Diary

Slipstreams

View of work by Fanyana Hlabangane at the Palais de la Culture Amadou Hampaté Ba. Photo: Siddhartha Mitter.

“THIS IS THE BIGGEST PARTY IN AFRICA, as far as photography is concerned.” The Nigerian photographer and curator Uche James Iroha was holding court in the airy ground-floor exhibition hall of the Palais de la Culture Amadou Hampaté Ba, a spacious, gently decrepit multiarts complex and one of the main venues of Rencontres de Bamako. An established crossroads for art and ideas in Africa, the respected photo biennial is now holding its twelfth edition, which runs through the end of the month and marks twenty-five years since its founding in Mali’s capital.

That’s an impressive run, not least because Mali has been in the grip of a complicated armed conflict since 2012, which has put much of the country’s north out of government control and in the hands of various factions. Bamako is away from the war zone but has faced terrorist attacks, and the government relies on a buffer of French and United Nations forces to maintain stability. Once a beloved destination for culture and adventure travelers, Mali now mostly hosts military and aid workers. But life goes on: In the capital’s low-rise sprawl, the more immediate obstacles are the omnipresent dust, diesel fumes, and sluggish traffic that bottlenecks at the three bridges across the Niger River.

Amid all this, Rencontres has not only persisted, but expanded. This year’s edition, titled “Streams of Consciousness,” is its largest ever, with some eighty-four artists and collectives showing in ten principal venues in the official program, curated by artistic director Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, plus an expansive slate of concurrent exhibitions and events. It may have strained logistics (a hotel overbooking imbroglio, for instance, stranded dozens of biennial artists and guests during the opening week), but the scale signals vitality and an attitude of defiance toward political and material constraints.

Emmanuele Andrianjafy, San titre, 2016, from the series “Nothing’s in Vain” (2014–16).

Iroha is showing images from the 1960s by the late photographer Tola Odukoya that are on view for the first time, and were unknown until a few years ago, when Odukoya pulled out a trove of negatives from under his bed to share with his nephew Adé Bantu, the musician. Made in a time of prosperity in Lagos even as the Biafran War raged in the southeast, the intuitively composed photographs brim with the optimism of the early post-independence era and sparkle with crisp light. (A portrait of a very young Fela Kuti virtually leaps off the wall.) Iroha and Bantu deliberately chose to unveil the project here in Bamako. “I think it’s important that the story starts in Africa,” Bantu said. “So you don’t have a European or American collector that hijacks the narrative.”

This assertion of autonomy squarely fits the cultural and political orientation of this year’s edition of Rencontres. Even though half its funding still comes from the French government—with the other half from Mali—the organization has changed: For the first time, the French side handed full administrative and curatorial control to their Malian partners. Lassana Igo Diarra, the General Delegate of the event, and Ndikung, the Cameroonian curator and founder of SAVVY Contemporary, a nonprofit art space in Berlin, have made great use of this new latitude. The exhibition design was entrusted to Cheick Diallo, a Malian architect known for his inventiveness with recycled materials. He turned in an elegant concept, with long, sloped displays built on wooden frames—held together, tipi-like, at the top—as its signature element. And for the first time, nearly all the photographs on view were printed locally.

But the shift runs deeper. Ndikung borrowed the title “Streams of Consciousness” from a 1977 album by two jazz greats: Max Roach, the African American drummer, and Abdullah Ibrahim, the South African pianist. On one level, the term is a theoretical prompt. In a catalogue essay, Ndikung, following William James, describes stream of consciousness as “the continuous flow of a person’s thoughts and conscious reactions to events,” and proposes that a strong photograph is a capture from an ongoing thought process in which “the camera actually becomes the connecting factor between mediums of perception.” More simply, the reference to Roach and Ibrahim is also a tribute to the mind meld of improvisation, to the cultural politics of black liberation in the ’70s, and to Afro-diasporic creative lineage and exchange.

Fototala King Massassy, Tenir (Anyway), 2019, Musée National du Mali. Photo: Korka Kassoguè and Bona Bell.

Ndikung curated this year’s biennial accordingly, gathering photography, video, installation, and archival practices from across the African world—the continent, its diaspora (from Afro-Brazilian and Haitian communities to third-generation North Africans in France), and its points of friction and encounter. The polyglot wall texts and captions are written in French, English, and Bambara, but omit each artist’s nationality and “lives and works” location. Inquiring minds can find this information in the biennial’s catalogue, but the curatorial gesture underlines the idea of the African world as a meta-territorial entity and decolonized form.

There is an emphasis on the representation of women, including a show of female photographers at the Lycée de Jeunes Filles Ba Aminata Diallo, a girls’ high school, where students mingled with artists at the opening. Another focus is on collaboratives: Adopting a term from Gilles Deleuze, Ndikung suggests that society is made not of individuals, but of “dividuals”—that is, “divisible entities that together make up a larger collective.” At the National Museum, another venue, visitors encounter a display of pictures by Kamoinge, the foundational African American photography group, opposite a show by Afro-diasporic women artists in the MFON project, led by Laylah Amatullah Barrayn and Adama Delphine Fawundu. Collectives based in Algiers, Cape Town, Lagos, London, Réunion Island, and Port-au-Prince also feature in the biennial.

Buhlebezwe Siwani, AmaHubo, 2018, HD Video, color, sound, 13 minutes.

The Tunisian photographer Mouna Karray told me this was her third time in Rencontres. Her works, on view at the National Museum, are eerie composites of negatives superimposed on a light table. People using gym equipment on the beach in Dakar appear as glowing silhouettes against the enveloping darkness. Opening a notebook, Karray showed me news photos of migrants forced to return from attempts to reach Europe, here depicted as dark, inchoate shapes. Her composites are a critical response to such images. “In black and white we speak of values, and we’re inverting values,” she said, referring to ethical values as well. “The shadow is used as a proof of reality.”

The idea that African eyes can unlock information that might elude the Western gaze is an undercurrent in the biennial—stressing the value of intra-African travel, which is notoriously difficult due to poor connections and extortionate fares. With an eye for uncanny detail, the Malagasy photographer Emmanuelle Andrianjafy conveys three years of life spent in Dakar, tapping into both its bustle and its melancholy. The South African photographer Andrew Tshabangu, in a more restrained black-and-white grammar, offers a similar investigation from a residency in Réunion, the French Indian Ocean territory. Visiting Cameroon, Cédrick-Isham, a photographer from Guadeloupe, was struck by the atmosphere of political stagnation and economic decay, but also by the persistence of ordinary people on the street, who, in the images, exude purpose as they go about their business. The Cameroonian artist Yvon Ngassam, meanwhile, has photographed motorcycle-taxi drivers in Cotonou, Benin, wearing fantastical helmets he fashioned after traditional masks; a video installation mixes sequences from the many drivers’ days with their accounts of their life story and material challenges.

Politics is never far off—whether contemporary, in dramatic images of recent mass protests in Algeria by members of the local Collective 220, or retrospective, in explorations of archives and hidden histories. Among the latter, I noted the Otolith Group’s installation foregrounding photographs that Richard Wright, the great African American writer, made on his visit to pre-independence Ghana in the 1950s, among them striking silhouettes of Kwame Nkrumah, the future president, addressing rallies. Jihan El-Tahri’s photographs of anticolonial books hark back to the hope (and disappointments) of third-worldist solidarity. And a remarkable project by Haiti’s Kolektif 2 Dimansyon traces the legacy of a 1969 peasant massacre in the village of Kazal by the François Duvalier regime through the lives of survivors and their descendants, the objects passed down, and the village landscape and ecology. In a more allegorical vein, a three-channel video by Buhlebezwe Siwani illuminates the labor and spiritual strength of black South African women with consummate lyricism and ceremony. And Fanyana Hlabangane’s spartan black-and-white streetscapes, each capturing a lonely figure in the Johannesburg metropolis, seethe with dueling resilience and anomie.

The image that appears on the biennial poster and catalogue cover shows a clenched fist emerging from a dark background, wearing four metal rings. It’s one work in a series by Fototala King Massassy, a Malian rapper turned photographer. “All the rings have a little secret,” he told me. “This one, for instance, is said to ward off bullets.” In another host country contribution, Hamdia Traoré photographs with elegance and dignity the marabouts, or spiritual teachers, of his home city of Djenné in their ultra-modest interiors, sometimes with their Qur’an pupils in the shadows.

View of “Yvon Ngassam: I have a Dream,” 2018, Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers. Photo: Korka Kassoguè and Bona Bell.

Perhaps the essential off-site solo show was the Malian photographer Fatoumata Diabaté’s display at Résidence la Casa Blanca, a hotel-restaurant complex in the upscale Cité du Niger neighborhood. Whether portraying young people in the street dissembling behind masklike paper objects that she invites them to make, or staging herself in multiple guises that challenge stereotypes of beauty and femininity, her series are bold, conceptually sharp, and invariably striking.

Rencontres remains freighted with contradictions. At the opening ceremony, a typically ponderous event held on the museum grounds, Mali’s president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, sat in the front row next to the French ambassador, close to the director of Bamako’s French Institute. As much as Ndikung’s programming emphasized Pan-African and South-South links, the perpendicular axis—between colonial power and former colony—was still in evidence. One French speaker even ventured that the transfer of administrative control to the Malian side exemplified a “new relational ethics”—in fact, a much more profound and radical concept—advocated by the Sarr-Savoy Report on the Restitution of African Cultural Heritage.

Ndikung pierced the ambient neocolonialism with a subtle barb, delivering his speech to the dignitaries in English, not French. (He claimed fatigue from late-night installing.) But Abdou Ouologuem, a Malian actor who closed the ceremony by reading a poem, had to hurry back to the podium—after a whispered word from the president—to “thank our French friends.” Certain structures die hard—even now, in a time when the West’s social model is exhausted and its cultural tutelage obsolete. The merit of this edition of Rencontres de Bamako is that it still demonstrates, in abundance, how other flows are gathering, other streams.

 

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