Bamako Encounters, Africa’s premier photography festival, returns to the capital of Mali for its 25-year anniversary. Running until 31 January, the theme of the festival this year is Streams of Consciousness, named after the famous 1970s record by Abdullah Ibrahim and Max Roach. It aims to “underline the importance of culture when it comes to nation-building and establishing Pan-African identities,” the biennial’s artistic director, Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, says.
More than 85 artists from across the African continent are exhibiting their work in response to this theme, including BJP’s former Breakthrough winner Adama Jalloh, a native of Peckham with Sierra Leonian heritage. Jalloh is exhibiting a collection of portraits taken from the streets around her family home in south London that reflect on how Pan-African identities are sustained and recognised in a foreign urban setting.
Also contributing to the main programme are the Malagasy photographer Emmanuelle Andrianjafy, with a selection of works from her award-winning series, Nothing’s in Vain; Fanyana Hlabangane, an emerging photographer from South Africa with images from a delicate, black-and-white series, Poolside Boy; and Moroccan photographer Khalil Nemmaoui, showing his series, The House of the Tree.
Soh Bejeng Ndikung wants to place the idea in a specifically African context, exploring how the programme might act as “a metaphor for the flux of ideas, peoples and cultures that flow like the African rivers of the Niger, Congo, Nile or Mississippi.” He adds: “Africa has long ceased to be a concept limited to the geographical space called Africa. Africa is a planetary concept that relates to the people of African origin spread over the world.”
Born in 1977 in Yaoundé, Cameroon, the artistic director is best known as the founder of Savvy Contemporary art space in Berlin, as well as the editor of Savvy Journal, a publication dedicated to spotlighting and exploring contemporary African art. Soh Bejeng Ndikung has brought together a new curatorial team of Aziza Harmel, an independent curator from Tunisia, Astrid Sokona Lepoultier, a curator from France and Mali who managed the first and second editions of the BICIM Ami des Arts in Mali in 2018 and 2019, and Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh, a Ghanian curator and a former guest curator for the inaugural Lagos Biennial in 2017. They are joined by artistic advisers Akinbode Akinbiyi, Seydou Camara and Cheick Diallo.
Further highlights from across the festival includes an exhibition curated by John Fleetwood, who works closely with the Centres of Learning for Photography in Africa. He has compiled a group of works by five photographers responding to the memory and influence of the late and iconic South African photographer David Goldblatt.
Then there’s an unseen series by Nirveda Alleck, a multidisciplinary artist living and practising in Mauritius, and a former student of the Michaelis School of Fine Art in South Africa and Glasgow School of Art, who has recently been focusing on how the development of Dakar, Senegal has impacted on people living at street level.
Finally, the work of Yannick Anton, a photographer of African heritage from Canada and well-known for his documentation of LGBTQ issues, will be sure to gain plenty of attention — particularly when gay rights is an ongoing issue in Mali society. Anton is displaying portraits taken from seven years spending his evenings on the dance floor in Yes Yes Y’All, a renowned queer hip-hop party in Toronto.
More than 15 venues across the capital are operating as exhibition spaces, including the Palais de la Culture Amadou Hampaté Ba, Musée National du Mali, and Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers Multimédia Balla Fasseké Kouyaté. In addition to the main programme, Bamako Encounters is providing an extensive itinerary of talks, readings and film screenings that will be free to the public.
The festival will be an important event for the nation state of Mali, and will also be the subject of heightened security. The country has seen a number of tragedies in recent years, including Islamist terrorist attacks on a music festival and international hotels in 2015 and 2017. In response, Mali’s government announced a nationwide state of emergency in November 2015 which was extended several times, most recently in October 2018 by one year until 31 October this year. The biennial will be the first cultural gathering held in the city since these seismic events.
Bamako Encounters will run in Bamako, Mali, until 31 January.