Bamako Biennale

Various Venues

International biennials tend to inhabit their host cities uneasily, but in the capital of Mali, one of Africa’s poorest countries, the disjunction seems more profound. The art world’s “discovery” of Bamako’s postwar studio photographers Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé spurred the launch of the first pan-African “Rencontres africaines de la photographie” (Bamako Biennale) in 1994. Yet a significant gap divides the vernacular reception of those black-and-white studio portraits taken for local families in the ’50s through ’70s from their reception as fine art photography by today’s international art audience. The economic disparity between Biennale visitors and the city’s population is glaring; in Bamako, Western viewers faced a sample of the economic and material difficulties that photographers across Africa encounter.

A joint venture between the Malian Ministry of Culture and the Association Française d’Action Artistique (AFAA), partly funded by the European Union, the biennial performs two vital functions: It shows a greater quantity and variety of African photography than can be seen anywhere else, and it allows far-flung African artists, curators, and collectors to network. Simon Njami, senior curator of this year’s edition, “Un Autre Monde” (Another World), and of the two previous biennials, has produced sprawling, multigenre exhibitions with polished and comprehensive catalogues for each. “Rencontres africaines” includes work from across sub-Saharan and North Africa as well as the diaspora and invites a different non-African guest nation to participate each installment (this year, Spain). In venues across the city, the show incorporates a variety of genres: art, photojournalism, commercial studio work, installations, a smattering of film, video, and performances, projects with children, and workshops and master classes meant to encourage African practice and to foster cultural exchange.

At the main “International Exhibition” held at the Musée National, Senegalese artist Awa M’Bengue’s black-and-white prints suggested ancient slave prisons on the West African coast, while Mali’s Joseye Tienro expanded on the studio tradition in his portraits of veterans, “Les Oubliés de la médaille” (The Forgotten Medal-Winners), 1997–2005, and Malala Andrialavidrazana, who was born in Madagascar and now lives in Paris, showed color photographs of cemeteries from South America, Oceania, and Asia. South African photographer Guy Tillim’s wrenchingly beautiful “Jo’burg” series, 2004, which makes a strong case for the power of sensitive documentary, was doomed to public invisibility in a hot, airless room at the top of the Pyramide du Souvenir, well off the beaten public path, but an exhibition inside the train station was remarkable for its local accessibility.

Other sections of the biennial were parsed out by genre and region. Commercial Sudanese studio photographers opened up new territory in African portraiture, and included a gem by Gadalla Gubara of Leni Riefenstahl stage-directing her exoticizing photos of the Nuba. Algerian photojournalism of the’90s captured the decade of civil war between the country’s socialist government and Islamic fundamentalists, a conflict largely unseen in the international press due to government repression. Malian photographers, naturally, had a strong presence: Twenty-five-year-old Fatoumata Diabaté won the AFAA prize for “En Gestes et Mouvements,” 2005, graceful black-and-white portraits of the Tuareg people of the country’s northern desert. And in a noteworthy curatorial gesture, “Gens de Bamako” (People of Bamako), at the Musée du District de Bamako, emphasized the vernacular basis of studio photography with six decades of pictures taken from family albums of local Bamakois.

Perhaps most exciting, the city’s small photographic community turned out with exhibitions at diverse venues and on the street, providing the chance to see a budding art system in the making. How this hybrid Afro-Euro biennial can signify more to the city’s population than tourist dollars still seems uncertain, but a number of Bamakois are working hard to foster a connection. At the moment, it’s a hugely important exhibition for Africa, but one for which a local audience does not yet exist.

Allison Moore