After a four-year hiatus due to political instability, Bamako Encounters is back – we find out why it's more important than ever to celebrate African photography
Bamako Encounters, set up primarily to showcase African photography, had to wait a long time to celebrate its tenth edition. The festivities were initially scheduled for autumn 2013 – 20 years after French photographer Françoise Huguier began the initiative in the Malian capital. But in January 2012, insurgent groups began fighting for the independence of the Azawad region.
Within two months, President Amadou Toumani Touré had been ousted but the rebels splintered as soon as they had declared victory. Islamist factions prevailed, imposing strict Sharia law in the region. Unable to bring the conflict to an end on its own, the Malian government called for foreign military support.
France, once the colonial power, controversially got involved. Its forces rapidly regained control but guerilla attacks continued for months before a first peace deal was signed in June 2013. That agreement didn’t last but a fragile new accord was signed in June this year.
The unrest prevented the Bamako Encounters team from staging the event, but this year they decided to take advantage of what looks like a more enduring peace. “The exponential increase in candidates for this edition – 800 applications compared with 250 for the last edition – shows just how impatient artists on the African continent have been for the Encounters to return,” writes Samuel Sidibé, delegate-general for Bamako Encounters, in his introduction to this year’s event.
Things cannot go on exactly as before, however. “We need to rethink such events,” says Bisi Silva, founder of the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos and artistic director for the tenth Bamako Encounters. “It is extremely important to consider how we can engage more with locals. The biennale is, and will remain, an international gathering. But we need to connect more with Mali, and the larger African community, especially after the traumas of the past few years. We cannot behave as if everything is good. We need to keep in mind the context within which the event is taking place.”
This year’s edition has been themed ‘Telling Time’ and considers how images can stand for the period in which they were created. By combining visions from different eras, the curators hope to connect the past, present and future and build new narratives for the continent. The 39 selected artists, who have been drawn from all over Africa, address some of the region’s most recent and pressing matters from multiple perspectives.
The question of migration, for example, is addressed in two very different ways: Ghanaian photographer Nyani Quarmyne is exhibiting a documentary report on Malian refugees in Mauritania, while Nassim Rouchiche has produced moving portraits of sub-Saharan migrants stuck in his home country, Algeria. Quarmyne’s series is straight photojournalism, while Rouchiche renders his subjects transparent, almost ghostlike, to convey the precariousness of their situation. “There is no single African voice or aesthetic. It goes without saying that each artist deals with issues and themes that affect them, depending on where and who they are,” notes Silva.