Whenever Hicham Benohoud comes to Paris, we meet at the Café Beaubourg, next to the Centre Pompidou. No one bothers us there; the waiters tend to be quiet and welcoming like the café’s Freudian cat, ready to keep company to tormented souls. Over time, we’ve come to know each other well, and we chat a little bit about everything: from family and children’s education to the need to stay fit and dining. Hicham tells wonderful stories of his travels, describing the cuisines of the countries he has visited, his last exhibition at the Jerusalem Biennale, or his latest work in progress. He talks about his country, Morocco, “his sunshine,” where he was born on March 16, 1968, in the Zaouiet Lahdar district of Marrakesh. That’s where it all began, in 1990, when he was a young art professor at the Iman Ali College.
Teaching was not his goal in life; he wanted to be a painter, like Leonardo da Vinci, who stunned him with “the fluidity of his Mona Lisa.” To fill the time, in addition to teaching, he began to photograph his students, “without any artistic intention,” with the idea of painting them later. One day, while looking carefully at one of his portraits, he had a revelation: he realized that what was not in the frame, what was out of focus, was very intriguing. He turned it into the theme of his series, La salle de classe [The Classroom], getting his students to pose without asking any questions, and developing, as an extracurricular activity, what would become the basis of his creation: a poetics of space, or the “metaphysics of imagination,” so dear to Gaston Bachelard. Spontaneously, without any prior knowledge of the history of photography, La Salle de classe became his founding work, which “grew like weeds in a favorable climate.”
But things aren’t what they appear to be: Hicham Benohoud never improvises; everything is meticulously planned, designed to the last detail, that’s his golden rule, and he doesn’t resort to any software tricks. Although he has experimented after the fact with photography’s prolific optical illusions, he defines himself as a “visual artist” who shies disorder and excess. Nor does leave anything to chance, which he likes to beat at its own game — just like when, as a teenager, he was “the best goalkeeper in Marrakesh… I was at my best during penalty kicks: I would throw myself at the ball even before the player took aim! A goalkeeper doesn’t run around all the time like the other players. This allows him to preserve his energy. I have adopted this energy-saving approach in art, and like a goalie I’ve always tried to take in the big picture. This is also my way of analyzing society from a certain distance.”
La Salle de classe has “positively” turned his life around, allowing him to stop teaching in 2002, then to alternate between projects at home and exhibitions abroad. But his original method has remained the same, and I am always amazed by its uniqueness, even its skewed logic, as if it infused photography with a capacity for shifting, for superimposition, with an imaginary dimension of its own. He is an artist of suggestion, but not of memory: “My memory is in the moment,” he says.
Unbeknownst to him, Hicham Benohoud bears a certain likeness to Buster Keaton. In Paris as in Marrakesh, his deadpan manner is underscored by his black outfits, almost belying the humor, the sunny disposition, and the congeniality of a Marrakesh native. “No, no sugar in the coffee; no, no chocolate,” he says with gravity, leaving you to poison yourself on your own. He didn’t get to savor the joys of cinema as a child, had no comic books, and so the stories his grandmothers told him were his land of adventures. But, when it comes to the silver screen, we share an admiration for Charlie Chaplin: “With hardly two pennies to rub together, Chaplin invented a world. There are no sophisticated special effects, merely the repetition of a gesture, and we are floored by his achievement. This is the essence of cinema. Photography, too, enjoys this double power: its direct relationship to reality and the ability to synthesize a world of imagination. Photography is a moment as playful, as wonderful as a childhood memory.”
These playful childhood memories nourish his work, whether in Version soft (2003), self-portraits made in Brussels, or in two very cinematic series, Acrobatie (2015), completed over the course of six months in Marrakesh with real acrobats from the Jemaa El-Fna marketplace posing in their homes with their families, and Ânes situ (2014), starring real donkeys. The outside and the inside swap places, proof that the world in which we live is upside down and that it is perhaps possible to set it right again. This disorientation is also the stamp of Landscaping, exhibited to great success at the second, highly anticipated, Contemporary African Art Fair 1:54 in Marrakesh, in 2018.
Landscaping, carried out at the edge of the desert, is a change of scene in the most literal sense. Hicham Benohoud is a city-dweller, nature “suffocates” him. Yet, on a trip to southern Morocco, he was bewitched by the Saharan landscape. He made the Saharan frugality his own by modifying perspectives, inserting black-and-white tiles, transforming the terrain into a supple, breathing surface, like the sea stirred by the wind. Benohoud’s inspiration are not land artists, but Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898–1972), a Dutch craftsman of visual illusions, known for his impossible architectures, encapsulated in his oft-repeated sentiment, “If only you knew how entrancing, how stirringly beautiful the images in my head are, the ones I am unable to express.”
It’s lunchtime: the cat at Café Beaubourg is stretching. Hicham Benohoud needs to fetch some prints from the Marais and then buy treats at Belleville for his family. We say goodbye at the foot of the Centre Pompidou which announces a retrospective of Christian Boltanski, whom I bumped to in the street this morning, just before I meeting with Hicham. It is a small world, after all.
By Brigitte Ollier
Brigitte Ollier is a journalist based in Paris. She has worked for over thirty years for the newspaper Libération, where she created the column “Photographie.” She is the author of several books about a few memorable photographers.
More on Hicham Benohoud here.
La Salle de classe was published by Éditions de l’oeil in 2001.