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Thoughts on Bamako, Bienniales, Bread and Butter

November 23, 2009

The eighth edition of the biennial Rencontres Africaines de la Photographie is currently on display in various venues around Bamako. Wish I were there.

The announcement and call for entries express a desire to expand the exhibitions’ audience. (I am happy to report that the curators are both women, Tunisian and Italian, respectively, and about a third of the artists are women.) But at least one Malian artist thinks that the presence of the art event alone is not enough to stimulate the Malian climate for photography. In my experience, Malians participation is low not merely because of disinterest — although that is significant in a region largely lacking a cultural framework in which making pictures makes sense — but because Malians unassociated with foreign/Mali government sponsors are deliberately excluded from events, even by Malian hosts.  This happened to friends right in front of me in 2007. It was a strong signal about who this art is for.

Installation View of S. Dicko's World Mosaic

Installation view of S. Dicko's "World Mosaic"


Like many cultural initiatives in Mali, this one’s sponsorship is part Malian government, part European government(s), part NGO, and part corporate (Puma).  In some ways, exhibitions like this are of a piece with the  historic and ongoing discovery (and/or pillage) narrative, in which curators (explorers) journey to Bamako to find new artists (natives) to take back and show off. Comment threads on articles announcing the biennial are populated by European curators, photo editors, non-profit directors, and so on looking to “meet interesting photographers” during their trip to Bamako. I’ve written many words about patronage in other settings; suffice to say the undertones are evidently problematic.

But shouldn’t it be celebrated that people and institutions are interested in meeting those interesting African photographers? Given the very, very limited exhibition, information-sharing, and market structures for artists of all stripes in many African cities, outside involvement is necessary and positive.

Then again, shouldn’t some fraction of the money and energy going into this international event for the viewing pleasure of an international audience be committed to inculcating a local audience for this art bizness?! I’m not saying this biennial shouldn’t exist just because it isn’t perfectly egalitarian and saving the whole world right now. I am very much in favor of any event that promotes African artists in an international conversation. I’m just saying that the contrast between its crowd and its setting should be more straightforwardly addressed by everyone involved and that the situation could open up good discussion and lead to some productive changes. (And not about modernizing anything or anyone so that they can appreciate art. How about making some art that people, as they are, like?)

Baudouin Mouanda, "Série S.A.P.E., Congo-Brazzaville"

Baudouin Mouanda, "Série S.A.P.E., Congo-Brazzaville"

The theme of this year’s event is a culturally and politically freighted one. Notably, but not unusually for African artists, many of the participants live abroad, or between two countries. “Borders” is also a timely theme; many cultural events of the past two years have focused on related subjects like historic migration and contemporary (often illegal) immigration, which run up against the arbitrariness of national geographies, and the vast economic disparities between even neighboring regions. It seemed that photography was almost the natural medium for considering these intertwined issues; because for so many people they have personal, current, and widespread ramifications, it made sense to straightforwardly document their effects. (I remember one really wonderful show in particular, of photographs following a young Malian man legally laboring in France along with the changes occurring in his home village as a result of his income: wells, tools, a large concrete house and TV for his family. No paintings I saw approached the level of complexity of this photo story.)

I’m looking forward to reading more reviews of the exhibitions after the close of the show December 7. Antawan Byrd, a Fulbright fellow serving as a curator in Lagos, has a write-up on Art Info in which finds that the exhibitions lean too heavily on documentary  photography, which “leaves the impression that contemporary African photography is overtly literal, journalistic, and observation-based” and may reflect a lack of deeper engagement on the curators’ part with the many-faceted subject.

Nandipha Mntambo, "Série Ukungenisa, Praça de Touros I

Nandipha Mntambo, "Série Ukungenisa, Praça de Touros I

One thread of this (legitimate) criticism circles back to the question of Malian participation in the event, and in art dialogues in general. The biennial owes its existence (or its location in Bamako, anyway) to the global art hits Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibé, both studio portraitists. Now, I think those photographs are great, as fascinating sociological documents and as art, but they were hardly the product of a thriving art photography scene. The gulf between the perception of Malick Sidibé’s studio photographs in Bamako and their enthusiastic reception abroad, in their oversize, high-contrast fine art versions, is huge.

Generalization: Maybe it is a strength of African photography, in an African context, that it is “literal, journalistic, and observation-based.” Maybe African photographers are aware that (a) here they are able to tell their own stories to the world, which is certainly not the norm; and (b) creating work that other Africans can identify with has its own value.

See also:
Blog associated with a collaborative project, Invisible Borders, created for the Biennale
A Picture of Africa? ArtInfo (whence I pulled all these images)
Bamako Biennale in 2006 ArtForum
The power of culture
Creative Africa Network

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