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Bisi Silva, 10th Bamako Encounters

Oct-Nov. 2015
Originally published on IAM

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Founded in 1994, the Bamako Encounters: Africa Biennale of Photography are a landmark event in the cultural scene of West Africa. Organised conjointly by the Ministry of Culture of Mali and the Institut Français, the Encounters have always been a catalyst for the discovery of emerging talents, attracting a wide crowd of professionals, collectors and amateurs. In 2013, the political troubles that shook the country and its capital forced the organisers to cancel the planned edition.

Against this tense backdrop, the 10th Bamako Encounters successfully opened on October 31, 2015. Not only does this anniversary edition mark the coming back of the Biennale after four years of absence, but it also proves its extraordinary vitality. While the 9th edition curated by Michket Krifa and Laura Serani concentrated on reflecting For A Sustainable World, the 10th edition contemplates orality and its narratives. Bisi Silva, renowned Nigerian independent curator and director of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, shares more about the main exhibition Telling Time, the rest of the Biennale’s program and her hopes for this edition.

Aboubacar Traoré, <em>Inch’Allah</em>, 2015
Aboubacar Traoré, Inch’Allah, 2015. Courtesy the artist

Clelia Coussonnet (CC) | The cancellation of the 2013 Bamako Encounters provoked a profound disappointment within the art field. It evidenced how political troubles can impact nay hinder the cultural scene. Despite an intricate context, and maybe in response to it, this edition’s applications were higher than ever with an 800 proposals. What does that say about photography in the region?

Bisi Silva (BS) | As the longest running and largest platform for the presentation of photographic arts on the African continent this biennale has long been anticipated. This is evident in the largest response – over 800 applications from across the continent and the Diaspora – to the open call in the event’s history. It highlights the importance attached by the artists and photographers to the biennale as a professional platform from which to present their work but also to the exponential growth of photography in the region.

CC | You have chosen the title Telling Time for the main exhibition that features 39 artists. In this, you weave temporality, storytelling and orality, which also involve transmission. It is a lovely wink to the tradition of griots, and recalls Mali’s position as a land of encounters. Tell us more about your theoretical approach and about how the works selected fit into this.

BS | We definitely wanted to bring the tradition of storytelling into the framework but also make it open enough to encourage a diversity of perspectives. Instead of using works to simply fit into a narrow thematic, we were able to discern subthemes that artists were engaging with. These included artists that were dealing with the past and in whose work the archival took prominent place. Another important subtheme was architecture and how you can narrate the history of a city – past or present – through the built or the urban environment, but there were works that dealt with events that happened recently including the crisis in Mali and the effects on the population, the revolution in Burkina Faso and the overthrow of a dictatorial government as well the devastation and the fear of Ebola.

Wanuri Kahui, still from <em>Pumzi</em>, 2009
Wanuri Kahui, still from Pumzi, 2009. Courtesy the artist

Whilst we did receive a sci-fi video work that imagined what a big urban city could look like in the future we would have liked to received more future looking work. To engage this aspect further we have curated a thematic exhibition To the Future and Back which presents alternative realities from an African perspective through photography, video and film.

CC | You are concerned with building momentum locally, instead of focusing on international attraction. As the curator, what have you thought about to make this happen in Bamako?

BS | Building momentum and inclusiveness locally is a major goal of this biennale. To this end we are beginning with a major programme under the 'Focus Mali' umbrella. This includes the exhibition (Re)generations, an examination of the biennale’s twenty year history through a presentation of archival material and objects; En Connexion… by the Malian curator Chab Toure presenting a new generation of Malian photographers, Mali Jaw a project with 10 local photography studios presenting their archives within their immediate communities and an ambitious pedagogy programme targeting up to 100 schools across Bamako. These are important efforts to make the local population an active participant in this important international event.

CC | The Bamako Encounters are conceived as a professional meeting, as a space generating conversations and fostering links between individuals from diverse regions. Since its inception, how this role to foment professional networks has manifested and evolved?

BS | The Bamako Encounters have played an important role in connecting photographers. When it started they were few if any platforms where practitioners on the continent could meet and share information. Over the last 15 or so years that I have been coming to Bamako I have seen the networks that have developed and have been inspired by Bamako including other festivals such as Addis fofofestival, Picha and other small groups, individuals, collectives and initiatives. Many artists have also gone onto international fame as result of their participating in the Encounters.

Malala Andrialavidrazana, <em>Figures 1838, Atlas Elementaire</em>, 2015
Malala Andrialavidrazana, Figures 1838, Atlas Elementaire, 2015. Courtesy the artist

CC | What are some of the highlights for the professional week?

BS | In addition to the international exhibition, the monographic and thematic exhibitions are bringing the work of well-known artists such as William Kentridge, Hrair Sarkissian, ORLAN and John Coplans to a Malian audience. There is a Lusophone focus anchored by a monographic exhibition by Brazilian artist Ayrson Heraclito and a video and film series curated by Beyond Entropy Africa (Paula Nascimento and Stefano Rabolli Pansera). There is also a project by Lanchonete that explores the connection between Brazil and Africa through food.

There have also been book launches and signings by artists as well as panel discussions on 'Publishing in Africa', on 'The Role of Photography in Documenting Crisis' and on 'Photography, Time and Memory' amongst others. There have been many artists presentation – those in the exhibition as well as those visiting. And an important element has been the portfolio reviews which provided opportunities for young and emerging photographers to have their work seen by and reviewed by other artists and art professionals.

CC | How important is it to document the Encounters and constitute an archive of written resources?

BS | Documentation needs to be one of the most important aspects of any event of this magnitude on the continent. There are so many people that will not be able to come and it is through the documentation virtual and physical that they can take part.

George Mahashe, <em>In between 3</em>, 2014
George Mahashe, In between 3, 2014. Courtesy the artist

This year substantial resources – financially and human – are being invested in the 10th edition catalogue. In fact catalogue is not a true reflection of what we hope and consider being an extended space in its own right. We have extended the artists’ pages to 6 pages each and commissioned a new text for each artist in the international exhibition going beyond a short artist statement. We also reproduced in its entirety the catalogue of the first edition of the Bamako Biennale, commissioned textual reflections on the 20 years of the biennale and included an extensive timeline. At approximately 488 pages it is the most ambitious catalogue to date by and on the biennale.

CC | This event is the longest running platform for photographers from Africa and has a strongly established reputation. What impact does that have on the market?

BS | The African photography market is growing steadily. However African collectors of photography are still far and few between… In Europe and the USA there are a few individuals with a special focus on photography. I think there will be more in the coming years. Institutions and collectors are following very closely new developments in the field.

CC | In many countries, cultural spaces and practitioners suffer from a lack of institutional and governmental support and investment. They strive to develop sustainable projects and to be backed financially. They also often struggle to organise events for a long period (here the Biennale will last three months for instance). How to cope with that and provoke a shift?

BS | It is unfortunate that most African governments do not support adequately and sufficiently many cultural spaces. But we have to continue doing what we do and putting pressure on the government in that hope that one day we will find a sympathetic ear. In the meantime we need to continue devising different strategies by building new and more innovative partnerships and ambitious fundraising campaigns that go beyond the current dependency only on European funding. In order to achieve some of that, I believe that no new cultural organisation can exist or survive without looking to hybrid models that include income generating strategies.

Mudi Yahaya, <em>For Crown And Country</em>, 2011
Mudi Yahaya, For Crown And Country, 2011. Courtesy the artist

CC | For A Sustainable World was shown in other venues, such as the Gulbenkian Fundation in Lisbon. Are there any plans to have this 10th edition travel?

BS | We would definitely love the edition to travel. Organisations and institutions are grappling with funding constraints that existed less than 4 years ago but there have been some real interests which will be followed up.

© Clelia Coussonnet

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