the work of BineBine is to have combined (or condensed) in an intense pictorial expression, a whole variety of this “perpetual uneasiness» which gives the modern man his own identity. The im- possible division of self and things is renewed through this other impossible division between the self and history ; between the self and the geographical area where one tries to live ; and finally also, between the self and the others.
(By Joachim Pissarro, New York).

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