Photographs hanging by the threads of a country at war

Photographs hanging by the threads of a country at war

“Why don’t you say it in Bambara instead of using English or French? To say that a person contains several people. This is the question asked by Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, General Curator of the 13th edition of the Rencontres de Bamako (Mali), the biennial of African photography which, despite the political winds stirring up dust in the Sahel, continues to be a world reference. The artistic meeting continued its journey on December 8, 2022 and will continue the exhibitions until February 8, 2023 in various recognized spaces of the city such as the Musée National du Mali, the Mémorial Modibo Keita, the Musée du District and the Galerie Médina, to which have been added this year the Maison Africaine de la Photographie and the old train station that connected Bamako to Dakar and Niamey, rehabilitated specifically for the Biennale and the concerts that will take place in the first few days.

The African world contains multiple living and imaginary beings and is wider than the continent itself

From the 350 applications from photographers from all over the world, 50 were selected and in addition the curatorial team – including Akinbode Akinbiyi, a renowned English photographer, curator and writer of Nigerian parents – selected another dozen established artists to complement the sample. They are the solid rocks that support the young talents making themselves known from the sweeping banks of the great Niger River. In the words of Commissioner-General Bonaventure, an attempt was made to ensure that no group was represented without defects and “to work in the paradigm of poetry”.

According to him, the African world contains several living and imaginary beings and is wider than the continent itself. “The condition of a relationship is the difference that there is another,” he explains in the line, in which the European philosophers, but also as expressed by the Malian writer and ethnologist Amadou Hampâté Bâ. The very phrase Maa Ka Maaya Ka Sa A Yere Kono that serves as the claim for this Biennial comes from this scholar. It means “people in person are diverse in person” in Bambara.

Sample of the work The example of the work “Leave the edge” (in English), an audiovisual image created by Ghanaian photographer Baff Akoto.Baff Akoto

The role of culture in nation building

Cameroonian Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, founder of the art and thought space SAVVY Contemporary and recently appointed director of the House of World Cultures in Berlin, has been commissioned to curate the Biennale for the second time. A year and a half after the last coup and with jihadism besieging Malian territory, in addition to the military government’s weakened ties with the French protecting power, “it’s not easy to convene and attend these meetings,” he admits. Therefore, his special thanks go to the approximately 40 artists and the few international journalists who were present at the opening of the event.

For this reason, Bonaventure firmly argues that culture cannot be left in the exclusive hands of governments, urging the authorities to ask themselves questions like “Will Mali go ahead with the Biennale?” to which he himself replies: “Politicians understand the challenges and role of culture in nation building and the importance of art even in reconciliation.”

Politicians understand the challenges and role of culture in nation building and the importance of art even in reconciliation

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, recently appointed Director of the House of World Cultures in Berlin

In his opinion, there is “a lot to do conceptually and financially” and yet he is pleased that the organization has managed to print more than a thousand photos in local laboratories. “I started in 2019 and told myself that if I work here, it’s to support the artistic ecosystem of this country and not to do a festival in Mali and bring editions from Europe,” he says. This is not a trivial matter, since one of the paradoxes of the great festivals is that they marginalize local technicians, as happened with some of the first editions of this biennial, launched in 1994, according to Bonaventure, who calls for the rescue of the local tradition Training from four decades ago, the fruit of the golden age of Malian photography: “We must work to be independent”.

The truth is that despite the immense difficulties that are visible in the daily life of the capital of Mali, people enthusiastically approach the exhibitions, young people enjoy the works with their teachers and the police officers take photos. while the young guest artists are already becoming citizens of Bamako. Outside, the hot haze of sand and traffic and garbage-producing mountains create the visual noise that someone will eventually have to muffle.

Be independent while accepting miscegenation

At the time of the award ceremony, all the hustle and bustle seems to be rearranged. At the recently opened Maison Africaine de la Photographie, Ghanaian photographer Baff Akoto receives the Grand Prix Seydou Keita (worth 3,000 euros) for his work Leave the edge, an audiovisual work that he himself conceived as a visual poem that has allowed him to “To create a language relevant to self-awareness about the way of being in the world.” In short, rituals and contemporary dances pay tribute to the spirituality that remains in the African diaspora; for example in the silhouettes showing flamenco steps as a symbol of the blending of artistic expressions. After receiving the award, Akoto comments that he wants to show that today’s culture is the result of emigration and ancestry. The artist, who succeeds the Ashanti line, also feels like a Madrid native, living in the Spanish capital for a good part of the year. “Spain is a very African country where I have family and also Madrid is on the way to Africa,” he adds.

The audiovisual exhibition “The Tea Women of Sudan” by Sudanese Ebti Nabag.The audiovisual exhibition “The Tea Women of Sudan” by Sudanese Ebti Nabag.Ebti Nabag

The exhibition is designed in five chapters based on a poem by Aimé Cesaire, the father of Negritude. Thus, the first chapter evokes the “house from which one does not know where to go” and opens by the Cuban artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons with three series between 1990 and 2010 that tell what the Nigerian heritage is about different places means. Another name worth mentioning in this section is that of Sudanese Ebti Nabag with The Tea Women of Sudan, an audiovisual film about the ladies who make their living in street tea stalls on the streets of Khartoum.

Also of note in this first section are the fanzine images of Attiyah Khan, a South African disc jockey of Muslim Indian descent, who has compiled album covers found in stores around the world with Arabic calligraphy and from various African countries. . Rotations of the Bismillah, which is the title of her series that won the third prize, the Bisi Silva, aims to celebrate the Islamic music tradition on the continent, just as she does herself in her sets that inspire people to travel and travel stimulate dance participants with rhythms ranging from the Maghreb to Johannesburg.

Spain is a very African country where I have family and also Madrid is on the way to Africa

Baff Akoto, Ghanaian photographer

Chapter two is reminiscent of the “House of Fan Fingers”. Here, Elijah Ndoumbe presents the record of his work with queer and transgender workers from Cape Town, South Africa alongside other photographers and plastic artists who make clear the intersections that emerge in each and every African biography through mixed techniques and interventions, painting and engraving.

History under a poetic magnifying glass

The third chapter is inspired by the “mustard seed house” to talk about presences and traditions and begins with the series of two consecrated ones: that of the English photographer Joy Gregory and that of the Moroccan filmmaker Daoud Aoulad-Syad. In this section, however, the work of the Guatemalan artist Ixmucané Aguilar on the Namibian genocide at the beginning of the 20th century really leaves traces through an audiovisual material that lyrically recalls the German fields concentration camps that stretched along the Namibian beaches. The installation is rounded off by a book with portraits of the descendants of the victims. It also highlights the work of Dreamlike Atmosphere by Moroccan photographer Imane Djamil.

For her part, young queer artist Mallory Lowe Mpoka, of Belgian and Cameroonian descent, was honored for her series of embroidered archival photographs, The Architecture of Oneself: What Lives Within Us. He won the second Malick Sidibe Prize with Malian filmmaker Aicha Diallo for Musolu (Women, in Bambara), a short film exploring Malian tradition.

One of the works by English photographer Joy Gregory on display at the African Photography Biennale in Mali.One of the works by English photographer Joy Gregory on display at the African Photography Biennale in Mali.Joy Gregory

Chapter four, relating to the “house from the feathers of fallen angels”, relates to the stories of separations and connections, and in this chapter highlights the work that Fatoumata Diabaté is doing with the Association of Women Photographers of Mali, founded in 2007. It’s an interactive activity with the citizens of Bamako, as Diabaté explains: “We rent the green minibuses that go from neighborhood to neighborhood (they have a strong identity in our capital) and we do the regular round trip to see people to encourage going up”. In March 2022, about 10 photographers started this project in a dozen neighborhoods of the capital, where a projection was made at the end of each itinerary. “We love to work on ourselves and talk about the violence that we are exposed to and that we are always enslaved by our husbands or brought up exclusively for married life,” emphasizes the photographer, who is showing her this January, working more personally at the Musée Quai Branly in Paris.

The fifth is ‘House of Deluge Storms’, which deals with transitions and the supernatural that so naturally inhabit Africa. The first prize of this edition of the Biennial, that of Baff Akoto, emerged from this section and in it one can also admire the honesty through the lenses of the Sudanese Salih Basheer, the Brazilian Uiler Costa-Santos and Américo Hunguana. which presents the black and white landscape of the only (and deserted) bullring in Mozambique.

In all cases, these are photos that the Commissioner General agrees with when he assures that he does not want to talk about “rematches” and that it is no longer possible to erase Africa’s borders, that we must “work with them”. If anything, deconstruct them. In his opinion, and to paraphrase James Baldwin, “culture’s role is to ask questions about the answers that already exist.”

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