Abdelkader Benchamma: Drawing Infinite and Invisible Realms
Drawing never completely transforms a space, it is more of a dialogue, an inscription that is made, how we inhabit a place, how the place crosses us, how the place will influence us, will transmit emotions. This is something that has interested me for a very long time and it also explains my interest in sacred or spiritual places. — Abdelkader Benchamma
Abdelkader Benchamma working on his commission piece, as above, so below, 2023. Installation view: The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery. Photo: Hyerim Han.
Abdelkader Benchamma is a French artist who explores the mysteries of geological time and the underlying forces of the universe through his large-scale, delicately crafted and intricate drawing-installations. Born in 1975 in Mazamet and now working between Paris and Montpellier, France, he studied Fine Art at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts. Deeply inspired by numerous fields, including natural philosophy, geology, astronomy, art history, and existential literature, he often draws from these extensive wells of study. For Benchamma, no two installations are ever alike, and he will often create original murals in various gallery spaces alongside the presentation of his work.
Rather than beginning with a pre-determined sketch, the artist finds his starting point and then allows intuition and imagination to direct his hand. In an interview, he explains, “I am more interested by the physicality of drawing even if there are parts of my work that are very technically detailed. Drawing as an artwork has a presence, like a physical entity which can go beyond what I call story-telling drawing.” Through his gestural marks and immersive environments, Benchamma unveils macro- and microcosmic worlds for us to inhabit. For the exhibition Solastalgia: Archaeologies of Loss presented at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, the artist reflects on humanity’s relationship with nature and the universe across time and space.
Abdelkader Benchamma, as above, so below, 2023. Commissioned by The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, 2023. Courtesy the artist and TEMPLON, Paris — Brussels — New York. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.
The term “solastalgia” was first coined by Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht to describe the anxiety and desolation one experiences when their home becomes profoundly impacted by environmental change—whether it be natural or manmade. With this in mind, Benchamma looks to the ancient practices and beliefs of the past in order to understand how different civilizations connected with their surroundings. The history of alchemy—the precursor to chemistry—is an important point of reference when examining the artist’s practice. Originating in Egypt, alchemists sought to combine metals containing the four elements (fire, water, earth, and air) in order to create an elixir that would cure any disease, leading to an earthly paradise. Moreover, these practitioners “believed in prima materia,” Associate Curator Noor Alé explains, “a primal force that was the author of all the wonders in the world, and from this single source, everything was created.”
These stories of creation can be also traced back to the Bible, Indigenous traditions, and many other spiritual practices across the world. Drawing on these sources, Benchamma’s artworks appear caught in a state of transformation, combining geological forms, natural imagery, and elemental forces within the drawing-installations. He often references cross-cultural motifs such as the tree, which can signify axis mundi—a central pivot line that connects the Earth to the celestial realm. “If you look closely,” Benchamma hints, “there are a lot of drawings where there are rather figurative forms that are hidden, which also evoke some sort of memories, myths, memories of images that cross us, that inhabit us, that we also continually project.” As he taps into the archives of human history, tracing the passage of time through mark-making, one senses their position within a much a longer lineage and the vast scales of existence.
Abdelkader Benchamma, Engramme - Souterrain, 2023. Ink on canvas. Courtesy the artist and TEMPLON, Paris – Brussels – New York. The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto 2023. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.
On a microscopic level, Benchamma explores the biological traces of memory in the brain through his series, Engramme, 2019. In neuroscience, engrams are part of the central nervous system in the brain used to store and recall memories. As these cells recreate the thoughts, emotions, and sensory aspects of the original experience, perhaps the act of drawing can be seen as a form of intergenerational knowledge transfer. For example, Benchamma’s line work and use of humble materials — pencils, charcoal, and paint brushes—echo the practices employed in prehistoric cave paintings.
Alé also notes that these pieces reference the ancient Greek concept anima mundi. First developed by the philosopher Plato, the phrase translates to “soul of the world” and emphasizes the interconnection of all living beings throughout millennia. As the Earth continues to undergo dramatic human-wrought environmental changes, Benchamma invites us to approach these transformations with humility rather than a desire to control. Through his immersive and expansive worlds, he offers us an opportunity to learn from the beliefs and practices of those who came before—and, perhaps, even glimpse at our own futures.
Abdelkader Benchamma, Solastalgia: Archaeologies of Loss. Installation view: The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto, 2023. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.
Albrecht, Glenn, Gina-Maree Sartore, Linda Connor, Nick Higginbotham, Sonia Freeman, Brian Kelly, Helen Stain, Anne Tonna, and Georgia Pollard. “Solastalgia: The Distress Caused by Environmental Change.” Australasian Psychiatry: Bulletin of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists 15, no. 1_suppl (2007): S95–S98.
Dixon, Laurinda. "Alchemy." Grove Art Online. 16 Sep. 2010; accessed 27 Sep. 2023
Josselyn, Sheena A., and Susumu Tonegawa. “Memory engrams: Recalling the past and imagining the future.” Science (New York, N.Y.) vol. 367,6473, 2020
Scordia, Clotilde. “Abdelkader Benchamma, The Physicality of Drawing.” Happening Media. October 1, 2015
Templon. “Abdelkader Benchamma – Cosma.” YouTube. January 24, 2023. Video. 1:30-1:45