Last November, outsized photographs installed along the dusty red streets of Bamako, Mali’s hectic capital, announced the arrival of the ninth edition of the African Photography Biennial. Founded in 1994, and organized in partnership with the French Institute, the Biennial is modelled after institutionalized photography festivals such as the annual Rencontres d’Arles in the south of France, and has established itself as a significant pan-African platform for photographers working on the continent and as part of the diaspora. The most recentincarnation, curated by Michket Krifa and Laura Serani (French and Italian, respectively), comprised 500 photographs and 20 video works, and was framed within the rubric ‘For a Sustainable World’, aiming to investigate how the continent has been affected by a global economy.
The main exhibition, titled the ‘Pan-African Exhibition’, staged at the National Museum of Mali, featured more than 50 photographers, including established figures such as Pieter Hugo, who exhibited a selection of his portraits of young scavengers in the Ghanaian slum of Agbogbloshie, home to an apocalyptic dumpsite for electronic waste from the US and Europe. Fellow South African Jo Ractliffe’s stark series addressed the legacy of Angola’s 30-year war and the country’s landmine-littered landscape (‘As terras do fim do mundo’, At the End of the Earth, 2010). But the majority of photographers on view were relatively unknown, at least abroad, and generally employ the traditional documentary mode of the photo-essay to engage myriad environmental problems, from sprawling dumps to mining to flooding to global warming. At times, projects began to bleed into others, creating a nagging sense that we were moving into what Okwui Enwezor has characterized as ‘afro-pessimism’: the notion that images, usually made by outsider media looking in, are complicit in creating a deformed impression that the continent is naturally plagued by social instability and strife. But in Bamako, of course, the photographers were all from the continent (or the diaspora) and the hammering of this pessimistic note was due to the selection. The curators did allow for flexibility, however, and some of the most compelling works in this show departed from reportage to interpret the idea of ‘sustainability’ more obliquely. Notable examples were Khaled Hafez’s humorous video about an ancient deity assessing modern-day Cairo (The A77A Project, 2009); Daniel Naudé’s diorama-like portraits of wild dogs and other animals in the South African landscape (‘Animal Farm’, 2009–10); Fatoumata Diabaté’s portraits of masked Malian children enacting roles in traditional stories (‘L’Homme en animal’, Man as Animal, 2011); Khalil Nemmaoui’s images juxtaposing manmade constructions with natural surroundings, such as a bizarrely austere monument rising in a desolate Moroccan landscape (Numéro 11, from ‘La maison de l’arbre’, Treehouse, 2009) – originally built to memorialize four French soldiers, the structure has aged into a Brutalist symbol of colonial arrogance.
Khalil Nemmaoui #7, from the series ‘Maison de l’abre’ (Treehouse), 2009, colour photograph
Other sites featured solo exhibitions. One which stood out was a selection from Nigerian photojournalist George Osodi’s long-term project on his country’s petro-economy, complete with skies turned biblical crimson and armed pirates organized to seek their cut of an oil largesse that fails to trickle down (‘Oil Rich Niger Delta’, 2004–07). David Goldblatt, celebrated for his defining documentation of the apartheid-era, exhibited his ‘Ex-Offenders’ (2008–10) project, which pairs sober portraits of now-released criminals alongside their testimonies, which detail lives of violent crime but which often end on a redemptive note. A young photographer from Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kiripi Katembo, presented ‘Un Regard (A Look, 2008–11), a series of photographs of street scenes reflected in puddles, painterly images that also point to the dangers of stagnant pools of water where malaria is a threat. Chaotic street scenes took the form of mass protest in a special selection of work devoted to the Arab Spring, a reminder of the region’s tremendous diversity, and the limitations of semantic conveniences of labels such as ‘African’ photography. Here the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia – grassroots movements defined, facilitated and unfolded in real time via networked photography – were explored through an eclectic programme of video works and still images.
For those accustomed to the international circuit of established photo festivals of Arles, PHotoEspaña in Madrid or Houston’s FotoFest, Bamako is off the beaten path. But Mali, and West Africa more generally, is of course home to an enduring tradition – internationally recognized and now heavily marketed – of studio portrait photography. Malick Sidibé and the late Seydou Keïta are both Malian; their work, along with others, forms a critical document of the post-colonial era. The National Museum of Mali has begun a project to digitize and preserve these archives, and they presented a fine exhibition of studio work culled from the Sindika Dokolo Collection, a major private collection of African art, curated by Simon Njami, a former curator of the Biennial. Comprising now-iconic images by Samuel Fosso and Sidibé, the show also featured work by less familiar names, such as Abderramane Sakaly, Philippe Koudjina, Cornélius Yao August Azaglo and an unknown photographer from Senegal whose images, dating from the early 20th century, of women elegantly posed in image-saturated interiors illustrate photography’s role in self-invention and shaping individual narratives.
Past incarnations of the Biennial have been criticized for having scant connection to Bamako’s public – a charge that could be levied at just about any biennial. But in Mali, one of the continent’s poorest countries, the contrasts between the festival and its context are jarringly stark. And, at times, it wasn’t entirely clear whom the festival served, at least during the opening week, when the presence of a foreign crowd of press, collectors, curators and dealers dominated. However, a number of off-site exhibitions were staged locally, though the festival might have somehow integrated these shows with the official selection. Samuel Sidibé, the general director of the National Museum, is forthcoming in his catalogue essay about the challenges this event faces: funding, organizational issues and continuing to work toward the goal of nurturing African curators and critics to ‘carry abroad an image of Africa produced by Africa’. And that last concern appeared to be in a process of fulfillment as the festival was a vibrant focal point for networking amongst photographers, curators and critics on the continent and from abroad, where an interest in and market for photography from Africa is gaining steady traction, as large exhibitions appear with increasing regularity. Two weeks after the opening of the Bamako Biennial, a revamped edition of Paris Photo, staged at the capacious Grand Palais, made photography from Africa its focus, including a presentation of work from the Biennial, underscoring the important role of work from the continent in current photographic discourse.