Africa through the lens

A rich source of reflection and an important wake-up call: Ati Metwaly reports from the 9th Rencontres de Bamako photography biennale in Mali

Published on 17 November 2011 in Al Ahram Weekly

Inaugurated on 1 November, the 9th edition of the Rencontres de Bamako (Bamako Encounters) continues until 1 January 2012 in the Malian capital Bamako. The event is an African photography biennial that has been organised every second year since 1994. This year’s theme, For a Sustainable World, has led the biennial to feature work bearing witness to the “search for a sustainable world, with the intention of drafting a status report and paying particular attention to the signs and forms of possible resistance.”

The idea of a sustainable world as the theme of this year’s Encounters was the brainchild of Michket Krifa and Laura Serani, this year’s artistic directors, who have compiled photographic and video works that cast a critical eye over many African issues. With over 280 works by 45 photographers and 10 video artists from 27 African countries featured, the biennial looks into the everyday realities of people living on a continent filled with social and political contrasts and where ultra-modern reality is interwoven with millions surviving on very limited means.

The biennial opens debates and exposes realities that are well-known in the international arena but nevertheless still remain inadequately dealt with. Global warming and its impacts on Africa, deforestation, water shortages, poverty, social injustice and inequality and the effects of environmental disasters on human health, as well as religion and tradition, are only a few of the dozens of concerns expressed by artists in their works.

The examination of such themes in the artists’ work is all the more fascinating when it is linked to last year’s celebrations of the 50th anniversary of independence from colonial control in a large number of African countries. In 1960, 14 African countries ceased to be French colonies, Nigeria broke free from British control, the Belgian Congo became Zaire and Somalia also gained its independence from foreign colonial control.

Rich material tackled in this year’s Bamako biennial raises questions, provokes debates and incites reflection on the state of Africa today, achieved in the hands of photographers whose works serve to voice important concerns about the continent, commenting on changes and developments across Africa and in the lives of its peoples.

The Encounters are mainly housed in the National Museum of Mali in Bamako, with other locations elsewhere in the city also taking part. The pan-African exhibition, held in the main hall of the National Museum, is the core exhibition of the biennial, providing kaleidoscopic views on issues raised by artists from different generations and cultural backgrounds. 45 photographers and 10 video artists from South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Haiti, Congo, Cameroon, Kenya, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Egypt, among others, have contributed work to the exhibition.

In his work Delta: A Vanishing Wetland (2006-2011), the Nigerian photographer Akintunde Akinleye examines poverty in his oil-rich homeland and the devastating impact that western oil companies, among them Shell, have had on the Niger delta. Drought and the human and environmental disasters happening in Nigeria are also reflected in works by Uzoma Anyanwu, which portray life in the Third Mainland Bridge area in Lagos.

The tragic impacts of the exploitation of nature’s wealth in Africa, this time in the form of prospecting for diamonds as well as oil, is also tackled in Mismatches (2011), a work by photographer Delio Jasse from Angola. Similarly, Francis Kodia from the Republic of Congo has exhibited work showing the harm that industrial development can bring to the African port city featured in his work, making it into an ecological and human nightmare.

South Africans Hasan and Husain Essop have exhibited work from the series Hhalaal Art (2008-2009), in which they look at the place of religion Òê” Islam in particular Òê” in a growing capitalist society. More personal and poetic works come from Michael Tsegaye from Ethiopia, who in Inferno (2010-2011) reflects on the pictures that people place on the tombs of their loved ones.

This year Egypt is represented by photographers Nermine Hammam and Amr Fekry and videographers Khaled Hafez, Amal Kenawy and Ahmed Sabry. Works by Fekry and Kenawy on display are personal, reflective and at times meditative, seeming to be nourished by their inner artistic energies. Hammam, Hafez and Sabry find inspiration in the events that surround them, as they try to grasp the social and political issues that are troubling Egyptian minds.

In his series Cairo Flying Patterns (2009), Fekry presents the streets of Old Cairo in sepia colours. Minarets and domes reach towards the empty sky, itself carrying the imprint of iconography borrowed from the architecture. The photographer here touches on Egypt’s long cultural heritage by blending elements taken from Islamic as well as ancient Egyptian culture. In this rich history, the photographer appears to find spiritual and artistic realisation and purification, something that seems as equally multilayered as the city he portrays.

Empty Skies (2008) by Amal Kenawy is a short video piece, almost an animated cartoon, in which the artist has made a story inspired by a poem. The video was originally created for the Museum of Modern Arts in Tokyo and an exhibition entitled Drawing Emotion. By contrast, Nermine Hammam’s photographs reflect recent events in Egypt, with her Revolution (2011) series portraying people from the 18 days of demonstrations that finally ousted former president Mubarak. In the masses of people portrayed in the photographs individuality seems to be lost, with individuals and crowd becoming one. In her series Upekkha (2011), Hammam also portrays Egyptian soldiers in unconventional surroundings, removing military references. Upekkha is included in a side event at the biennale curated by Krifa and entitled The Arab Spring.

The organisers have also displayed photographs outside the closed museum space in the large garden that extends towards Bamako’s neighbouring National Park. Here, among many other works, Hammam’s soldiers from the Upekkha series can be found standing in flowering meadows against a backdrop of mountains covered with snow.

Khaled Hafez’s video piece, realised in 2009 and entitled A77a Project (A77a standing for aha, an Egyptian curse expressing frustration), earned him the 9th Bamako Encounters Award for video work. This award, sponsored by the Fondation Blach³¡re, includes a two-week residency in France, participation in a group exhibition in the French city of Arles in July 2012, the city’s photography month, and a financial award amounting to 1,500 Euros.

In the video, the protagonist, taking the form of the ancient Egyptian god Anubis returned from ancient Egypt, walks though Cairo’s chaotic contemporary streets, witnessing the concerns of the Egyptian people expressed through demonstrations, riots and other actions. As a result, Anubis is able to bear witness to contemporary poverty and the weight of social and cultural constraints.

Cultural differences within Egyptian society were even more apparent in another video piece presented during the biennial. By the River (2009) by Ahmed Sabry presents a woman dressed in a nightgown, her reflection in the mirror portraying her wearing a black niqab, followed by her interaction with a man. In the piece, the artist tackles some of the stereotypes that affect society as well as the confusions that can result from societal pressures, emphasising the meanings hidden in different cultural beliefs.

Works by Fekry, Hammam, Hafez, Sabry and Kenawy are all on show in the main, pan-African exhibition, being part of dozens of other creative expressions from artists from all over the African continent. However, the Encounters also offer other exhibitions, with one of the National Museum buildings being dedicated to documenting Mali’s own photographic assets in the shape of an exhibition of works done between World War II and the 1980s and representing individuals and families.

Among these works is a collection of photographs by Malian photographer Sindika Dokolo in an exhibition curated by Simon Njami, as well as photography by Soungalo Male, curated by Samuel Sidibe (general delegate of the Encounters), Sokona Tounkara and Laura Serani. The biennale has also taken over other locations in the city, with seven artists from South Africa, Chad, Mali, Ghana and Nigeria presenting work on chosen themes in different venues, including the Bamako District Museum, the Mobido Keita Memorial, the Ina Gallery and the French Institute in Bamako.

The Mobido Keita Memorial also houses the Arab Spring exhibition, a side event curated by Krifa and including photography and video works. Though the 9th Bamako Encounters were planned months before the revolutions that broke out earlier this year in many Arab countries, Krifa decided to present these events in the biennial and asked Egyptian and Tunisian artists to contribute works on a revolutionary theme.

Among the works presented are videos by Khaled Hafez from Egypt and Faten Gaddes from Tunisia. Produced by Coralie Desmurs, an art historian and cultural officer at the French Institute in Cairo, Hafez’s video Field Statement consists of a series of 13 statements on the first 18 days of the Revolution by Ramy Essam, Karim El-Husseiny, Bassem Yousri, Ahmed Sabry, Hala Abu Shadi, Ibrahim Khattab, Marwa Adel, Nermine Hammam, Mohamed Abdelkarim, Shayma Kamel, Ibrahim Saad, Ahmed El-Shaer and Khaled Hafez.

Their statements take the form of two or three-minute movies taken during the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, as well as slide shows of photographs and conceptual works on the 18 days theme. Along with the Field Statement, Nermine Hammam’s Upekkha series is also displayed in one of the Mobido Keita Memorial rooms.

For her part, the Tunisian photographer Faten Gaddes has compiled works by a number of Tunisian artists and presented a video entitled Freedom When You Hold Us, in which she looks at the Tunisian Revolution through the prism of history and hopes for the future. This collection of photographs, short cartoons, films, and footage of demonstrations raises social, political, and gender issues and pays homage to the Revolution’s martyrs.

In parallel, an exhibition entitled Artocratie, also in the Mobido Keita Memorial, presents works by six Tunisian photographers taking part in the country’s Inside Out project. This is led by Tunisian photographer and activist JR, who creates large portraits of people and places them on walls and buildings in cities around the world. The biennial’s Arab Spring section includes photographs documenting the Inside Out project that was held in Tunis last March.

The first week of the Encounters, from 1 to 6 November and dubbed Professional Week, also gathered artists, journalists, curators, art critics and art lovers for discussions on the themes and issues raised by the exhibitions. Apart from the large number of photographic and video expressions on display, participants at the biennale were also treated to workshops, lectures, meetings, discussions and film screenings.

On 3 November, Krifa organised a round table in which Egyptian and Tunisian artists screened videos and held discussions about the events in their respective countries and their roles as artists who, on the one hand, had been actors in the revolutions, and on the other hand had the responsibility of documenting them.

With its many exhibitions and artistic activities, the Bamako Encounters joins together many of the synergies of African photography. As such, it is an important bridge between artists and their audiences, offering a crucial window onto creativity on the African continent. The huge number of issues raised by the photographers and videographers in their work underscores the ideological, human and social richness of the African continent. Their accounts were overwhelming, at times worrying, as many showed the abuses this rich continent is suffering from at human hands.

With this year’s theme of a sustainable world, the Encounters have established themselves as a major source of inspiration for all those who took part, as well as wake-up call for reflection on the present situation of much of the African continent.


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