A week before Christmas, I received an email from Bisi Silva, a curator of contemporary art based in Lagos, Nigera, introducing herself and letting me know that she just arrived in Rwanda for a short visit. Ms. Silva received my contact information from the organizer of the Slideluck Kigali, a photography event that I attended in November (and wrote about in a previous post), and asked if I might be available to meet to help connect her with artists and photographers working in Rwanda. Ms. Silva was recently appointed as the artistic director for the 10th Bamako Encounters (Rencontres de Bamako), an African Biennale of Photography that will take place in Mali in November 2015. As part of her holiday vacation, Ms. Silva visited Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi to meet with photographers (and aspiring photographers) to tell them about the Bamako Biennale and encourage them to apply. Ms. Silva is interested in giving a platform to artists in countries that have not yet been visible at the Bamako Biennale and engaging photographers from the region who are serious about their art. Because few people know photographers from the Great Lakes Region, Ms. Silva wanted to get an idea of what is going on, talk to the artists working in film, video, and photography, see their work, and begin to connect these photographers with the photography sector across the African continent. I introduced Ms. Silva to the museum staff at the Institute of National Museums of Rwanda and at the National Art Gallery, where she toured the museum and saw its collection of Rwandan art. We also organized a presentation at the Kwetu Film Institute on the day before Christmas eve for all artists and photographers in Rwanda. Almost 35 people came to hear Ms. Silva talk about the Biennale and share images of international and African artists whose work she admires.
About the Bamako Encounters: The biennale started in 1994 and has been held every two years in Bamako, Mali. The biennale is made up of many exhibits that take place all across the city. It is funded and organized by the Ministry of Culture of Mali and l’Institut Français. The organizers missed the last exhibition in 2012 due to the invasion in Mali. Now that the country is a bit more stable, they set to launch the festival again and appointed Ms. Silva as the director. The Bamako Biennale aims to encourage artists to develop their skills and their careers in photography. Over the last 20 years, the biennale has expanded from photography, welcoming emerging artists who are working in different types of lens-based media, including photography, photojournalism, video art, experimental or artistic film, and artistic (rather than commercial) animation. Bamako is the biggest festival for photography on the African continent. It is the place where 200-300 artists working in photography, video, and film meet and connect with collectors who buy photography, curators from around the world who show African photography (or who are interested in showing African photography), and academics who research and write about photography. As a result of Bamako, the oldest and biggest photography festival, other photography exhibitions have popped up across the continent, including photo festivals in Lagos, Addis Ababa, Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Cabo Verde. Prizes are awarded during the festival, including a cash prize, a residency prize, workshop prizes, and publishing prizes, which act as initiatives to help photographers develop their career.
Application Process: At Bamako, the main exhibition is the Pan-African exhibition, and applications are open to anyone who is African or of African-descent, no matter whether they are living on the African continent or in the diaspora. The application for the biennale opens soon, at the beginning of January, and it will stay open until the end of March. Artists should send in between 10-20 images that engage with the biennale’s theme of “telling time”, their CV, and a statement on what the images are about. Applications can be found soon on the biennale’s website (currently under construction) as soon as it launches.
Selection:As Ms. Silva said during her talk, artists don’t need a masterpiece to be able to be there. They just need a decent body of work (of more than a basic level) that is provocative, interesting, artistic, and creative. All the artists who have been selected are brought to Bamako during the biennale for the opening week called the professional week from October 31 to November 5. During the professional week, all specialists in photography and artists meet for a special networking opportunity. They get to see what’s happening in photography in other parts of the world, show their portfolios to professionals in the field, link with African peers and colleagues on continent and in the diaspora.
The Biennale Theme: The theme of this year’s Biennale is “Telling Time” so the works submitted must relate in some way to time. The work can be about the past, the recent past or a distant past; it can be about the present, the future, about an alternative reality or alternative dreams. It can be about different ways of looking at the world in which we live. When submitting works, artists should think how the work relates to the theme as well as its communicative abilities to tell a story or narrative. Just as a filmmaker develops plot lines, Ms. Silva pointed out that photography requires something similar even if the images are not moving; there is a way for the stills to articulate and talk about different experiences, histories, and observations through time. Photographers can start from the past, and move into the present and into the future, or they can start from the future and move into the present. Artists can play with time.
Here are two examples of artists whose works Ms. Silva presented to the artists in Rwanda because she admires them and they engage with the theme of time.
Christian Marclay, “The Clock.” Marclay is a video artist working in video, but who is also inspired by cinema. “The Clock” is work made up of hundreds of thousands of clips taken from the history of cinema and assembled together by Marclay. The work engages with the idea of time because of its progression through a 24-hour period, and also the viewer is watching the clips in time. For example, if the images the viewer is seeing from the cinema shots are taking place at 3 o’clock in the film, then in real time the viewer is watching the work at 3 o’clock. It is the same case for every hour. When watching the work, the viewer is seeing thousands of images that prioritize, focus, highlight, or present time, and at the same time, the viewer is in time. And even though its cinematic images, it’s an artistic way of compiling them and telling a story.
Andrea Stuljiens, “History in Progress.” Stuljiens is a Dutch Photographer who I met in May 2012 when she led a photography workshop at the National Art Gallery in Nyanza, where her visual biography “The Kaddu Wasswa Archive” was exhibited. Stuljiens goes through and collects archival material that begin to tell the stories of people’s lives, history, culture and experiences. Archival material is especially important within an African context where history has often been told from colonial perspective. Going back into an archive enables viewers to see things that are missing from our daily life understandings. Stuljiens has collected archival material over the last decade in many countries, and over the past few years has been doing the project in Uganda, unearthing thousands of images from archives. The kind of work she does is rare, but important; she is a contemporary photographer taking archival images to try and reinterpret them in a contemporary manner.
Ms. Silva also showed the group a long-term project that she has been working on for the last five years and just recently finished on the archive of J.D. Okhai Ojeikere. Ojeikere is a Nigerian photographer born in 1930 and died in February 2014. He has over 100,000 images in his archive taken over a 60-year period. His works is about Nigeria from the perspective of a Nigerian who was there as events were happening and changes were taking place in the country. “Hairstyles” is his most celebrated body of work. He completed the series over a 4 to 5 year period, documenting traditional hairstyles from across Nigeria. The images are of women’s hairstyles taken from the back, from the side, and from the front, and contain within them a lot of meaning and symbolism. They tell a story about the dreams and aspirations of the people of Nigeria and about the cultural and political history of a people during a time after the country’s independence. In addition, Ojekere meticulously documented his works with a code to classify the work in the series by the album, the image number, and the year so it is easy to track the development of his work. See more of Ojeikere’s series here.
Since the talk before Christmas, a few Rwandan artists have told me how much they loved Ms. Silva’s energy and enthusiasm that she showed when talking about this biennale and when talking about the works of artists she loves. Others have asked me to send them more images by more established artists to help them get inspired for future photo projects. I especially enjoyed seeing Ms. Silva show the artists how she “reads” images by looking closely at an image, describing what she sees, and using those elements and the story behind them to find symbolism and larger meaning. Spending a week hosting a contemporary art curator gave me many opportunities to hear her feedback on the art she is seeing here in Rwanda, learn about her curatorial work, and exchange knowledge and ideas. Our conversations reignited my desire to become a curator and to support emerging artists working on this continent. It reminded me why I decided to pursue this project here in Rwanda, where the art scene is still in its infancy.
Rwanda is the first country that Bisi Silva visited in preparation for Bamako, which shows the importance that she attaches to being here. Bamako is not only about experienced photographers; it is for photographers who are just starting out. It’s a way to support and encourage them in their work. I hope to continue to work with Ms. Silva and artists working in lens-based media in Rwanda in order help Rwandan photography move out of its invisibility. As evidenced by her recent visit, Ms. Silva is following her vision to find talented artists with compelling stories to tell and provide critical spaces for them to connect and grow. I am honored to be a part of her vision.