Interview with Jennifer Bajorek and Erin Haney on Bamako

 Photo by Jennifer Bajorek


For the original version of this interview, and other TCS material, go to the TCS Website

Simon Dawes interviews Jennifer Bajorek and Erin Haney on their article, ‘Eye on Bamako: Conversations on the African Photography Biennial’, published in the Global Public Life section of December’s Annual Review (TCS 27.7/8).

Jennifer and Erin discuss the history of the Biennial and the growing interest in African photography, the role of exhibitions in supporting artists, and the tension between French co-operation and neo-colonialism in Africa.


Simon Dawes: How was the Bamako photography biennial, officially the Rencontres de Bamako, conceived, and why do you think it takes place in Bamako rather than in Johannesburg or Algiers, for instance?

Jennifer Bajorek & Erin Haney: The biennial’s history is closely tied to the explosion of interest, in the early 1990s, on the part of curators, collectors, and audiences in photographers and photographs from Africa. This interest was sparked in part as a result of exchanges and exhibitions spearheaded by a few French nationals (photographers and curators) who had fallen under the spell of a particularly rich trove of archival material in Bamako. Seydou Keïta, whose studio was located in a bustling neighbourhood of the city in the early 1940s and 1950s, had produced a body of commercial portraiture that was visually and technically compelling. He had also, quite exceptionally, kept his negative archive intact. His images offered a fresh view of the period, which was a particularly exciting and dynamic one in this part of Africa. To many, these images also offered a new interpretation of photography.

The biennial was, from its inception, organized by the French in a spirit of collaboration and exchange. Their African and, in the early days, their Malian colleagues, shared this vision of collaboration, and they had high hopes that the international attention brought by the biennial to Bamako would be converted into opportunities for a younger generation of photographers from Africa, those working on the continent or in the diaspora in the present. These hopes have in some respects been fulfilled, in other respects sorely disappointed.

It is important to note that Bamako is not the only city in Africa to have supported a significant photography festival. Dakar had the “Mois de la photo de Dakar,” which ran for several editions and pre-dated the Bamako biennial. There is Abidjan where the photographer Ananías Léki Dago launched a successful biennial, the Rencontres du Sud, in 2000. The event had very strong local support. (This was evident in, among other things, the fact that it was able to open, to critical acclaim, a month after the coup d’état.) Harare and Cape Town both host exciting photography festivals annually. This week marks the opening of the first Addis Foto Fest, in Addis Ababa, directed by photographer Aida Muluneh. These events suggest the richness and diversity of the photography scene in Africa, which is not confined to a single city or country. Both Johannesburg and Algiers are characterized by their own varied and thriving art scenes, and we touch on events connected with both of these cities in our essay. What is important to underscore is the intensity of the creative scenes in many African cities today. Each of these cities sustains an array of shifting projects and players.

Poster-format photographs are mounted on the exterior fence
of a basketball court in Bamako during the Rencontres de Bamako,
Bamako, Mali, November 2009. Photograph: Jennifer Bajorek

SD: You mention in your article the importance of a physical meeting place and of face-to-face encounters for forming networks in a continent where internet access is out of reach for many. But how else does the Biennial support and benefit African artists, and could it do more?

JB & EH: The biennial certainly is a crucial venue for those artists who are practised in putting themselves forward and have experience discussing their work with curators, journalists, photographer colleagues, financial backers and the odd collector. In order to take advantage of these professional exchanges, there’s a fluency that artists must continually cultivate through the course of their careers. This is far from straightforward. Many artists lack the formal or informal training, and entree to the circuit of workshops and residencies which are taken for granted elsewhere. Opportunities for professional editorial feedback are few and far between. This is why the Rencontres have been so crucial—but also so frustrating. In the 2009 season at Bamako, despite the presence of dynamic and well-respected professional editors and curators, opportunities to engage with them were spotty and selective, or not well-advertised. Exhibitions without supportive programmes and other forms of professional development are of dubious benefit for photographers, and fail to capitalize on the richness of face-to-face encounters.

Another approach reconfigures exhibitions as only one of many platforms for promoting new artists. We’re seeing this in a number of events on the continent. The efforts of Aida Muluneh with her first edition of the Addis Ababa Foto Fest, 7-12 December 2010, formulated a remarkable variety of exchanges between young artists and established photographers. Among these: master classes, exhibitions and public events, new collaborations and workshops which showcased forward-thinking and imaginative artistic projects. Crucially, and as distinct from the Bamako Rencontres, the Addis Foto Fest is taking a pragmatic approach to the business of being a photographer and taps into scores of artists’ professional expertise based on their work on different parts of the continent. So here, there is dedicated space for discussion of markets, of commercial patronage, and the work photographers must do in order to sustain their commercial and creative projects. The event is also making overtures to local and municipal government and is thus an investment and intervention in building relevant institutions.

SD: Could you describe the French influence on the African Photography Biennial? To what extent is it linked to French national interests, and to what extent could French involvement be seen as neo-colonial?

JB & EH: As we said a moment ago, the first biennial was organised by French nationals, and Culturesfrance (an agency of the French ministries of Foreign Affairs, Culture, and Communication) has become the event’s principal financial sponsor. So it is to be expected that there would be a certain French influence. This it is felt by all, in nearly all aspects of the event, often in rather predictable ways, sometimes less predictable. The complexities of France’s foreign policy and its cultural policy in the former French colonies are notorious and widely discussed in Africa, particularly in francophone Africa. These policies have been controversial from the time of independence, and there is no question that the Bamako biennial is implicated in these policies. Add to which, there have been some fresh incidents and an upsurge in controversy in Africa connected with France’s active support of undemocratic regimes, or, for example, with the role played by French investors and French banks in the privatization of African states. So the current climate is not a good one for “la coopération française” (“French co-operation”) in many places in Africa. Mali is no exception. This was amply evident in our conversations with Malian photographers, and with photographers from other parts of Africa and the diaspora, many of whom are also often curators and critics and activists. People feel that, even when they are given money and resources (“partnership,” “cooperation”), they are not given control. In an event such as this one, this means creative control: control of thematic frameworks and approaches, control of ideas.

On top of these problems, which are obviously longstanding and more or less explicitly colonial or neo-colonial—in the sense that they prolong inequities in power relations that date back to the era of French colonial administration—there is a new critical questioning of dependence on European donors, foundations, and NGOs, and the entire “culture and development” machine, which is taking place amongst a younger generation of activist artists and curators. We really saw and felt this when we were in Bamako last season. It was palpable as a trend, and it is part of what is motivating what could well be a much more radical and sustained rethinking of the structures that are now in place.

To access the article Eye on Bamako: Conversations on the African Photography Biennial’ by Jennifer Bajorek and Erin Haney, go here

To access the rest of the articles in the TCS Annual Review 2010, edited by Vikki Bell, go here

Author Jennifer Bajorek in the galleries
of the pan-African exhibition during
the Rencontres de Bamako, Bamako, Mali,
November 2009. Photograph: Erin Haney

Jennifer Bajorek is Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London, where she teaches on literature, philosophy, and photography. She is also a residential research fellow in the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University for the 2010-11 academic year. In addition to a book on the Bamako photography biennial, co-authored with Erin Haney (from which the present essay is excerpted), she is writing a book on photography and political imagination in Senegal and Benin. [email:]

Author Erin Haney with the Ivorian photographer,
Ananías Léki Dago, Bamako, Mali, November 2009.
Photograph: Jennifer Bajorek

Erin Haney, PhD (University of London, 2004), is an independent curator and scholar currently working on exhibitions and publications with the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. She is the author of Photography and Africa (Reaktion, 2010) and has collaborated on a number of teaching, programming, and curatorial efforts around modern and contemporary artists, including most recently a book on photography, arts policy and the biennial festival of Bamako (Mali) with Jennifer Bajorek. Her writing on contemporary photographers and artists from Africa and its diaspora has appeared in History of Photography, Autograph ABP, African Arts, and the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism site ( [email:]

Simon Dawes is the Editor of the TCS Website and Editorial Assistant of Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society

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