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Bamako photography biennale rises above conflict

Arts & Culture

Bamako photography biennale rises above conflict

Despite the constant threat of jihadist attacks, Bamako in Mali has once again successfully staged its African Biennale of Photography, showcasing some of Africa’s greatest talents. Tom Collins was there.

In the lobby of an upmarket hotel in Bamako, grim-faced French military figures gather to discuss the 13 soldiers who died when two helicopters collided during anti-jihadist operations in northern Mali. 

The accident was the biggest loss of French troops since an attack in Beirut 36 years ago and it has led to waning domestic support for what is being called ‘France’s Afghanistan’. 

Known as Operation Barkhane, France has 4,500 troops stationed in Mali to repel jihadist fighters linked to the Islamic State (IS), who came close to overrunning the country in 2012 after capturing key cities like Timbuktu.  

The conflict, which began almost a decade ago when heavily armed insurgents returned to Mali after fighting in Libya, has dominated the headlines for the huge West African country. 

Yet despite worsening insecurity throughout the Sahel region, Bamako continues to inspire as one of Africa’s leading artistic and creative hubs. 

On the banks of the Niger River, the dusty capital has largely resisted the insecurity which so plagues the rest of the country. 

Bamako’s residents are keen to keep Mali’s rich cultural heritage alive, ranging from 13th-century Griot storytellers to the electronic guitars of Tuareg blues. 

Artists, photographers, designers, curators and journalists gathered in the same hotel lobby as the French soldiers to celebrate the 12th edition of the African Biennale of Photography, taking place under the theme ‘Streams of Consciousness’.

Now in its 25th year, the internationally renowned exhibition describes itself as “the principal event dedicated to contemporary photography and new imagery in Africa”. Hosted in various locations across Bamako, it presents the work of over 85 African artists. 

 Streams of consciousness  

“As you know, streams of consciousness is a very old concept in psychology which was adopted by writers at the beginning of the 20thcentury as a way of explaining the flow of writing and thought,” says Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, the biennale’s artistic director. 

“I wanted to think of this flow in photography because it is a big mistake to assume that photography is [about] a frozen moment. It is constantly in flux. When you move in Bamako you cross the Niger River. That is a stream of consciousness; it carries knowledge to the West African coast and civilisations. That’s what I was interested in.” 

Along with a strong concept, the Berlin-based curator also paid tribute to the event’s growing technological capacity. 

Photographs from past biennales were printed in Europe and shipped to Mali whereas this year’s printing took place in Bamako. 

Using hi-tech printers at the Centre de la Formation en Photographie and the Maison Africaine de la Photographie, Ndikung says the feat is an important milestone for a biennale which had been discontinued between 2011 and 2014 due to security concerns. It’s also an important step for a country which has been at the forefront of African photography for decades. 

‘There are no lies in images’

Malian photography rose to prominence during the 1960s, mainly through the work of artists like Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keïta, Adama Kouyaté and Youssouf Sogodogo. 

Together, the artists became known for a style which used black-and-white portraits to represent life in post-independence Mali. 

The late talisman of Malian photography, Malick Sidibé, enjoyed critical acclaim for his work chronicling Bamako’s vibrant nightlife in the 1960s and 1970s. 

His son and protégé Karim Sidibé says that his father’s work was in many senses a continuation of the oral histories told by the Griots, who shied away from the written word when telling stories.

“In writing we do nothing but listen,” Sidibé told New African at Malick’s old studio in Bamako, which has become a sort of shrine for photography aficionados. 

“It’s not only about Mali but it’s about bringing people from different parts of Africa together and realising that we are not so different.”

“But when you see the image there is nothing to say because it tells the stories of our grandparents; how they lived. In Malick’s opinion images are more real than words. There are no lies in images. There are writers who write about Africa. But there is a huge difference between the way Africa was viewed when they wrote the book and the way Africa is viewed now.”

In many ways Malick captured the optimism and confidence of a generation which was transitioning from colonialism to self-rule. 

His work shows well-dressed Malians dancing and modelling in confident poses. 

Despite his death in 2016, Malick continues to inspire a new generation of young African artists – many of whom believe a trip to Bamako is a rite of passage. 

“I remember I used to aspire so much to be a part of this biennale,” says Nigerian artist Adeola Olagunju, who is displaying her work Transmutations in Bamako for the first time. 

“It’s not only about Mali but it’s about bringing people from different parts of Africa together and realising that we are not so different.”

 

An image from Khalil Nemmaoui’s project Air Twelve Land displayed at the 2019 African Biennale of Photography.

 

External support

Yet while the artists have much in common, African countries differ widely in their approach to art. 

Cameroonian artist Antoine Ngolkedoo, whose hyper-real photographs document the criminal underbelly of the capital Yaoundé, describes the difficulties of working in Cameroon compared to places like South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya. “The problem with African art is that for us in Cameroon, photography is not considered art,” he says. 

“It is not considered as a job. It is like you have wasted your life. You can’t earn any money.” 

While the art world is flourishing on the continent, its artists often struggle due to a lack of government support, along with scarce opportunities to earn an income. 

Ngolkedoo had exhibited his work in Douala at the Institut Français, France’s overseas cultural relations organisation which is also supporting the biennale in Bamako. 

The Institut, like European and North American equivalents, straddles the border between being a known vehicle for soft power and a useful starting point for French cooperation and investment. 

Many citizens have come to resent France’s military presence in Mali. Failing to rebuff the jihadists in the north, France is accused of acting only to exploit Mali’s uranium deposits which fuel the nuclear power stations that account for around two-thirds of the country’s energy supply. 

In France too, popular support for the intervention plummeted following the helicopter collision.

Yet France is unlikely to withdraw from a conflict which is key to stemming migration to Europe. 

However, any dial-down in French troops or funding may negatively impact Mali’s art scene and even the biennale itself. 

That would put an end to a biennale which is as important to Africa as the rest of the world, according to its artistic director. 

“The photographs shown here are strong enough to be shown anywhere else,” says Ndikung. 

“What it does is to raise the standard of art everywhere in the world.”

 

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