The Twig Shall Not Pierce Our Eyes

11 May 2020

On Collective Vibrations at Bamako Photography Biennale (aka Bamako Encounters)

Text by Cindy Sissokho, Curator & Special Projects Producer, New Art Exchange

There is a vital need to reframe our references when looking up to international Biennales and other large-scale contemporary art festivals, fairs and events. After attending the amazing Sharjah Biennale (March-June) and the Venice Biennale (May-November) last year, it couldn't be more relevant to have attended the opening programme of the 13th edition of Bamako Encounters, one of the best international photography festivals on the African continent. I attended the event as part for curatorial research for NAE and in the capacity of my role as Associate Curator for the Casablanca Biennale.

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13th edition of Bamako Encounters

The Biennale was curated by Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Founder and Artistic Director of the SAVVY Contemporary space in Berlin, accompanied by a promising curatorial team including Aziza Harmel, Astrid Sokona Lepoultier and Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh, with artistic advisors Akinbode Akinbiyi and Seydou Camara, and the designer Cheick Diallo in charge of the scenography. Running until 31 January 2020, the theme for its 25th Anniversary was Streams of Consciousness - named after the famous 1977 record by Abdullah Ibrahim and Max Roach. Across the multiple venues (on and off the Biennale's programme) we navigated "this notion of streams of consciousness as a metaphor of the streams of ideas, of people and of cultures that crosses and runs along the River Niger, the Congo, the Nile or the Mississippi". 1 No less than 85 artists based on the continent or from the African diaspora were represented in the Biennale. Their works were the response to the vibrations - this flow of ideas and thoughts that trigger their work.

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Dustin Thierry, Dreaming Above The Atlantic, (2015-ongoing). Courtesy of the Artist.

The artists formed an interesting intergenerational exchange. The Biennale gave visibility to pioneers of photography such as David Goldblatt (South Africa) and Armet Francis (UK/Jamaica) and in parallel included an abundance of emerging, younger and somewhat more experimental practices, through the individual and the collective as a form of expression. The collective presence was strong and was comprised of renown groups such as the established Kamoinge collective (USA), the women collectives MFON (USA) and ADMF (Mali), as well as a key presence of women photographers. The public programme was allowed to expand beyond the visual and the sonorous via talks and presentations, such as the urgency of forming a collective as methodologies and mechanisms of hope and solidarity; or also, the exploration of the use of photography as a critical and potent tool in diasporas. Performances, poetry and live music were part of the party and deepened visitor's interpretations of the exhibition programme.

Streams of Consciousness translated to what felt like a deconstruction of time and space compromising our own temporality through the senses in which the Biennale was experienced. The full title of this article The Twig Shall Not Pierce Our Eyes: On the Possibility of Hope and the Future as Promise was one of the four sub-themes of the Biennale that was offering imaginaries and reflections on future possibilities in the African world. The African world not only referring to a geographical space but also to a cultural, social and political space that is linked to the narratives of its diaspora. It is through the medium of photography that we activate the possibilities of collective resistance, cultivate mechanisms of resilience and nurture new tools and initiatives through artistic creation. It is therefore one direct visual transmission of thoughts linked to our realities.

The significant presence of photographers from the diaspora allowed the narratives around Africanness and the representation of what it feels and looks like to be Africans, to shift in the context of a Biennale that takes place at 'home'. A notion, that is somewhat, in the domain of the personal and the collective psychology related to this simultaneous feeling of familiarity and displacement. In the Biennale, the diasporic narratives were merged with African narratives as a homogenous experience that stimulated and generated new conversations amongst us all.

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Adeola Ogunju

This commonality was beautifully articulated by the strong works of women photographers such as Ketaki Sheth (India) capturing the Sidis, Indians of East African descent which were brought as slaves in India from the 9th to the 16th century. The photographer captured contemporary Sidis whose remnants of African identity is mainly through music and dance; Liz Johnson Artur (Ghana/Russia), who for the past 30 years has seized the essence of people she meets on all continents, catching their own sense of normality by telling the stories of Africans and its diaspora around the world; Adeola Ogunju (Nigeria/Germany) presenting through a multi-layered video installation and photography, glimpses of spirituality and the permanent search for transformation of the human being as an abstract reality; and also, Yannick Anton (Canada/Trinidad) whose work focuses on the experience of being the "deported African, of the continuous feeling of displacement that is mentally and physically uprooted to our origins as a product of the diaspora, living in the West; and finally Dustin Thierry (Curacao/Netherlands) whose beautiful works captures the Afro-Caribbean diaspora in The Netherlands.

The Biennale participants consisted of an eclectic blend of artists, curators, writers and other cultural practitioners forming a laboratory of ideas amongst Africans and its diaspora. This blend of in-'dividuals'2 created a necessary and ever-unique meeting that other international Biennales don't always allow space for, and that is often discarded from Western constructs. The participants were the electrons navigating in and out of the core programme allowing for the emergence of new narratives. In a sense, the Biennale played the role of a trigger to these exchanges.

References
1 Taken from the Biennale's official program, words by Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung.

2 In reference to the Biennale's sub-title, A Concatenation of Dividuals, and to the curatorial notes from Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung - > some of the most important contributions in photography from the African world has come from photographic collectives like Depth of Field or Invisible Borders and many more. The possibility of creating communities that complement each other in practices of perception and capturing, the possibility of collectively telling our own stories through images, the possibility of arguing for the fact that in society we are not individuals, but rather the Deleuzian notion of dividuals... which is to say we are divisible entities that together make up a larger collective as opposed to the idea of the individual which means indivisible, or the tiniest unit of society. Which is to say that we can understand people best through the social relations they are a part of. Thus, we will put a spotlight on collective practices.

Useful links
* Bamako Encounters website - https://www.rencontres-bamako.com/?lang=en
* SAVVY Contemporary website - https://www.savvy-contemporary.com
* More information about the Biennale can be found in the catalogue and Biennale reader, both available for sale on https://www.archivebooks.org

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