Bamako, Mali

8th Encounters of Bamako, African Photography Biennale

Various Venues

As part of the Eighth Encounters of Bamako, African Photography Biennale, photographer Emeka Okereke initiated the Lagos-Bamako project: Nine Nigerian photographers and writers traveled by road across the borders of Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Burkina Faso, and finally Mali. The obstacles they encountered—official, economic, linguistic, and cultural—make the ambitions for West African integration by supraregional economic body ECOWAS seem almost delusional. The Lagos-Bamako group’s contribution, Invisible Borders, 2009, presented as a slide and audio show, aptly embodied the thematic premise of this year’s biennial—an attempt to expand beyond its own curatorial and organizational borders. The newly appointed artistic directors, Michket Krifa and Laura Serani—taking over from Cameroonian Simon Njami, who curated the past four editions—also took “Borders” as their curatorial framework, with their central exhibition opening up a wide range of discursive and aesthetic interpretations of the theme through the works of forty photographers and thirteen video artists.

The presentations included slick, large-scale fine-art photographs by international artists, including Zineb Sedira’s Shipwreck, 2008, a pictorial elegy to a cemetery of ships in the desert city of Nouadhibou, Mauritania; Kader Attia’s Square Rock, 2009, an architectural articulation of space and time about the place across the water where Algerian youths go to dream about a better life; and emerging artist Mohamed Bourouissa’s Periphery, 2006, a series of staged images of power dynamics and tension among youths in Parisian suburbs. But documentary-style photography dominated the pan-African exhibition, featuring issues of displacement, migration, persecution, trauma, and personal and collective alienation. These narratives include Jodi Bieber’s Going Home, 2001; Mohamed Camara’s Malians in Paris, 2007–2008; Armel Louzala’s Broken Houses, 2008; Lebohang Mashiloane’s Somali Refugees, 2008; and Baudouin Mouanda’s Aftermath of the 1997 War, 2008. While their topics are worthy, the pervading similarities in style and content became somewhat monotonous. However, respite could be found in more idiosyncratic, personal reflections such as Abraham Oghobase’s slide show Lost in Transit, 2007–2008, or Berry Bickle’s video On the Wire, 2009, as well as Riason Naidoo’s video The £5 Pickled Money Order Receipt, 2009, which provided one of the few insights into the historical underpinning of the migration of indentured Indians to South Africa. The few conceptual engagements with the theme and the medium include Alistair Whitton’s Patmos and the War at Sea, 2009, presented as a sequence of diptychs using braille and images to make us question ways of seeing, while Saïdou Dicko’s World Mosaic, 2005–2009, was a utopian call for world unity consisting of six hundred three-by-four-inch images.

The shortcomings of “Borders” were counterbalanced by the tightly curated monographic and small thematic group exhibitions in various venues across the city. Of particular note was the venerable Malick Sidibé’s fashion photography commission “Malick Sidibé for the New York Times,” 2009, featuring Malians in his studio modeling clothes by leading Western designers such as Christian Lacroix, Miuccia Prada, and Marc Jacobs; and emerging photographer Baudouin Mouanda’s ongoing series “Sape, a Congolese Chronicle,” 2008, showing a subculture of African dandies who use fashion as a way of escaping the grimness of their everyday reality. Both artists’ works were seamlessly integrated into the magnificent permanent display of textiles at the National Museum of Mali.

The monographic exhibitions at the Musée de Bamako included Fazal Sheikh’s award-winning series “A Sense of Common Ground,” 1992, documenting a Sudanese refugee camp in Kenya—a tour de force of humanity and inhumanity that left many viewers emotionally affected and even distraught. The excellent archival exhibition of portraits from J. K. Bruce Vanderpuije’s Deo Gratias studio, set up in Accra, Ghana, in the 1920s, presented a fascinating glimpse of a Ghanaian aristocracy at ease with its modernity—an appropriate counterpoint to all the images of a continent in a state of perennial crisis. While the biennial continues to lack a platform for critical debate crucial to the development of a theoretical discourse on photography, it nonetheless opens up a multitude of paths to new discoveries and practices.

Bisi Silva