Ben Belghachi: A Berber Artist in America

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Ben Belghachi is a Berber painter and photographer from Morrocco currently living in Washington, DC. I first met Ben Belghachi and his family as neighbors and have grown to know more about Belghachi and his culture through his involvement with community civic affairs and participation in an artist open-studio fund raiser for President Barack Obama. In November I sat down with Belghachi to ask him about his life and his work. Below are excerpts from that interview.

Phoebe Farris: How did you become interested in painting and photography? Were there other artists in your family? Were you influenced by your culture and community?

Ben Belghachi: Growing up in Marrakech, I saw tourists with their easels and watercolors taking in everyday life. It was just life to me, but they found it worthy of capturing in a painting. Seeing how they used color and represented Morocco was fascinating. I started sketching for my own interest. There were no galleries or museums for a child to wander and dream in as they have here in America. At the age of nine, I entered a nationwide art contest through my school with an image of a Moroccan horse and carriage. In winning that contest, I received a set of art supplies, which I proceeded to use all over the walls of my family home. My father was not impressed and forbade me to paint. I put away my talents for many years.

What university or art schools did you later attend?
At the age of 20 I moved to England to study art at the Heatherly Fine Arts School in London. I also studied television production there at Goldsmith’s College. I moved to the United States in 1980 and continued my studies at the Corcoran Museum, American University, and the University of the District of Columbia. I had contacts at the Moroccan Embassy and was intrigued by the reputation of the Corcoran, and that’s how I landed in Washington.

Do your paintings represent any aspect of Berber, Arab, or Moroccan culture? Is there any political content in them? And do you consider them to fit into a particular style?
My paintings are abstract, and I usually use acrylics, sometimes oils, and sometimes mixed media. They try to express, most of the time, actual events and traditions. I find red, black, and blue very powerful colors; they are effective tools to express raw emotions. Distorted human forms often appear in my paintings; for instance one of my paintings is called Harraga. The word translates as “Burn” and represents the people who cross the Mediterranean Sea in makeshift boats to the coast of Spain. These are people who want to lose or “burn” their identities during the trip to make a new life in “El Dorado.” The tragedy is that most of the time, these people are lost at sea.

What about photography?
 I largely use black and white 35mm film (sometimes color), and so far have not really made the digital transition except for the storage of my images. I also do not rely upon computers or software to alter my images. Rather, I rely upon the reality of the moment to express my point of view. Real life, as captured on the streets of Washington and the cities of Morocco, is my interest. That may include street/political rallies and the seedier side of city life demonstrated in the faces and postures of the people in the photographs.

What can you tell us about Berber culture and its place in Morocco?
Berbers are the native people of North Africa, from Morocco on the northwestern coast stretching all the way over to Egypt at the northeast. Today they number around 40 million, and the majority live in Morocco. Our language is called Amzigh or Tashlhine. The Arabs arrived in North Africa in AD 740 to spread Islam. Berbers did become Muslim, but were not assimilated into the Arab lifestyle and culture. We maintain our own identity to this day. My father was a Berber from Curzazate, a tribe called Glaoua at the feet of the High Atlas Mountains. My mother is an Arab, and in the 1940s, when they married, it was fairly common for an Arab and Berber to marry. I grew up listening to my father’s favorite Berber music on the radio and I learned a few words; but I never fully grasped the language. I could not converse with my Berber grandmother, who could not speak a word of Arabic. The Berbers of Morocco and Algeria are trying to have their language be part of the school system; and they have popular annual world conferences of their customs, music, and culture. That independence and dignity could be said to live through my art.

Many Berbers like to distance themselves from the name “Berber,” as it possibly originates from derogatory terms of Roman times, but its origin is not fully known. They prefer to be called Imazighen, or “free men.” That, in reality, is also a word of questionable origin. The languages spoken in Morocco by the Imazighen include Tashelhiyt, Tamazigh, and Tarifit. The Imazighen and the Tuareg people of the Sahara use the Tifinagh alphabet and Latin script as their written languages.

What is your American family like? Is it possible to pass on Berber customs to your children living in the U.S.?
I am married to an American woman and we have two young boys. Washington presents a unique and interesting opportunity, as the Smithsonian museums occasionally showcase both Islamic and Berber cultural exhibits. And then we observe Islamic events in our household, alongside my wife’s cultural traditions.

Can you discuss any other paintings or photos that are especially significant to you?
Well, my painting Marrakech (2004) represents Marrakech’s famous Place Djemaa el Fna, the outdoor market and performance space. The colors and light in this painting project that popular destination in the afternoon, when the sunset, bouncing off of the Koutoubia Mosque and desert rose ramparts that surround the old city, takes on a golden red hue and masks the movements of the crowds. The 2002 painting Harraga is of young Moroccan men and women who brave the treacherous waters of the Mediterranean Sea in unseaworthy boats with the intention to make a better life in Spain. More often than not, the sad story is that the sea claims them. There is also my 1998 black and white photograph, The Bread Seller, taken in Marrakech. Also of significance for me is Portrait of American Indian, a color photograph taken in 2004 during the opening ceremonies of the new Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

You photographed last summer’s Longest Walk II. Do you identify with Native Americans here because they are indigenous like you? Do you see any commonalities between Berber oppression and struggles and Native American causes?
Though the struggles that Berber peoples face are not the same as those I understand Native Americans have endured, there is a commonality in the effort to have aspects of their cultures recognized and respected.

Do you have any current or future art projects you would like to share with our readers?
I am currently working on printing a series of photos to be shown in a gallery in Marrakech, Morocco. As for paintings, the current political landscape is providing much inspiration!

Ben Belghachi can be reached at mobenbel@aol.com To read our report to the UN Human Rights Council on Berber issues, go to www.culturalsurvival.org/our-programs/upr.

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