Harlem Breakdown

James Harithas

Director of The Station Museum

Charif Benhelima's photographic project, titled Harlem on my mind—I was, I am, reveals a highly personal, original, and true vision of Harlem at the turn of the 21st Century.

While Benhelima's images are the direct result of living and working in Harlem from 1999 through 2002, they also derive from his own odyssey of pain, depression, and loneliness as an orphan of Moroccan/Belgium heritage growing up in Belgium, a country that severely discriminates against its North African residents. With this background Benhelima is not only able to photograph a reality that is unclouded by preconceptions and myths but also accept its consequences and give it resonance and beauty.

Benhelima's rigorously composed photographs present a Harlem that is degraded and almost deserted. On one level, they are evidence of his sensitivity to the difficult living conditions and lack of opportunity that most African Americans continue to endure in the United States. On another level, they evoke feelings that uplift the viewer because of their originality and because each photograph is spiritual like a prayerful supplication.

His black-and-white and red photographic project consists of forty-seven powerful images of splattered walls, shadowy figures, dirty streets and battered buildings. He uses a Polaroidcamera because of the immediacy and archival quality of its images. Each photograph is unique and subject to multiple interpretations. His photographs are laden with several levels of meaning no matter how humble the images first appear. For example, the realistic image of a woman's ridged, nude body is a road map that indicates personal torment at the same time that it symbolizes the African American woman's loss of identity. The horrendous image of a dead cat lying ignominiously in the street implies abandonment and death. A photograph of a sewer cover, one half of which is black, the other half white, suggests the racial divide. Another photograph depicts a young man whose head is lost in a cloud of light. This magnificent photograph surely implies that an explosive moment of inspiration has taken place at the same time that the man's identity

has been overwhelmingly obscured by whiteness. Using a red filter, Benhelima adds eight images to his project, a back view of a man with a bowler hat and three images of prison-like structures. Four more red images range from a shopping cart enigmatically filled with religious objects and icons, a hurried pigeon in downward flight perhaps signifying the descent of the Holy Spirit, a street scene with anonymous figures always moving elsewhere and an absolutely stunning smiling face with a bright white flash mark on the forehead—an accidental mark that symbolizes the sanctified soul of Harlem. Along with the black-and-white images, these photographs—the color of blood—raise the specter of a people ripe for revolution and change.

The title of Benhelima's photographic project is a reference to Harlem on my Mind, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in 1967 that was deeply flawed by its focus on the rosy times in Harlem rather than the violent blood stained streets of the period. In stark contrast, Benhelima's photographs are a uniquely personal investigation of the "Harlem that is on his mind," a Harlem that gives us a true picture of a marginalized and neglected society. The photographs demonstrate Benhelima's extraordinary ability to recognize and document the reality of a place and a people still shrouded by myth and misinformation. As an outsider, a European and a Semite, he gives us a fresh view of the poverty and degradation that underlie the American Empire.

Benhelima's photographic images serve to raise the consciousness of the viewer. His powerful sense of realism sheds light on the imperial role of the United States as a colonizer of people—a frightful past that reaches forward into the present and that is very much in evidence in the perennially violent and impoverished living conditions of its African American ghettos.