Photographs that hang by the threads of a country at war

“Why not say it in Bambara, instead of using English or French? To say that a person contains multiple persons. This is wondering Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikungthe general curator of the 13th edition of the Bamako meet-ups (Mali), the african biennale of photography which continues to be a world reference, despite the political winds kicking up dust in the Sahel. The artistic meeting resumed its journey on December 8, 2022 and will keep the exhibitions open to the public until February 8, 2023, in various recognized spaces in the city, such as the Musée National du Mali, the Mémorial Modibo Keita, the Musée du District and the Galerie Médina, to which this year the Maison Africaine de la Photographie and the old train station that connected Bamako with Dakar and Niamey, rehabilitated specifically for the biennale and for the concerts that will take place in the first days.

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

Of the 350 applications submitted by photographers from all over the world, 50 were selected and, in addition, the curatorial team —among whom was Akinbode Akinbiyi, renowned English photographer, curator and writer of Nigerian parents, chose another dozen established artists to complement the exhibition. Are the solid rocks (solid stones, in English) that prop up the young talents that are making themselves known from the spacious banks of the great Niger River. In the words of Bonaventure, the general commissioner, an attempt was made to ensure that no group was represented without a lack and “to work in the paradigm of poetry”.

According to him, the African world contains multiple living and imaginary beings and is broader than the continent itself. In fact, he explains, “the condition of a relationship is the difference, that there is another”, in the same vein as the European philosophers but also the Malian writer and ethnologist. Amadou Hampâté Bâ. Precisely the phrase Maa Ka Maaya Ka Sa A Yere Kono, that serves as a claim for this biennial, belongs to this wise man. It means “the people within the person are multiple in the person” in Bambara.

The sample of the work ‘Leave the edges’ (leave the edges, in English), an audiovisual made by the Ghanaian photographer Baff Akoto.Baff Akoto

The role of culture in the construction of the nation

The Cameroonian Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, founder of the space for art and thoughtSAVVY Contemporary and recently named director of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt Berlin, has been, for the second time, in charge of curating the biennial. A year and a half after the last coup And with jihadism besieging Malian territory, added to the weakened relations of the military government with the French tutelary power, “it is not easy to call and attend these meetings,” he confesses. Hence his special thanks to some 40 artists and the few international journalists who have been present at the opening of the event.

For this reason, Bonaventure is firm in arguing that culture cannot be left in the exclusive hands of governments, and urges the authorities to ask themselves questions such as “Does Mali want to continue with the biennial?”, to which he himself answers : “Politicians understand the challenges and what is the role of culture in the construction of the nation and the importance of art, even in reconciliation.”

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

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, recently appointed director of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin

In his opinion, there is “a lot to do, conceptually and financially” and, nevertheless, he is pleased, the organization has managed to print more than a thousand photos in local laboratories. “I started in 2019 and I told myself that if I was working here it was to support the artistic ecosystem of this country and not to hold a festival in Mali and bring print runs from Europe,” he says. This is not a trivial matter, since one of the paradoxes of the great festivals is that of marginalizing local technicians, as has happened in some of the first editions of this biennial that was born in 1994, according to Bonaventure, who calls to rescue the tradition of local training from four decades ago, the fruit of the golden age of Malian photography: “We have to 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, adolescents enjoy the works with their teachers and the police officers take photos. in the rooms of the museum; while the young visiting artists are already becoming citizens of Bamako. Outside, the hot haze of sand and traffic and the rubbish making mountains set up the visual noise that someone will have to attenuate at some point.

Be independent and, at the same time, accept miscegenation

At the time of the awards, all the hubbub seems to rearrange itself. At the recently opened Maison Africaine de la Fotographie, the Ghanaian photographer Baff Akoto he is awarded the Grand Prix Seydou Keita (endowed with 3,000 euros) for his work Leave the edges (leave the edges, in English), an audiovisual that he himself conceives as a visual poem that has allowed him to “create a relevant language for self-awareness about the way of being in the world”. In the short, he pays tribute to the spirituality that remains in the African diaspora, through rituals and contemporary dances; for example, in the silhouettes that reveal flamenco steps, as a symbol of the miscegenation of artistic expressions. After obtaining the award, Akoto comments that his intention is to show that today’s culture is the result of emigration and ancestors. The artist, who assumes heir to the Ashanti lineage, also feels like a Madrid citizen, because he lives in the capital of Spain for a good part of the year. “Spain is a very African place, where I have family, and, furthermore, Madrid is on the way to Africa,” he adds.

The audiovisual exhibition 'The tea women of Sudan', by the Sudanese Ebti Nabag.
The audiovisual exhibition ‘The tea women of Sudan’, by the Sudanese Ebti Nabag.Ebti Nabagh

The exhibition is conceived in five chapters that refer to a poem by Aimé Cesaire, father of “blackness””. Thus, the first chapter evokes the ‘House made of not knowing where to go’, and it is opened by the Cuban artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons with three series between 1990 and 2010, which narrate what Nigerian heritage means in different places. Another name to note in this section is that of the Sudanese Ebti Nabag, with The tea women of Sudanan audiovisual about the ladies who earn their living in tea stalls in the streets of Khartoum.

Also noteworthy in this first section are the images of the fanzine of Attiyah Khan, a disc jockey South African of Muslim Indian descent, who has compiled album covers that she has been finding in stores around the world, with Arabic calligraphy and from various African countries. Bismillah Rotationssuch the title of her series —which won the third prize, the Bisi Silva—, intends to celebrate the tradition of music in Islam on the continent, just as she herself does in her setswhich make the attendees travel and dance with rhythms that go from the Maghreb to Johannesburg.

Spain is a very African place, where I have family, and, furthermore, Madrid is on the way to Africa

Baff Akoto, Ghanaian photographer

Chapter two recalls the ‘House made of fan fingers’. Here, Elijah Ndoumbe presents the record of his work with workers queer and transgender from Cape Town, South Africa, among other photographers and plastic artists who make explicit the intersections that are created in each particular biography of an African, through mixed techniques, development interventions, painting and engraving.

History under a poetic magnifying glass

The third chapter is inspired by the ‘House made of mustard seeds’, to talk about presences and traditions, and starts with the series of two consecrated ones: that of the English photographer Joy Gregory and that of the Moroccan filmmaker Daoud Aoulad-Syad. However, in this section, the work that really leaves its mark on the viewer is that of the Guatemalan artist Ixmucane Aguilar about him namibian genocide, which occurred at the beginning of the 20th century, through an audiovisual that, lyrically, recalls the German concentration camps that stretched along the Namibian beaches. The installation is completed with a book of portraits of the descendants of the victims. It also highlights the dream atmosphere work by the Moroccan photographer Imane Djamil.

For her part, the young artist queer 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, ex aequo, with the Malian filmmaker Aicha Diallo, for Musolu (women, in Bambara), a short film exploring the 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, related to the ‘House made of fallen angels’ feathers’, refers to the stories of dispersals and connections, and in this chapter the work he does is highlighted. Fatoumata Diabate with the Association of Women Photographers of Mali, founded in 2007. It is 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 normal circuit, encouraging people to go up”. In March 2022, some 10 photographers began this project in a dozen neighborhoods of the capital, where, at the end of each itinerary, a projection was made. “We love working on ourselves and being able to talk about the violence that exists on us and the fact of always being enslaved by our husbands or being trained exclusively for married life”, underpins the photographer who, this January, shows her works more personal at the Quai Branly museum in Paris.

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

In all cases, these are photographs that agree with the general commissioner when he assures that he does not want to talk about “rematches” and that it is no longer possible to erase the borders of Africa, that we must “work with them”, if anything. , deconstruct them. In his opinion, and paraphrasing James Baldwin, “the role of culture is to give questions to the answers that already exist.”

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Photographs that hang by the threads of a country at war