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Ghost Towns, Surreal Ebola Docs, Hip Hats: It's Africa's Big Photo Show

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One in a series of photos depicting the elaborate headgear of Nigeria.
Courtesy of J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere
One in a series of photos depicting the elaborate headgear of Nigeria.

All eyes turned to Mali in the aftermath of the November 20 terrorist attack on a Bamako hotel that left more than 20 people dead.

The Malian capital was hoping to attract attention for a much different reason. On October 31, it welcomed the opening of the African Biennale of Photography, "The Bamako Encounters (Recontres de Bamako)." It's the tenth anniversary of the show, originally scheduled for 2013. Due to the country's unstable political situation and violence, it was postponed for a year. And then another.

This wait left a void in the continent's creative scene, says artistic director Bisi Silva, a prominent Nigerian curator. When we spoke with her just before the hotel attack, she was thrilled for the opportunity to highlight the work of established and emerging photographers. For the 2015 Biennale, she had selected a combination of documentary and artistic images related to the theme of "Telling Time." Here's our conversation with her, edited for length and clarity.

Why focus on time?

It goes beyond identity and environment. Time is with us every day. I wanted a theme broad enough for people to narrate their own story, and engage with the events that have been happening over the last two to three years — the threat to territory in 2012, the revolution in Burkina Faso, the devastating effects of Ebola and the devastating effects of Boko Haram. It's a way of looking at the past, engaging with the present and imagining the future.

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Do any images particularly stand out for you?

We received over 800 applications, and as we looked over them, we saw themes reoccurring and there were juxtapositions to be made. Namibian artist Helga Kohl documented a ghost city — Elisabeth Bay, a diamond mining town that has been abandoned. Nigerian artist Nassim Rouchiche photographed migrants from the South Sahara attempting to get to Europe. These individuals get stuck in Algeria for 10 years. They're present, yet invisible. So this abandoned town with nobody present is juxtaposed with this city that is full and vibrant, but with people who are not seen.

Can you tell me more about "Le Temps Ebola," which shows doctors in exaggerated costumes wielding spray bottles?

Malian photographer Bakary Emmanuel Dauo wanted to highlight how deadly this is in a satiric way. There's a futuristic aspect to it — if we don't take care of Ebola today, this is how it could be. It's not the clichéd images of people dying all over the place. Although these events happened, very few people dealt with the crisis. We have images of the revolution in Burkina Faso, and a series focused on after effects in Mali. But aside from that, the focus for the artists was less on documentary and more on fine art.

What can fine art depict that documentary can't capture?

The different genres are represented with the exhibition. But we give a wide range of possibilities. Even the Malians have moved on, so to speak. They're more focused on reconciliation, and getting back some form of normalcy. Malian artist Aboubacar Traore with his "Inch'Allah" series [showing figures with heads made of black spheres], that was making reference to the impact of religion, and the devastating impacts of this false way of presenting religion. It wasn't a documentary presentation, so it allows this aspect of fabulation. [not sure I get what the spheres symbolize, how this is about false religion]

Is the fact that photography is becoming more democratized changing the field? [how is it becoming more democratized? Or maybe just rephrase question in a more conversational voice?]

I hope so. Especially in the Malian context, we have a substantial schools program. We're doing workshops with 20-30 schools and with thousands of people under 18, teaching them [no antecedent for "them"] that you can narrate your own story. You can be a storyteller using images. More Malians will want to take it up in one way or another. Access is incredibly important. People have access now to cheaper cameras. Everyone can empower themselves in that way.

What can kids learn by being exposed to these images?

I think it's about sensitizing them to images. Looking closer, learning different histories. There's interesting work from Georges Senga on Patrice Lumumba [the first democratically elected leader of the Congo]. That's an introduction to an important personality. This forms a more creative, visual form of education.

How has early reaction been?

For me, what was important was local engagement. Sometimes the locals are forgotten. That's not just Bamako — that's every biennale. How do we give locals a sense of ownership? We're working with 10 photo studios across Bamako [to display photos from their archives], and that is going fantastically well. Many of the owners said, 'The Biennale? What's our business with that?' My colleague had to go back to some of them five times, but they are all so happy. It's really activating the local memory.

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