Writing Art History Since 2002

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Bamako Biennale I Bamako I Mali

The title of the sixth African Encounters of Photography, held in November 2005, was Another World. It suggests a theme evocative of stereotypes, of Africa as a place of ritual, of the primitive, and of the Other. Viewed from this perspective, Africa has long been another world and one might wonder what curator Simon Njami’s intention was with his thematically resonant title. Did he mean it to continue in the tradition of the mysterious, “dark continent”, the way the West has always portrayed it, or was it meant to subvert the clichés and images of Africa?A series of photographs by Nigeria’s James Iroha Uchechukwu offered some suggestions. Head on shows a bloodied sack being transported on a man’s head. Oozing blood trickles down his raised hands. Bloody boots, another image from Uchechukwu’s series, presents droplets of blood on a pair of gumboots. The source of the blood is a mass of decapitated goats heads. Pictures such as this – depicting the theme of ritual in the everyday world, and drawn from countries such as The Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Morocco – were ubiquitous at the African Encounters of Photography. How are we to interpret them? Are these pictures emblematic of the other world that the title the show alludes to?In a catalogue essay, Njami offers some insight. “If territories are free and if a landscape belongs to nobody in particular, it is imperative, in the global world we live in, that Africans produce their own images and be the ones to stage their own truths. Perhaps they will not avoid the traps of exoticism, but at least they will appropriate that exoticism, which they will have the right to claim …” To rephrase Njami, it is perhaps a question of self-representation and ownership, of Africans articulating their own experiences, in this case, through their own lenses.This process has/is already happening, set in motion by the studio photography of Malian portrait photographers such as Seydou Keita (1921-2001), whose work reflected on the aspirations of middle class Africans from the 1960s and 70s. Even today, his work continues to exert a marked influence over African photography.Sudan’s national exhibition, curated by Frenchman Claude Iverné, raised significant issues relating to ownership and appropriation. Iverné’s show smacked of the colonial belief that Africans are voiceless, and that they need more articulate Europeans to speak for them. This highlights an important point. Apart from the odd celebrity African curator working in Europe and America, suitably qualified African curators are thin on the ground on this continent, resources for curatorial projects even less so. Until it is redressed foreign curators will continue to harvest the crops we grow.A more ambiguous issue raised by Iverné’s Sudanese show relates to ownership of work in the private and public domains. Antiquated laws persist and still determine state control over photography in Sudan, where images of life in the country need to match official ideology. Official “photography permits” still include bans on picturing bridges, airports, dams and military zones, while so-called “amateur photography permits” prohibit the photographing of beggars and “other subject matter that may be defamatory to the state”. In Sudan, state censorship determines and frames the photographer’s image.Amongst the many photographers and style presented, the festival included work by John Mauluka (1932 – 2004). A Zimbabwean photographer, Mauluka’s output includes both news reportage and studio-based photography. Work from Algeria also focussed on the turbulent civil war in that country. But is there no poetry in the documentary photography coming out of Africa?According to Jacques Leenhardt, a convenor of the master-class workshop in Bamako, photography is at its best when it emulates poetry, “… not only the complex and problematic reality of the outside world, but also the way a person’s eye has seen it. It shows a person’s self-expression, a person becoming the poet we all have within us …” Bruno Hadjih’s sfumato prints, which describe intimate moments in Algerian daily life, probably came closest to what Leenhardt was referring to when he spoke of “true photographic images”. Rediscovering his native land, Hadjih’s impressionist photographs leave much to the imagination and interpretation. In Djazalia, Damas, vague patterns evoking movement create an aura of the mysterious world of Sufi Islam. Within the midst of the blur of colour and shadow, a woman, in the distance, neatly conforming to the laws of composition, appears momentarily in focus and just as quickly disappears into the surrounding shapes.Still on the theme of colour, Martinique’s Jean-Luc de Laguarigue’s work focuses on memory, his nostalgic images concentrating the viewer’s attentions on beautiful decaying and peeling walls. His photographs capture poetic traces in the details left by the glamorous advertisement posters dating back to former decades on the island. De Laguarigue has an inherent sense for contrast. He delightfully portrayed this in a work contrasting a bright pink back wall showered in light, a decrepit green wall in the foreground bathed in shadow. His work recalls the use of colour in Henri Matisse’s The Piano Lesson (1916).The depth and diversity of work emanating from South Africa, from the documentary work of Guy Tillim to the more innovative digital montage of Jane Alexander and Lien Botha, did not go unnoticed. Mikhael Subotzky’s mosaic of Pollsmoor Prison won him the prestigious Jury Prize, the jury also honouring Ranjith Kally for his lifetime work. This recognition was particularly poignant considering that Kally only held his first solo exhibition in South Africa in 2004, at the Goodman Gallery. He was 79 at the time.The main international exhibition was an enchanting assortment of photography from the continent, and the nucleus that held together the many other exhibitions in a manner similar to the fertile Niger River, which flows through Mali. Set against a backdrop of the sweet sounds of the West African kora and the rich heritage of the centuries old mud mosques and Arabic manuscripts, the Bamako Biennale continues to provide a unique opportunity for African photographers to encounter each other and give exposure to their work internationally. Much of its success up to now must be credited to Njami’s vision for the Encounters and knowledge of the continent.

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