The Intricately Decorative Yet Deeply Emotional Work of Carolle Benitah

Morocco-born, Marseille-based artist Carolle Benitah manipulates personal, archival photographs through printing, embroidery, cut-outs, and text to create poignant images inspired by the family photographs that document her childhood and womanhood. Exploring themes of pain and redemption, Benitah re-documents her own history, surfacing the traumas and unfulfilled promises of her youth that are hidden within the snapshots. 

Benitah is best known for her three-part series “Photo-Souvenirs,” which is divided into parts that correspond with three stages of life: “Enfance,” “Adolescence,” and “Adulte”—which she completed recently. She frequently embellishes her vintage family snapshots with thread, injecting her works with physical and emotional dimension. The artist admits that “the photos reawakened an anguish of something both familiar and totally unknown … I decided to explore the memories of my childhood to help me understand who I am and to define my current identity.” 

In Sur la canape/on the sofa (2009), a calm scene of three small children seated on a sofa is overwhelmed by a wild mane of black thread that grows from the first girl’s head, flows across the surface—effectively obscuring the two other children—and trailing off the far edge of the photograph. Chez le photographe / at the photographer (2009) presents a happy family portrait of Benitah and her siblings. She has nearly covered her older brother’s face with red thread dots, except for his mouth and chin, while leaving herself and her sisters uncovered but with their mouths clearly sewn shut with the same red thread. The formal relationships created by these details echo the tense social and gender relationships of Benitah’s childhood and reflect the cultural expectations for young women in the 1960’s and ‘70s.

Evidenced by the way figures that have been cut out of some images, Benitah often focuses on problems of alienation and displacement. In a la plage / at the beach (2009), two figures have been excised from a group of six children, both placed horizontally in the margin under the border of the picture. Red thread conceals a third. In la chute / the fall (2009), a young girl appears to fall off the picture’s surface, barely tethered to her mother by a single red string.

Similar to the Iranian printmaker and filmmaker Shirin Neshat, Benitah sometimes prints text over her images in order to alter their meaning, as in the works in her series “What cannot be said.” In one such work,  je ne veux pas savoir ce que tu attends de moi / I do not want to know what you want from me (2012), she has written the titular phrase over and over in red script atop a woman’s smiling mouth. This paradoxical nature runs throughout Benitah’s works, lovingly remembering her past and making artwork to dispel its pain and incompleteness. The combination of the inviting image and the repellent text creates a tension between desire and uncertainty. “What makes me keep my mouth shut is the silence of women on their desires,” Benitah has said.  “I cover the entire surface of this fragmented face with refined and tight writing, where I endlessly repeat the same sentence as in an hallucinatory and delusional incantation. Through this act of exorcism, these mouths open themselves to free speech thus becoming healers.” 

Stephen Dillon

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