Mali’s photography biennale tackles questions of Telling Time for its 10th anniversary edition


This year marks the 10th anniversary of Bamako Encounters, Mali’s photography biennale. It returns after a four-year break due to the country’s ongoing unrest and continues this month despite the Islamist militant attack on one of the city's hotels last week. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita declared a state of emergency but urges that the country’s borders remain open. Mali’s rich heritage of storytelling and cultural production makes this a vital event in Francophone Africa, more so now than ever in the face of brutal upheaval.

Prominent names such as The Otolith Group, Ayrson Heráclito, William Kentridge, Mimi Cherono Ng’ok, Uche Okpa-Ihora and J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere are exhibited across Bamako alongside other artists selected from Africa and the diaspora. The programme also includes an education programme connecting with 10,000 students and a series of screenings and talks supported by the Ministry of Tourism and the Institut Français.

This year’s artistic director Bisi Silva, founder of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, has selected Telling Time as the anniversary theme. “Historically, photographic images have been routinely interpreted as refractions of time and space relations, serving to advance visual arguments about the particularities of a given reality,” she says. “Within this context, Telling Time presents a nuanced array of lens-based projects that differently upend and reframe conventional interpretations of time through discrete structures of past, present, and future.”

In their daily encounters Africans are tasked with discovering and often re-discovering their place in the world through connections that circumvent post-colonial and recently globalised existences. The existentialist nature of this edition’s focus sets us into a surge of unending questions. What is time? What does telling time in Africa mean? Does the perception of time on the continent differ to how time is experienced elsewhere in the world? What is our political, social and aesthetic relationship with time, whether real or imagined?

"The photographer remains an observer,
an accomplice of history and is to be the
eyes of the non-seeing"

Exhibiting artist Hippolyte Sama’s series Insurrection Populaire au Burkina Faso examines the 2014 uprising that lead to President Blaise Compaoré relinquishing power after 27 years having attempted to adjust Burkina Faso’s constitution to further extend his lengthy term. The Ouagadougou-based photographer’s work is a testament to the power of the people and emphasises the role of women in the protest. In his images women bear kitchenware as a symbolic act and cipher of disobedience, pointing their wooden spoons towards Compaoré to express their disapproval. “It was a first in the history of Burkina Faso society, where the woman remains subject to man and kept at home with the children. Their participation was welcome by everyone and they contributed to the departure of the president,” explains Sama.

Similarly charged by documenting social change, Ouagadougou born Nomwindé Vivien Sawadago takes the viewpoint of the young population. “Africa is now dominated by youth whose minds are open and are tired of dictatorship and bad governance. During the various protest marches our discontent and determination were read on the faces of Burkinabe men, women and children. We all had a common identity for the fight and the change,” says Sawadago.

Sama and Sawadago tell time by way of documenting the rawness of untold realities. Sama’s work is an exposé of aggression and police brutality. Sama expresses that, “the photographer remains an observer, an accomplice of history and is to be the eyes of the non-seeing.” For his series Take Your Destiny In Your Own Hands, he joined a group of protestors and recorded the life-altering moment where citizens became activists. “My photos will be a witness between what we lived in this fight and what Burkina Faso will be in the future.”

Congolese clique Collectif Périnium’s futuristic film Périnium is set in the year 3010 and is the story of a young girl named Zai. She finds an illuminated green substance that possesses the power to save the world. The narrative builds an arc between utopian and dystopian sensibilities and is the first sci-fi film set in Kinshasa. Périnum abstractly references the economic and social realities in the present day Democratic Republic of Congo by portraying subjects in neon lit spaces wearing metallic clothing and protective eyewear shielding them from insufferable heat, declining health and poverty. “It’s a way for us to awaken the consciousness of our citizens and above all to build a better life for the next generation,” says Périnium co-writer Asia Nyembo Mireille. “For African artists, telling time must be the foundation of our creation. It is a round table around which we must take our place to talk about ourselves.”

Bamako Encounters runs until 31 December

Words Emmanuel Balogun

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