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Sculptor revels in freedom to create

Maryann Maslan Special to the Daily Planet
Wednesday September 05, 2001

From a land where time had more value than money and dreams were haunted by mysterious creatures called djinns came artist, philosopher and pacifist Khalil Bendib. 

Today, sitting in the living room of his Berkeley home and studio, Bendib is surrounded by bronze sculptures, colorful mosaics and carefully stacked ceramics that will be on view at the Alliance Francaise Art Gallery in San Francisco, beginning Thursday.  

The works reflect his philosophy and the culture of the Maghreb, that part of the North African coast that includes Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. The centerpiece of the exhibit is a bronze sculpture commemorating El Kahina, a Jewish Berber queen. 

“She is still revered in Algeria, a mostly Arab country, as a major national symbol for her fight in the resistance,” said Bendib. 

“I learned politics in my mother's milk,” he continued, “and an awareness of a world deeply divided between ‘them and us’.” 

Targeted for execution in 1957 by paramilitary French colonialists, Bendib’s parents escaped from Algeria to Morocco, where their son was born.  

When as a child Bendib complained to his mother of being bored, she suggested he draw something. His first pictures were a boy’s rendition of soldiers saluting the Algerian flag. Years later, after returning to Algeria, Bendib learned that “good guys and bad guys came in all shapes and colors, from every walk of life.”  

He traveled and lived in many countries, learning eight languages along the way and developing his pacifist philosophy. 

Inspired by North African cafes, public squares and the seductively slow-paced lifestyle, Bendib creates bronze figurines of reclining or contemplative old men and veiled women.  

From childhood memories, such as the legendary djinns, spirits who lived at the bottom of the well in the center of the family courtyard, he has created a whimsical telephone stand supported by a series of djinn heads, each with a different character and facial expression.  

He begins each bronze figure by sketching what he calls “an observed attitude,” then watches as it evolves. 

“Each character reminds me of someone after I have finished it, not before,” he said looking at the bronze figure of the Berber queen. “Her face is my grandmother.” 

Picking up a preliminary model of the figure, he cradles the rich brown wax, working his fingertips into the malleable surface as he describes the complexities of the multistep lost-wax process and the hours spent in a local foundry where the bronze is poured and refined.  

It was with a group of artists in Los Angeles that he developed his skills in bronze. Simultaneously, he began studying Japanese at the University of Southern California because he liked the “fluidity of the calligraphy.” While at the university he started work with the student newspaper as a political cartoonist. He learned that people could have differences of opinion and express them freely. 

“It was incredible. They let me, a foreign student, make strong political statements in cartoons, without censorship,” he said. Something, he added, that was not possible in “despot-ruled” Algeria. 

In 1986 Bendib received death threats in response to his political cartoons after Palestinian Alex M. Odeh, Western regional coordinator of the Anti-Discrimination Committee, was killed as a result of a terrorist action in a suburb of Los Angeles. With his belief in the freedom of the press unshaken, Bendib went to work for a local newspaper for eight years as a cartoonist. The paper gradually developed what he called a “tabloid bias” and became less supportive of his political point of view. 

While in Los Angeles he won two public commissions for bronze sculptures. The first was an environmental piece commemorating the loss of habitat of the cougar in the community of Diamond Bar, a few miles east of Los Angeles. The second piece was a commemorative sculpture of Alex M. Odeh. His third commission from the city, to be completed in 2002, is a 13-foot bronze of Cesar Chavez, whom he has admired since his childhood in Algiers. 

Looking for a place to live that was reminiscent of his Mediterranean roots, Bendib settled in Berkeley three and a half years ago. 

“Fantastic physical beauty was my first impression. I am where I belong,” he said. “There are intellectuals here who question things and think. Being different is not a crime.” 

Since coming to Berkeley Bendib has added ceramics to his oeuvre. The bright colors and playful themes of his large display plates feature dancing women, elegant cougars, coffee images and the stylized ‘evil eye’ that wards off misfortune.  

“I am passionate about actions that are close to my heart,” he said. “There is a sense of brotherhood and community in Berkeley. I am free.”