Art in a country in turmoil – DW – 12/26/2022

Bamako Encounters puts photography in focus

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Rencontres de Bamako – Biennale africaine de la photographie,” as the photography biennale is officially named, has been held in the capital of Mali since 1994. At 20 years, it is one of the oldest art biennials on the African continent. Its focus is on contemporary photographic and video arts from Africa. 

Bamako, with its population of 2.8 million, is the cultural center of Mali. It boasts a national museum, a national library, a major music festival — and the photo biennale, known in English as Bamako Encounters, which is co-hosted by the Institut Francais.

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, wearing a yellow jumpsuit, a blue hat and red-framed glasses, stands at a lectern while speaking at the opening of the 13th African Biennale of Photography in Bamako
Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, who currently lives in Berlin, is the artistic director of Bamako EncountersImage: Nicolas Remene/Le Pictorium/Maxppp/dpa/picture alliance

This year marks 13th edition of the Bamako Encounters, entitled “The Persons of the Person Are Multiple in the Person: On Multiplicity, Difference, Becoming, and Heritage.” With this focus, general director Chieck Diallo, artistic director Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung and the curatorial team want to draw attention to “the spaces in between, to that which defies definition, to phases of transition, to being this and that or neither and both, to becoming, and to difference and divergence in all their shades,” as stated on the event’s website.  

Biennale boosts careers, motivates young artists

Malian photographer Fatoumata Diabate works in both Montpellier, France and Bamako. In her work, she focuses on portraits as well as social and cultural issues, centering women and young people in particular. 

She told DW that the Bamako Encounters are very important for emerging artists. “A lot of great artists have been discovered here since 1994, from Malick Sidibe to Seydou Keita and many others, including myself,” she said, adding that the biennale has contributed to the creation of other arts festivals on the African continent.

Diabate said festivals like Bamako Encounters empower young people and women like her. “Malians love photography,” she said. “There are a lot of events that a lot of young people attend. There are a lot of self-taught photographers, and some who have been professionally trained.” 

She added that photographers from around the world take part in the event. “I’m impressed that more young people are taking up photography. I’d like there to be even more of us, especially women,” she said.

Diabate: ‘A profession has no gender’

Diabate is committed to supporting women in photography. Since 2017, she’s been the president of the association of women photographers in Mali, which offers creative workshops and other educational opportunities, as well as organizing initiatives and urban projects.

But she said Malian women continue to be underrepresented in photography. She blames social attitudes in the country, which she said are so restrictive that they rob women of their self-confidence. But she emphasized the importance of the role of women in society, whether in Mali or elsewhere.

“Women create life; you can’t forget that. That’s also what I try to convey with the association — confidence in oneself and one’s strengths,” she said. 

“For me, no profession has a gender. Everyone should pursue the profession they want to,” she added. Diabate says she chose her profession despite the objections of her family. 

Fatoumata Diabate wears a dark green hat and orange shirt while posing in front of her photographic works at the  African Biennale of Photography in Bamako
Photographer Fatoumata Diabate told DW that the biennale is an important festival, as it motivates women and young peopleImage: Sasha Gankin

Security crises, coups and tensions with France

“There is huge potential in Mail for young people to develop in such a way that they can get the crisis-riddled country back on its feet,” said Diabate, who thinks the organizers of Bamako Encounters have understood that. Indeed, general director Cheick Diallo has emphasized the significance of the biennale as a sociopolitical event.

“It’s important that this biennale create connections — social connections, economic connections and political connections,” he said ahead of the opening.

Over the past two years, Mali has had to contend not only with two coups and security crises, but also strained relations with France after Mali’s military government banned French-funded NGOs as well as the French broadcasters RFI and France24. The government in Paris has condemned the latter step as a violation of press freedom. 

Diallo: ‘We fight for culture, and that is the best policy’

Despite the challenges, the organizers of Bamako Encounters are standing by the photography exhibition, which is being held in the national museum, the train station and in other public spaces in Bamako. They are also maintaining the vital partnership with the French cultural institute, the Institut Francais.

“We continue our relationship with France,” said Diallo. “We receive support, and we are grateful for the loyal partnership. We fight for culture, and I believe this is the best policy.”

Seventy-five artists from Africa and the African diaspora have been invited to Bamako. Despite the tense political situation, the organizers hoped to welcome at least 60 of them. So far, 49 artists have made the journey to the Malian capital. 

The 13th edition of Bamako Encounters runs from December 8, 2022 through February 8, 2023.

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