Streams of Consciousness

ART AFRICA travelled to the 12th edition of Rencontres de Bamako and spoke with artistic director, Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung about his approach to this year’s theme and the new directions the event is taking

Fototala King Massassy, Tenir (Anyway), 2019. Courtesy of the artist & Bamako Encounters.

“Even when we are ostensibly doing “nothing” — as during states of rest, sleep, and reverie — the brain continues to process information. In resting wakefulness, the mind generates thoughts, plans for the future, and imagines fictitious scenarios. In sleep, when the demands of sensory input are reduced, our experience turns to the thoughts and images we call “dreaming.”… These conscious experiences may reflect the consolidation of recent memory into long-term storage, an adaptive process that functions to extract general knowledge about the world and adaptively respond to future events.”

– Dr Erin Wamsley, Cognitive Neuroscientist

Only ten months after François Arago officially announced the invention of photography at the French Chamber of Deputies in 1839, the first practitioners began documenting Egypt’s wondrous monuments with their cameras. Very soon, numerous West African countries from Senegal to Ghana were playing host to African patrons and entrepreneurs who quickly picked up the new technology, which circulated and flourished through local and global networks of exchange. Rencontres de Bamako celebrates its 25th Anniversary this edition where it continues to thrive through its own local and global networks of exchange which have seen this platform play a pivotal and central role in African photography.

As the Minister of Culture for Mali, N’diaye Rama Diallo, commented “This visceral need to reclaim one’s history and to promote another image of oneself comes from the persistence, in some Western minds, of a vast cliché concerning Africa, where savannas intermingle with abundant fauna; tribal, ethnic or clan warfare; exotic folklore; epidemics, and chronic famines; in short, a panoply of preconceptions that does not do justice to the history of Africa, to the diversity of its (cultural) riches, or the genius and fertile enthusiasm of Africans.

The 12th edition of Rencontres de Bamako takes as theme STREAMS OF CONSCIOUSNESS, A Concatenation Of Dividuals from the 21.01 electrifying minutes of Abdullah Ibrahim and Max Roach’s opening piece for the eponymous album Streams of Consciousness (1977). Under the Executive Directorship of Lassana Igo Diarra, the democratisation of the event was of utmost importance. Through the artistic direction of Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, together with his co-curators Aziza Harmel, Astrid Sokona Lepoultier and Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh, they implemented various approaches that saw around 95% of all the work on exhibition produced in Bamako itself. This is significant given the commitment by the new event leadership to localise production to benefit the local community and economy of Bamako.

There was also an ambitious scale to this year’s edition which saw the National Museum of Mali decentralised as the key exhibition site with the exhibitions and talks spread across the city and presented in numerous iconic venues including Musée National, Palais de la Culture, Memorial Modibo Keita, Musée du District, Conservatoire des arts et métiers multimédias, Institut Français, Galerie La Medina, Famille Fall, Theatre Blonba with a DJ set at the infamous Bla Bla bar.

Installation shot of the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers with Khalil Nemmaoui’s Air Twelve Land, 2019 (foreground) & Yohann Queland de Saint-Pern & Myriam Omar Awadi, Orchestre Vide (Karaoké de la pensée), 2016-2019 (background). ©Korka Kassoguè, Bona Bell.

Sasha Gankin: Why did you entitle this edition the ‘Streams of Consciousness’?

Dr Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung: When I was invited to give a proposal, I wanted to think of another way of approaching photography. I wanted us to think about the possibility of listening to photography rather than just seeing the photographs. Of course, we look at them, but there are other dimensions – photography comes with a lot. Sometimes you look at a photograph, and it invokes a sound in your head. I’ll give an example, Amadou Diadie Samassekous’ work, Kelen na miri (2019), hanging on the wall of the Palais de la Culture Amadou Hampaté Ba, of the train station – as soon as you look at that work you hear the train, the train sound doesn’t have to be present in the space, but it’s invoked in your head. Photography invokes this sound, it doesn’t necessarily transmit it, but it invokes it.

I’m very interested in that, and so I wanted to look at the possibility of approaching these things – ‘Streams of Consciousness’ came up as a good opportunity. Why? Because you know that ‘Streams of Consciousness’ comes from psychology and at the beginning of the 20th century it was very much used in literature to describe the flow of ideas on paper, that writers did. You know, writing without punctuation.

I wanted to look at the way photographers use this method consciously, or unconsciously – that flash of a moment when you think ‘I need to take this snapshot, I need to take this photograph’. So, that is a stream of consciousness, and it flows, and it continues to flow. The idea of photography being still, in my opinion, is completely wrong because it is in constant flux, in constant motion. Something happens before, and something happens after – even though you shot this frame, it doesn’t stop it from continuing – that’s one thing.

The other thing is that even when I encounter an image, a photograph, the flow continues. My understanding of an image – a photograph – is different from yours. These might be similar, but because you’re Russian and I am Cameroonian we have different ‘baggage’, we have different embodied knowledge, so we experience the image differently – that’s another continuous flow. That’s one aspect, and there’s the aspect of the sonic dimension I mentioned which is from a piece called Streams of Consciousness. This song was composed and played by Abdullah Ibrahim and Max Roach in 1977. This stream of consciousness I wanted to use as a possibility of linking – Abdullah Ibrahim comes from South Africa, Max Roach comes from the U.S. – but both are of African origin. I thought of the streams of consciousness that they were playing and it wasn’t just a sonic stream of consciousness but a stream of consciousness that linked the African Continent and its diasporas. This also happens in the exhibition.

Installation view of Musée National du Mali. Scenography: Cheick Diallo. ©Korka Kassoguè, Bona Bell.

Now, the third level of Stream of Consciousness is the Niger, which I think is a stream, literally, of consciousness. It’s the Niger river, which is precisely in the middle of Bamako city, that divides Bamako and that flows through five countries in West Africa, to the Gulf of Guinea. I’m interested in the way that that stream carries knowledge, civilisations, peoples, beings of all kind – that is a stream of consciousness too. Even the way it materialises within the exhibition, with a stream in the National Museum on which we present images.

This is the 25th year of the Biennale of African Photography – however, it is also the first edition which is truly African. The Biennale was founded by the French Institute and the State of Mali. This is the first year when the State of Mali took over completely, how important was this for you – the fact that this was the first purely African edition?

Well, that was very important to me. I just wish the Malian State would’ve done more, been more involved. There were a lot of hiccups along the way, but I understand that this is a transition edition; however, it was significant for me. I wanted that to materialise in different ways, not just saying that the French stood back in the organisation of the event – they did contribute something financially – but that this edition was organised in Mali, made in Mali. So, how did that manifest itself? One of the first things I wanted to do with my team of curators – Aziza Harmel, Astrid Sokona Lepoultier and Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh – was deciding to print all the images in Bamako.

There was also an ambitious scale to this year’s edition which saw the National Museum of Mali decentralised as the key exhibition site with the exhibitions and talks spread across the city and presented in numerous iconic venues including Musée National, Palais de la Culture, Memorial Modibo Keita, Musée du District, Conservatoire des arts et métiers multimédias, Institut Français, Galerie La Medina, Famille Fall, Theatre Blonba with a DJ set at the infamous Bla Bla bar.

Sasha Gankin: Why did you entitle this edition the ‘Streams of Consciousness’?

Dr Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung: When I was invited to give a proposal, I wanted to think of another way of approaching photography. I wanted us to think about the possibility of listening to photography rather than just seeing the photographs. Of course, we look at them, but there are other dimensions – photography comes with a lot. Sometimes you look at a photograph, and it invokes a sound in your head. I’ll give an example, Amadou Diadie Samassekous’ work, Kelen na miri (2019), hanging on the wall of the Palais de la Culture Amadou Hampaté Ba, of the train station – as soon as you look at that work you hear the train, the train sound doesn’t have to be present in the space, but it’s invoked in your head. Photography invokes this sound, it doesn’t necessarily transmit it, but it invokes it.

I’m very interested in that, and so I wanted to look at the possibility of approaching these things – ‘Streams of Consciousness’ came up as a good opportunity. Why? Because you know that ‘Streams of Consciousness’ comes from psychology and at the beginning of the 20th century it was very much used in literature to describe the flow of ideas on paper, that writers did. You know, writing without punctuation.

I wanted to look at the way photographers use this method consciously, or unconsciously – that flash of a moment when you think ‘I need to take this snapshot, I need to take this photograph’. So, that is a stream of consciousness, and it flows, and it continues to flow. The idea of photography being still, in my opinion, is completely wrong because it is in constant flux, in constant motion. Something happens before, and something happens after – even though you shot this frame, it doesn’t stop it from continuing – that’s one thing.

The other thing is that even when I encounter an image, a photograph, the flow continues. My understanding of an image – a photograph – is different from yours. These might be similar, but because you’re Russian and I am Cameroonian we have different ‘baggage’, we have different embodied knowledge, so we experience the image differently – that’s another continuous flow. That’s one aspect, and there’s the aspect of the sonic dimension I mentioned which is from a piece called Streams of Consciousness. This song was composed and played by Abdullah Ibrahim and Max Roach in 1977. This stream of consciousness I wanted to use as a possibility of linking – Abdullah Ibrahim comes from South Africa, Max Roach comes from the U.S. – but both are of African origin. I thought of the streams of consciousness that they were playing and it wasn’t just a sonic stream of consciousness but a stream of consciousness that linked the African Continent and its diasporas. This also happens in the exhibition.

Now, the third level of Stream of Consciousness is the Niger, which I think is a stream, literally, of consciousness. It’s the Niger river, which is precisely in the middle of Bamako city, that divides Bamako and that flows through five countries in West Africa, to the Gulf of Guinea. I’m interested in the way that that stream carries knowledge, civilisations, peoples, beings of all kind – that is a stream of consciousness too. Even the way it materialises within the exhibition, with a stream in the National Museum on which we present images.

Fanyana Hlabangane, Poolside Boy from the series Silent Conversations, 2017-19. Courtesy of the artist & Bamako Encounters.

This is the 25th year of the Biennale of African Photography – however, it is also the first edition which is truly African. The Biennale was founded by the French Institute and the State of Mali. This is the first year when the State of Mali took over completely, how important was this for you – the fact that this was the first purely African edition?

Well, that was very important to me. I just wish the Malian State would’ve done more, been more involved. There were a lot of hiccups along the way, but I understand that this is a transition edition; however, it was significant for me. I wanted that to materialise in different ways, not just saying that the French stood back in the organisation of the event – they did contribute something financially – but that this edition was organised in Mali, made in Mali. So, how did that manifest itself? One of the first things I wanted to do with my team of curators – Aziza Harmel, Astrid Sokona Lepoultier and Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh – was deciding to print all the images in Bamako.

“The state of Mali has taken over the organisation of the Biennale, and this is an essential element of the decolonisation process. It’s not an abstract concept, not just words and theories, its practice”

This used to be the case during the time of Malik Sidibé, one of the most famous Malian photographers.

Thank you – exactly that. Mali is a country of photography; Bamako is a city of photography. Back in the days, the Malik Sidibé’s or the Seydou Keïta’s of this world, they didn’t have to go to France to print their works, there were several photo laboratories here. This Biennale, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, is a blessing and a curse at the same time. That is to say, the fact that in the past 25 years, most works were printed outside the country, harmed the local economy. When we decided we would print all the images in Mali, it was challenging to find an institution that could do that, able and willing to do it. But luckily we found the Centre de promotion pour la Formation en Photographie (CFP), the director Youssouf Sogodogo was accommodating. In the beginning, he was quite doubtful about whether he could do it because we didn’t have paper, we didn’t have ink. He didn’t even have electricity to sustain it because everything had just crumbled. So, when we got into it, we found paper, we found ink, and we did print there, and he started printing. When I came to Mali for a press conference and mentioned that we did the first print, even the Malian journalists were doubtful.

Installation shot of Armet Francis in Modibo Keita Memorial. ©Korka Kassoguè, Bona Bell.

We see you want to print locally, but is the quality of a high enough standard in Mali to do so locally?

I responded ‘you know that I run an art space in Berlin called Savvy Contemporary, and we do exhibitions there.’ I’d just come back from Berlin where we presented photography, and I told them that the photographs I had seen in Bamako that was done by the CFB were better than the ones I had printed in Berlin. You can see that in the exhibition, it is high-quality. La Maison Africaine de la photographie joined in later and did some incredible prints. We don’t have to do stuff in France, it can be done here, and that is what I wanted. The State of Mali has taken over the organisation of the Biennale, and this is an essential element of the decolonisation process. It’s not an abstract concept, not just words and theories, its practice. Keeping it local here to support the local economy and also to train people in required skills and hopefully, the next edition will follow suit.

You value the local economy, and you increased the number of exhibition venues. You moved the focus of the Biennale exhibitions out of the national museum, why?

I don’t like epicentres. I don’t believe in that; it’s a very Francophone thing – this centralisation. You know I come from Cameroon, and we’re facing this war in the country now because of that policy of centralisation. Everything must go through Yaoundé, but why; this is like France; everything must go through Paris. But one should think of multiple centres or think of a spectrum of spaces and different manifestations. I believe that is part of the curatorial practice, so we chose eleven equally important sites. The National Museum, which used to be the epicentre, is just one of eleven sides. So, you have, for example, the Lycée de Jeunes Filles, which was very important for us. This idea of decentralising was also because we wanted to reach new audiences. The people that go to the Palais don’t necessarily go to the museum. The Palais is a popular space with a concert hall, so people go there because they like music, they don’t go to the museum necessarily. The question was, how, if the people don’t come to the museum, do we take the museum to them. If people don’t come to the Biennale, you take the Biennale to them. That’s what we wanted to do.

Posters that the Invisible Borders team that were plastered all over Mali the duration of Bamako Encounters. Courtesy of Invisible Borders.

In the Palais, we’ve taken over three floors and are presenting works there. Then, the Lycée – this college for young girls – became very important because these girls don’t necessarily go to the museum, we transformed the former refectory into an art space and presented works in there. Curating the exhibition and engaging with the student’s teachers and so on. The art is facing them – literally – when they get out of school each day they see the art. Curatorial practice is a highly socio-political practise; it’s not about aesthetics. At least, not in my understanding. As Okwui once said, ‘while curating, we watch history unfold, or we actually participate in the unfolding of history.’

Any other ways in which you intended to distinguish this edition from the previous one?

Well, it’s for you to say. That’s not my business. I’m not in the business of comparing, journalists and critics should do that. My business is to make exhibitions, create conceptual frameworks; that’s my business. Now, you should look at the books we made – one of the things we wanted to do to be different from the other editions was to do a profoundly conceptual project, and for that, we thought that just hanging works on the wall wouldn’t suffice. So, we did this book, the Streams of Consciousness reader, where we invited 25 writers to contribute essays of around 2500 words each. Philosophers, art critics, and so on. We requested ten poets to propose poetry for that, so there should be many ways of reading and understanding – or as the Jamaicans say, ‘overstanding’ – the notions of streams of consciousness. That’s one thing. Then we did the catalogue that accompanies the reader, and in the catalogue, you have works of the artists, texts of the artists, biographies of the artists. We also paid special attention to scenography.

You asked some distinguished designers to design the spaces, especially for this Biennale.

Exactly. Not really designers, but one specific master designer called Cheick Diallo. Diallo was there from the very onset, I remember the first time I came to discuss my contract we went to visit him and I told him, ‘I would like for you to be the scenographer.’ And in the conversations, it was very clear to him what I wanted to do, very clear. Taking works off the wall, finding other surfaces, finding different ways of seeing – that’s why we have structures like the tepee’s – also, it is not just a vertical presentation of works, but we have horizontal and diagonal display of works. He came up with different formats. If you look at the Museum of Bamako, you see the works of Akinbode Akinbiyi and Liz Johnson – the way they’re presented in conversation with each other. You have these slanted panels leaning on the wall – we could’ve just put the photographs on the wall, but we didn’t want to – we had these wooden panels that have texture because it is wood, it’s a moist space, so the form changes. We have images on them leaning on this grey wooden surface. Again, questioning the way we see. This is where my challenge is in doing this kind of Biennale; not just coming to do a biennale like any other biennale, but to be specific – context-specific, concept specific. I hope it comes across that way. Cheick Diallo helped massively in choreographing the space and together with my other colleagues – the co-curators – we found a way of juxtaposing the artworks in conversation with each other. For example, the Modibo Keïta Memorial has a permanent collection and I think it’s never been changed since it was installed. Framed pictures of Modibo Keïta were hanging, full of dust, so we asked the director if he would allow us to rehang and clean them, he agreed. We hung the works in clusters, a reconstitution of the story of Modibo Keïta that is to be told in this memorial.

Khalil Nemmaoui, Untitled 6 from the series Air Twelve Land, 2019. Courtesy of the artist & Bamako Encounters.

He was the founder of the independent Mali.

Exactly. That was very important. Also, the way we put it in relation to other works there – these are small interventions that I hope people can see if they don’t see it doesn’t matter, but it is there.

In your space in Berlin, Savvy Contemporary, you are open for any art forms and from any continent. Is it something that you would also apply here in Bamako, opening this Biennale to other continents?

We already have, the Biennale is open to peoples of African origin working wherever in the world. It is also open to people from wherever in the world working on the notion of African Africaness. As an example: Ketaki Sheth is from India. Sheth, whose work is exhibited in the Bamako Museum, has been working for many years on the Sidi’s – people of African origin in India. As you know, the Indian Ocean has been called the oldest Continent of human history, so African peoples were going back and forth between East Africa and the Indian subcontinent and further, as far as Indonesia and China and so on. How do we complicate the notion of the diaspora, we have artists from Canada, from India, from Brazil, from wherever. Again, as I wrote in my text, it is about thinking about the African world, that is it. At Savvy Contemporary, we work with artists that come from all over, what is at stake is the concept. The concept of the work and how does it challenge our realities, how does it make us rethink our ways of being in the world, those are things that are important to me.

The 12th edition of Rencontres de Bamako was on view from the 30th of November to the 31st of January 2020.