Writing Art History Since 2002

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Afronova I Johannesburg

As viewer, one is often fascinated by the internal world of an artist, the images that inform the images they make. Granted some of these images might arrive after or during a drug induced high but what happens internally when depression is at the root of these images? Producing art is usually a solitary activity, done in place of solitude, often marked by silence. Mario Benjamin’s art occupies a space of visual noise and silence. A place, one might think, where one’s internal demons are battled on canvas.Benjamin is no stranger to South Africa. His light box installation, Untitled (1997), was shown on the second Johannesburg Biennale in 1997. In the same year, at the Havana Biennale, he exhibited a large square of light boxes in a dark room. Filled with images of raging fires, they came alive as you walked among them. It must have been an experience, I imagine, more subjective and interactive than the one I had with these canvases. Which is not to deny these canvases their impact and menace. Portraits with piercing and sometimes dazed eyes, the blazing red surfaces of his canvasses are quieted by black, toned brushstrokes.Who are these demons on the canvas that haunt Benjamin? They live in a space of such accuracy that they must be repeat offenders in his mind. Where do they come from? What informs them?Benjamin is a Haitian. Slavery brought Catholicism to his country, which was already practicing the Voudon religion (commonly known as Voodoo). To what extent, if at all, might religion influence Benjamin’s art? According to Haitian artist Edouard Duval Carrie, a contemporary of Benjamin, Voudon is central not only to his art but much of the island’s culture too. “Voodoo is a religion that is very much underground, even today, even in Haiti, where 80 to 90 percent of the population either practices or acknowledges it or knows about it,” remarked Carrie in 2000. “It is still very much a poor man’s kind of agricultural religion and very much underground, because the political position of Haiti is that voodoo should not be, you know.”The possible influence of Voodoo aside, these paintings also speak of Benjamin’s “complex character”, as Africa Remix curator Simon Njami once put it. A close friend of the artist, he has further said of Benjamin, ” He was born in a country where his experience of the absurd forced him into conflict with madness and he was obliged to recreate himself.” One of the artists participating on the African Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, Benjamin’s portraits offer an insight into a complex and internally engaged character whose work takes one into a somewhat uncomfortable place of consciousness.

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