Art of Exile 

Jews and Arabs together at the Persian Center

There's a timelessness to Khalil Bendib's artwork that crosses cultural and national boundaries. Take his sculpture of the head of El Kahina, the legendary Berber queen of Algeria. Her striking facial features are seen in repose, with eyes cast downward and her turban trailing below, beneath which appear her open, beckoning hands. The mood is one of quiet strength but also of supplication, a strange attitude for a ruler. "Queen Kahina was the leader of the Berbers," says Bendib. "And she was Jewish. Her name comes from the same root as 'Cohen,' meaning 'priestess' in her case. That sculpture shows a side of history, the intersection of Jewishness and Arabness."

Jewish royalty in Arab North Africa? Aren't Jews and Arabs ancient enemies? Not really, maintains the Berkeley-based artist, who was raised in Algeria before moving to the US, first to Los Angeles and then to the Bay Area. Bendib's art, including the bronzes, ceramics, and mosaics on display in his "Dreams and Mirages" show this weekend at the Persian Center in Berkeley, reflects his own vision of multiculturalism, an all-embracing, pacifist belief that has its iconoclastic side -- since the representational sculptures and decorations flout the Islamic prohibition of graven images. The artist's contrariness no doubt grows from his personal experience as an exile -- first from his Algerian homeland (Bendib was born in Morocco after his parents fled French-colonial death threats in Algeria) and then as a skeptical Arab in Tinseltown. Although he still accepts commissions such as a proposed Cesar Chavez monument in downtown LA, Bendib apparently couldn't wait to head north.

"I always wanted to be in Berkeley. I fell in love with the Bay Area. It's a lot like Algiers: the climate, the quality of light, the hills, the water, the cosmopolitan atmosphere. It's more interesting and less conformist than LA. I say that," laughs Bendib, "as an artist and a bohemian!"


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