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This biennial is extraordinarily refreshing precisely because it is not on the international art circuit – it is a biennial for artists

It only takes eight hours to fly from London to Bamako. Yet, it can take 24 hours to travel from Cape Town and six days or more from Lagos if you’re driving, as 10 Nigerian photographers and writers decided to do (see ). For those of us travelling from Europe for the African photography biennial, Bamako, in the heart of West Africa, was an easy destination. Judging by the pandemonium at immigration, this was not the experience of visitors from other African countries attempting to secure their visas on arrival. Sometimes it seems the borders within Africa are almost as impenetrable as those preventing Africans from entering Europe. It is not hard to see why the theme of borders proved an apt topic for the eighth edition of Bamako’s biennial photography showcase, which opened early in November 2009. Established in 1994, Bamako Encounters remains little known outside Africa. While this must be frustrating to photographers working on the continent, who seek recognition and international exposure, this biennial is extraordinarily refreshing precisely because it is not on the international art circuit. Bamako Encounters is a biennial for artists. It hardly seemed to matter if anyone else was there. Temporary walls were not perfectly built and lighting was makeshift, but this is inconsequential when one has the opportunity to see works by more than 100 African artists in half a dozen locations around the city. Although relatively large, the biennial is also small enough to enable interactions with many of the participating artists and other visitors – another point in its favour.This year the Musée National du Mali hosted the main pan-African exhibition and several monographic presentations. With a small auditorium, the museum was also the venue for several screenings and talks. Portfolio reviews took place in the museum grounds on improvised furniture under the trees. (Other venues included Institut National des Arts, located near the grand mosque in the heart of the city, the Conservatory, the French Cultural Institute, Musée du District de Bamako and Palais de la Culture, home to Mali’s national orchestra, and theatre and ballet companies.)Crammed into the main hall at the museum, the pan-African exhibition brought together photographs and videos investigating different kinds of borders – geographic and physical, social and cultural. Some photographs, like Jodi Bieber’s Going Home series from 2001, addressed the topic very directly. Documenting the detention of illegal immigrants in South Africa and their subsequent forced return to neighbouring countries; this series won the European Union prize for documentary photography. Bouchra Khalili’s video Mapping Journey (2008) literally maps the difficult routes taken by illegal immigrants crossing into various countries, showing that migration almost never follows a straight line. The Maghreb Connection (2006-08), installed in the Palais de la Culture, took this premise even further. Initiated by Swiss artist, Ursula Biemann in collaboration with Doa Aly, Raphaël Cuomo and Maria Iorio, Hala Elkoussy, and Charles Heller, this diverse and layered video installation presents multiple perspectives – including those of Chinese immigrants in Cairo and Tuareg people traffickers – on migration through the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa. While human migration – voluntary and forced – was a recurring theme in many works, other photographers focused on the movement of goods across borders. Sudanese photographer, Ali Mohamed Osman, presented a series of photographs taken in Port Sudan, one showing countless colourful containers about to be offloaded alongside another depicting hundreds of goats waiting to be loaded and exported. Shown in this context, this series makes apparent the relative ease with which goods (and animals) – as opposed to people – cross borders. It also highlights the differences between what is imported to and exported from African countries.Predictably there was no shortage of photographers addressing conflict and the aftermath of war, especially with regards to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many of these were grouped in the main exhibition and hung close together, which did a disservice to the individual photographers. Amongst these, 28-year old Congolese artist, Baudouin Mouanda stood apart with his black and white series The Aftermath of the 1997 War (2008). Documentary photography of internally displaced people and refugees also featured prominently. Fazal Sheikh’s portraits of Somali refugees in Kenya (installed in the Musée du District) and Karel Prinsloo’s images of villagers fleeing North Kivu (in the Palais de la Culture) provided moving accounts of the suffering and resilience of ordinary people in the face of war. While works focusing on contested borders and the consequences of war dominated, other photographers interpreted the theme of borders in broader terms. In a series on street urchins in Chad, Abdoulaye Barry revealed the invisible borders that divide rich from poor, those with homes from those without. Images of children, vendors and customers in a shaft of light under a bridge (Under Bridge Life, 2009) in Nigeria won Uche Okpa Iroha, an emerging Nigerian photographer and one of the founding members of the Blackbox Collective, the grand prix award. Kader Attia’s photographs of youths from Bab el-Oued (an impoverished district of Algiers) looking out to sea reminded one that some people choose, while others are born into or pushed to the periphery. Three photographs from Zanele Muholi’s Miss D’Vine series (2007) were installed opposite Attia’s Square Rocks, 2009 in one of the few spacious rooms. Here the two experiences of entrapment played off each other well in a rare moment of curatorial clarity. Muholi’s work on sexuality and gender politics could not be more prescient, especially since as I write this, the Ugandan parliament is considering an anti-homosexuality bill advocating the death sentence for gay sex. Considering the continued discrimination against homosexuals in Africa, it is hugely significant that Muholi’s work was not only exhibited in a relatively conservative Muslim country, but that she was awarded the Casa Africa award. South African artists in general were well represented with substantial presentations by Nandipha Mntambo and Pieter Hugo in the Palais de la Culture. These attracted attention and stimulated debate, but also seemed disconnected from the other works on display – being more of the realm of art photography than photojournalism. This year, the biennial organizers paid homage to an older generation of African photographers by including the likes of Malick Sidibe, Oumar Ly and J. K. Bruce Vanderpuije alongside emerging artists. The history of photography in Africa is long and rich, but not yet fully appreciated, either abroad or on the continent. The organisers of the 2009 biennial erected posters and large-scale photographs on the streets in an attempt to engage the local population. Despite these efforts, relatively few Malians attended the exhibitions and related events. We may think of borders as lines demarcating countries, but borders are everywhere. Art remains the domain of a privileged few. Engaging local audiences is one of the greatest challenges facing contemporary African art today.[bio] Kerryn Greenberg is a curator at Tate Modern, London

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