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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