During last month’s edition of Bamako Encounters– African Biennale of Photography, as dusk arrived following a fascinating artist talk by revered Nigerian professional photographer Akinbode Akinbiyi, southern winds bring Saharan dust settled over Mali’s capital and clouds of bats flew between the trees across a lavender-hued sky.
Pioneering professional photographers such as Seydou Keita, Abdhourahmane Sakaly, and (obviously) Malick Sidibe loom big here. And at such minutes, even an inexperienced eye can understand how Bamako is an image-maker’s paradise, and a seemingly perfect setting for a photography biennale. The city’s endlessly compelling, starkly geometric architecture– angular and curved, Sahelian, colonial, and contemporary– is superbly illuminated by the light.
In early December 2022, dozens of artists from throughout the world convened for the 13th edition of the Bamako Encounters, which runs till early February 2023. It is entitled “On Multiplicity, Distinction, Becoming, and Heritage,” a theme that welcomes the audience to think about moving previous understandings of the world that concentrate on singularity and essentialism, creating space for motion, modification, and malleability. Mali is a country with varied geologies and geographies, inevitably yielding differing lifestyles and cultures. This biennale thus explores a generally applicable theme in a location where liminal areas are ever present.
Spread across 7 crucial sites, including the National Museum of Mali and a disused train station that formerly connected Bamako to Dakar, a standout feature from this edition of the biennale is its significant inclusion of artists from across the African Diaspora.
Among the notable works from the biennale, Leave the Edges (2020 ), which won the biennale’s Grand Prix/Seydou Keita award, came from artist-filmmaker Baff Akoto, who was raised in between Accra and London. The work checks out African and Diasporic spiritualities, and how they have actually altered and transformed across time and in different areas, as a metaphor for a broader discussion around cultural exchange.
An exceptional and meditative piece, employing tender cinematography, subtle lighting, and enchanting soundscapes, Leave the Edges is a poetic motion film melding efficiency art and celebrations of slave rebellions in Guadeloupe.
Meanwhile at the National Museum, Anna Binta Diallo’s futuristic looking work checks out the historic roots of folklore and storytelling. Using a variety of maps, prints, and images superimposed onto outlines of human kinds, Diallo welcomes us to consider what it implies for humankind to exist in symbiosis with the natural environment. Concurrently, she checks out concerns such as migration, identity, and memory.
Sofia Yala works in the exact same vein, but on a more personal level within the setting of her own family, questioning the concept of the body as an archive. Yala’s work includes screenprinting her grandfather’s archives– whether personal notes, I.D. files, or work agreements– onto photos taken by Yala in domestic spaces. Through the process, she has the ability to discover deeper layers of identity– a poignant exercise in the context of reconnecting with the artist’s Angolan heritage.
Over at the former train station, sub-themes of magic, the ethereal, and eternity emanate through more conceptual and abstract works. Marie-Claire Messouma’s magical, melismatic photography intends to trigger a conversation about mankind and the universes, mixing fabric sculptures, ceramics, and other materials, and stimulating the feminine.
Similarly, in Fairouz El Tom’s work, the artist questions where the “I” ends and the “you” begins within the discourse of human ontology, triggering important conversations around the interconnectedness of humankind– or, maybe, the absence thereof, in this age of unpredictability.
In Thembinkosi Hlatshwayo’s haunting works, we are welcomed to assess the legacies of human violence and the enduring injury that originates from it. Making use of his own past and individual experiences, Hlatshwayo has converted the tavern where he grew up– a website of intense injury– into his studio, showing a tangibly alleviative aspect within his practice.
Who Is It For?
With a high-profile curatorial group attached to the biennale under the artistic instructions of superstar manager Dr. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Bamako Encounters is a victory for the artists, and certainly a remarkable notch on any exhibit C.V. Yet the hyper-conceptual nature of “On Multiplicity, Distinction, Becoming, and Heritage,” wed with sub-par scenography that frequently tries to imitate the white cube model, likewise produces a disconnection in between organizers and audiences, prompting questions, the most important of which is: “who is this truly for?”
The well-curated, robust program of artist talks and conversations was predominantly gone to by the artists themselves, along with other market practitioners, as soon as again creating the all-too-familiar echo chambers that the art world is understood for. The very same issue is felt with the text-heavy, unique language of art that accompanies this exhibition, frequently using insular vocabulary that very couple of people beyond the industry even understand.
In recent times, the examination of these echo chambers, and the industry at big, have actually become well popularized by the likes of the Instagram-based account @freeze_magazine. Such critiques typically discuss how the art world perpetuates harmful capitalist tendencies, whose victims consist of both human beings and the environment; the flaws and hypocrisy of institutional spaces; and basic elitism. And at points, the 13th edition of Bamako Encounters might be guilty of all 3 offenses, even if to only a portion of the degree of the Venice Biennale or other biennials in the Worldwide North, or the marketplace at big.
“If the art only exists within institutional spaces it makes you wonder who is it actually for and how is it operating?” displaying artist Adama Delphine Fawundu told Artnet News, reflecting on these obstacles. “I believe most artists are making work that deals with subject matter that actually interrogates the organization. For that reason, what is essential about this biennale is the manner in which it’s documented, through the books and the text. Fifty years from now, what will people be stating about today? And if the work is not being documented at least for the future, then the biennale has to be interacting with individuals. How do you take it beyond the museum or the gallery area, and actually engage with real people that we see around? Because this is what we’re really worried about.”
And although this edition of Bamako Encounters has a central theme that relates so straight to contemporary realities in Mali, access to these conversations is mainly limited to market practitioners and socio-economic elites, much of whom were flown in specifically for the opening weekend (inevitably producing extreme quantities of carbon emissions simply for the biennale to occur). In African contexts, the debate around the most effective modes of presentation and sharing critical artistic deal with brand-new audiences continues to bubble.
However, possibly the biennale’s greatest strength was that it became this conference point for crucial, unfiltered discussions in between artists and professionals who may never have actually fulfilled otherwise. Indeed, amidst an onslaught of almost-farcical organizational mistakes, consisting of missing out on baggage and overbooked hotels, the artists rallied together, evoking the power of the collective through their inter-generational and cross-cultural partnerships and exchanges. With the sheer variety of artists present for this event significantly surpassing self-important know-it-all managers, hard-to-please institutional overlords, and opportunistic dealerships, Bamako supplied the platform for real connections to emerge between its showing artists.
And so, in spite of underlying political unpredictability in Mali, worries of an international economic downturn, and the overarching issues of the international art system, the 13th edition of Bamako Encounters becomes a success, albeit with a huge selection of issues left to think about.
The 13th Edition of Bamako Encounters, African Biennale of Photography, is on view at places throughout Bamako, through February 8, 2023.
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