Bamako, A Biennale that Took the Time to Witness – Érika Nimis

[Spring/Summer 2016]
Youssef Lahrichi, Le nostalgique, 2014

Youssef Lahrichi, Le nostalgique, 2014

Bamako Encounters 2015

The biennale in Bamako, Mali, came to an end on December 31, 2015. This anniversary edition – the tenth1 – had been delayed by two years due to a major crisis that occurred in 2012.2 Even a few weeks before the opening, there was still a climate of uncertainty,3 though it was quickly swept away by the invigorating enthusiasm of the organizing committee. Getting the biennale back on the rails was an even greater challenge because the Malian government had emerged terribly weakened by a conflict that had cleaved the country in two for an entire year. But culture had to regain its place of honour and it did so, with the logistical support of the Institut français, which took charge of the production aspect (the exhibition prints for In – the official part of the festival – and the catalogue,4 a true masterpiece of publishing designed for posterity).

Although the strengthened security measures were a source of concern, the organizers of the biennale were resolved to revive the event; they deployed their wealth of expertise, and the magic of the Bamako Encounters did the rest. The success of the tenth edition – beyond the few inevitable false notes related, in part, to the ambitions declared for this anniversary edition – was due both to the high quality of the works presented and to the strength of a team that worked relentlessly to make sure that the biennale took place under the most normal conditions possible. It was due also to the unifying determination of one woman, general artistic director Bisi Silva (whose career I wrote about in my article on Lagos, CV 1025), who was flanked by two young associate curators, Antawan I. Byrd and Yves Chatap. Here’s a look back at the programming for this anniversary edition.

Challenging Time: A Pan-African Exhibition. The call for works for this edition, the theme of which was “Telling Time,” drew more than eight hundred proposals (as opposed to 250 for the 2011 edition). Needless to say, the return of the biennale had been highly anticipated. A total of thirty-nine artists (or groups of artists) “told time” in images in the pan-African exhibition at the Musée national; the uncluttered scenography was intended, above all, to give each work enough space to breathe. The challenge was to express, through fixed and moving images, multiple temporal realities: the past, the time of history, its icons, and its ghosts; the present, perception of which is still chaotic, submerged in the tides of revolutions and migrations; and the future, time of fiction, bearer of possibilities.

1 The Bamako biennale is the first pan-African festival devoted to photography on the continent. It is co-produced by the Mali department of culture and the Institut français (through the Afrique et Caraïbes en créations program); its first edition took place in December 1994. The tenth edition of the biennale, now open to new images and to film, took place October 31 to December 31, 2015.
2 After the fall of Qaddafi in 2011, northern Mali was destabilized by a Tuareg rebellion that the Malian army, disorganized and under-equipped, was not able to quell, and this led to a military coup d’état on March 22, 2012. The north then fell under the rule of groups linked to Al-Qaeda, including AQMI and Ansar Eddine; these groups were partially dislodged in January 2013, with the launch of an international military intervention that is continuing today.
3 Would the biennale take place under normal conditions? Would journalists come, following the warnings from the French foreign affairs department, which had led the majority of Parisian media outlets not to send representatives in early September for security reasons?
4 Antawan I. Byrd, Bisi Silva, and Yves Chatap (eds.), Telling Time. Rencontres de Bamako Biennale africaine de la photographie, 10e édition (Heidelberg: Éditions Kehrer, 2015).
5 See Érika Nimis, “Lagos, Nigeria, Capital of Photography,” Ciel variable 102 (January-May, 2016): 48.

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