press release

The CCCB opens its programme of exhibitions for the year 2004 with the show Bamako 03. Contemporary African Photography, an overview of the creative work coming out of Africa. After the exhibition Africas: the artist and the city (2001), with its in-depth exploration of African contemporary creation in its many expressive registers, the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona takes a further look at the creative vitality of a region which despite its geographical proximity continues, for us, to be an unknown quantity. In this case, the project centres on the world of photography and its central referent is the Rencontres de la Photographie Africaine de Bamako, a biennial that after five events has become consolidated as one of the continent’s foremost artistic meeting places. This year’s Rencontres took place in the capital of Mali from 20 October to 20 November 2003, under the direction of Simon Njami.

Thanks to an agreement with the organisers of the Bamako Rencontres (the Association Française d’Action Artistique, AFAA, and the Ministry of Culture of Mali), the CCCB will present a broad cross section of the most interesting proposals from the 2003 Biennial, along with printed and film documentation of previous editions. Pep Subirós was responsible for making the selection that has been brought to Barcelona.

The exhibition at the CCCB, based on the same sections as the Rencontres, presents in the region of 200 of the over 2,000 photographs that made up the latest biennial.

INTERNATIONAL EXHIBITION The core of the biennial is a major international exhibition comprising the images selected from hundreds that are submitted to Bamako. The photographs are selected on the basis of their quality and their relevance to the general theme of the event, which, in 2003, was ‘Sacred rituals, profane rituals’. In Barcelona we present the work of this year’s prize-winning photographers: Youssouf Nabil (Egypt), Roberto Stephenson (Haiti) and Pape Seydi (Senegal), plus a selection of individual projects that form part of the international section: Mohamed Camera (Mali), Uche Edochie (Nigeria), Sophie Elbaz (France–Algeria), Susan Hefuna (Egypt–Germany), Ingrid Mwangi (Kenya–Germany) and Nour-Eddine Tilsaghani (Morocco).

The show at the CCCB also includes the complete presentation of an exhibition from each of the biennial’s main sections:

NATIONAL SHOWS From the National section, we have selected the Egyptian show for Barcelona, in which six photographers took part: Jihan Ammar, Lara Baladi, Hala El Koussy, Rehab El Sadek, Maha Maamoun and Youssef Nabil.

MONOGRAPHS The monographic exhibitions present large selections of the work of established photographers. At the CCCB we will be able to view the work of the South African Santu Mofokeng, with its poignant view of the landscape.

MEMORIES From the section on the recovery of historical heritage, we present the work of the photographer Youssef Safieddine, from Senegal.

TRIBUTES In this section, the Rencontres pay homage to recently deceased great photographers. The CCCB presents the work of Van Léo, the ‘Egyptian magician’ who immortalised the ‘Belles del Caire’ and who died in 2002. Contemporary photography in Africa: beauty and truth Pep Subirós, exhibition curator

In the nineties, various publications and exhibitions were presented in Europe and the United States, including In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present, organised in 1996 by New York’s Guggenheim Museum, and the Anthologie de la Photographie Africaine, a monumental publication produced by the Revue Noire in Paris in 1998 that spawned many exhibitions to have made their way around the world. They presented the non-specialised public with the extraordinary wealth of photographic creation in Africa, a wealth that unceremoniously did away with ways of thinking, many still prevalent today, that saw Africanness and modernity as mutually exclusive terms.

The Rencontres de la Photographie Africaine in Bamako has played a major role in the ‘discovery’ of African photography. This biennial event organised for the first time in 1994 under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture of Mali and the French programme ‘Afrique en Créations’ has since become consolidated as one of Africa’s most important and interesting artistic meeting points.

The last two Bamako Rencontres, organised under the rigorous artistic direction of Simon Njami (autumn 2001 and 2003), represented an improvement in the quality of the event’s still short but intense history. With the additional support of a considerable increase in funding from the Association Française d’Action Artistique (AFAA), dependent on the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has taken over and given a new lease of life to ‘Afrique en Créations’, the last two Rencontres have now come of age and are a requisite referent for everyone who is interested in keeping a finger on the pulse of contemporary photographic creation in Africa.

The core of the biennial is constituted by a major international exhibition, pan-African in scope (including the diaspora), for which the organisers select, from the hundreds of candidates submitted, recent works by twenty or more working photographers (twenty-three in this year’s biennial). The photos are selected on the basis of their quality and their relevance to the general theme of the event, which, in 2003, was ‘Sacred rituals, profane rituals’.

Around the central exhibition, the latest Rencontres have begun to incorporate a series of sections which, like the foremost film festivals, form a dense and varied mosaic that takes in personal approaches, heritage and tributes to great, recently deceased artists. In 2003, in addition to numerous debates, workshops and a busy fringe programme featuring various public and private bodies, the event included the following sections: Monographic exhibitions, devoted to working photographers who have achieved creative maturity and produced a body of work of recognised quality. Nabil Boutros (Egypt), John Mauluka (Zimbabwe), Santu Mofokeng (South Africa) and Eustachio Neves (Brazil) were the photographers featured in 2003’s four monographic expos.

National exhibitions, offering a representative selection of the world of photography in a given country. This year, those countries were Egypt, Senegal, Mozambique and Cuba. Heritage exhibitions, grouped together under the heading ‘Memories’, which present collections of historical and documentary value: on this occasion, they were the personal collection of the Lebanese photographer resident in Dakar, Youssef Safieddine, and the André Albany Holdings, from Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. Thematic exhibitions, this year devoted to fashion photography, organised by Patrice Fèlix Tchicaya, and the ‘Portraits of death, 1960-1975’ series from Benin, from the Alex Van Gelder Collection.

Finally, three tribute exhibitions feature great photographers who have died since the last biennial: Van Leo (Egypt, 1921-2002), Seydou Keita (Mali, 1921-2001) and Mohamed Dib (Algeria, 1920-2003). With this broad selection of proposals, representing almost 2,000 photos in the most varying styles, techniques and formats, the Bamako Rencontres not only offer a quality panorama of contemporary photographic creativity; they also provide a platform and sounding board for the exacting, rigorous, creative work that many artists carry out, day after day, in the most difficult conditions. They are also of vital importance in ‘discovering’, valuing and preserving the fascinating wealth and diversity of the history of Africa-based photography.

But beyond continental geography and a situation of exclusion from the dominant circuits, is it possible to speak of African photography? Strictly speaking, probably not. As Simon Njami says, there is no such thing as essentially African photography. There are, however, photographers. And Africa is a tremendously diverse reality, as least as diverse as any other continent in any aspect: cultural, political, religious, etc. Even in strictly geographical terms it is very difficult to form a fair idea of the physical dimensions of the African continent. As the crow flies, for example, Algeria is much closer to Paris than Tamanrasset, and the distance between Cairo and Cape Town is greater than between Barcelona and Uzbekistan. These physical distances are heightened by a colonial inheritance, ranging from the lack of infrastructure and transport and communication systems to the linguistic divisions handed down by the former powers that make cooperation and exchange between many African countries minimal, not to say practically non-existent. Yet over and above such distances and fragmentation, there is still a stronger common denominator in the contemporary art, particularly photography, produced in Africa than that of Europe, for example. This common denominator is the almost total predominance of the human condition in general and of individual existence in particular, in all its greatness and its misfortunes, in its celebrations and suffering, with its dreams and its phantasms; this is the reference, the concern, the horizon for all artistic creation. A predominance that at times manages to make us forget the almost complete absence of animals, landscapes or architecture, except as the inseparable correlate of a given situation or human experience.

The fifth Rencontres of Bamako biennial offers clear proof of this omnipresence of the human condition as a central, almost exclusive reference in Africa-based photography: from all of the works of the photographers in the international exhibition to Van Leo’s ‘glamorous’ portraits, via Safieddine’s festive, family chronicle, the highly sophisticated gaze of young Egyptian photographers and Santu Mofokeng’s striking landscapes, full of spirituality and phantasms. This fact is certainly related to the precariousness of general living conditions in Africa, with the fragility and vulnerability of individual existence, as well as the close-knit human relationships that these conditions make inevitable. In the conversation published a few pages further on in this catalogue, Simon Njami points out other reasons, historical and present day, that help to explain this old yet up-to-date humanism in which almost all African artistic creation is steeped: for example, the importance of the oral tradition that is necessarily underpinned by the proximity and continuity of interpersonal relations. The contrast between the way the vast majority of Western photographers see Africa and the gaze of Africans themselves is particularly revealing. Unlike the former, the approach of African artists produces photographs that are often full of drama, but never sensational; full of singularity, but never exotic. They are gazes from the inside, often critical but always from the viewpoint of shared experience rather than condescending otherness. At the same time, what the photos exhibited in Bamako manifest, almost without exception and probably without intending to, is how, as Santu Mofokeng himself says in the introduction to his exhibition, the vast majority of African photographers are unsatisfied by beauty without truth. And the truth is always, behind one appearance or another, a strictly human affair. Having said that, however, it is important to stress that Africa is immense, multiple, diverse and changing, and essentialisms and reductionisms are simply not applicable.

The exhibition being presented at the CCCB does not set out to pontificate on the state of photography in Africa. The idea is to present a view that is non-comprehensive yet faithful to the spirit of the fifth Bamako Rencontres, as a privileged observatory of a far richer and more complex reality than the clichés that tend to inform our imaginary about the African world. Given the impossibility of bringing all of the photos shown in Bamako, the idea is to present not a smaller scale version of all the participating photographers and all the exhibitions in the different sections, but complete expository series that maintain the unity and coherence of the projects presented. The exhibition at the CCCB therefore presents the work of nine of the photographers from the international exhibition, including those who won the main prizes, and the monographic exhibition devoted to Santu Mofokeng, the Egyptian national exhibition, Youssef Safieddine’s work in ‘Memories’ and that of Van Leo in ‘Tributes’. This exhibition does not purport to tell the truth about contemporary African photography. What I would venture to say, though, and I think that visitors to the exhibition will agree, is that the photographs presented here manage to combine beauty and truth with an unwonted frequency and, in many cases, with an enthralling intensity. Pressetext

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BAMAKO 2003 - Contemporary African Photography
Biennale der Fotografie, Bamako
Kuratoren: Pep Subirós, Moussa Konate, Simon Njami, Alexandra Cohen
Produktion: CCCB und AFFA/Afrique en créations, the Ministry of Culture of Mali and Rencontres de Bamako

KünsterInnen: Jihan Ammar, Lara Baladi, Mohamed Camara, Uche Edochie, Sophie Elbaz, Susan Hefuna, Hala El Koussy, Maha Maamoun, Michele Magema, Santu Mofokeng, Ingrid Mwangi, Youssef Nabil, Rehab El Sadek, Youssef Safieddine, Pape Seydi, Roberto Stephenson, Nour-Eddine Tilsaghani, Van Leo