« These are transformative and nervous times… »

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These are transformative and nervous times in which to work on the continent. We assume that readers here will be familiar with the particular constraints that photographers endure. Some exciting, and jarring, changes are bound to affect these creative pioneers. Two recent innovations promise swift movement towards even greater collaboration among Africa’s photographers, and to foster the efforts of a new generation of activist curators. 4G’s roll-out is raising hopes to warp the speed at which people can connect and move ideas and objects around. Africa in theory (and in practice in pockets at the start) stands to benefit – probably more than any other place – from rapid adoption of new mobile network technology. 2010 shone on another massive innovation with still wider implications for the immediate future: Kenya’s M-PESA and similar programs across the continent, which provide an astonishing extension of cash transfers, « peer-to-peer, » with minimal bank intervention, have been successful in setting up new systems of payment and for the distribution of credit via mobile phones. Money can move from Accra to Eldoret with the ease of an SMS. 4G and mobile money transfer services are two innovations that are poised radically to change day-to-day communications and the financial picture for millions of Africans, including, of course, photographers and other actors in the creative sector. Both will reconfigure how artists work and reach new clients, patrons, and institutions. At the same time, we must recognize the continued constraints posed by unstable and less amenable governments, not to mention the massive costs of converting existing infrastructure. In all but the most wired countries, much still rides on state apparatuses.
News of this type of innovation is both anticipated and welcome. It changes the calculus for people, for their immediate and medium-term future, and it is already beginning to inflect decisions about where and how one can afford to work as a photographer. All of this was in the air in our conversations with photographers in Bamako, during the 8th edition of the Rencontres de Bamako. The transition from state structures and foundation-held purse strings, while far from finished, is palpable and suddenly feels more realistic than it did a generation ago. Yet as the commercial opportunities for international work continue to expand, investments of energy and time are trickier than ever.
Many photographers are feeling a new optimism that is shared in contemporary art circles across the continent, and they are taking part in new arts initiatives in unprecedented numbers. This upsurge has been accompanied by the reinvigoration (whether related or not) of the landmark independence-era arts festivals: notably, Algeria’s 2nd Pan-African Cultural Festival, which was held in Algiers in July 2009, and the current Festival mondial des arts nègres in Dakar this December, sponsored by the Senegalese government and the African Union. Running counter to this enthusiasm and energy for pan-African, multinational, and South-South initiatives, national governments are scaling back resources for arts and education, and cuts are affecting funding and markets for creative venues globally. While these larger trends are working against each other on an obvious level, they must be considered as parts of a whole, and as essential background to these technological leaps just mentioned. If 4G and mobile money transfers stand to offer unprecedented access to a flow of images and markets, they are also slated to outpace government arts programs and ministries of culture in their impact on how photographers work and connect.
Despite our readiness to imagine possibilities for the future – expanded access to markets and conversations with artists, educators, patrons, and institutions – the cards have yet to fall, and we can offer no predictions as to the directions the continent’s dynamic photography scenes will take. However, based on the excitement and disappointments of the last year, we can outline three trends/events of note and venture a few observations about where the densest and most provocative efforts are unfolding.
One: The lessons we brought back from Bamako defy ready summary under the heading of successes or failures – although there were plenty of both this year. Growing dissatisfaction with the Paris-based remote-planning apparatus and with a top-down approach was voiced by many, confirming that the biennial cannot escape more widespread problems affecting French cultural policies (and politics) on the continent. At the same time, 2009 saw significant investments by new institutional partners. Puma Creative and its spin-off, Creative Africa Network, are to be praised for their mobility grant programme, which funded travel to Bamako for all exhibiting photographers. This and other efforts to broaden inclusion are only at the beginning stages. The visibility conferred by the Rencontres on exhibitors has continued to grow, and the biennial’s influence now extends to distant spheres. In 2009, ripples had clearly reached the shores of Britain: Brighton Photo Fringe, Tate Modern, the British Council and other London-based institutions were all represented, many by curators in Bamako for the first time. The Rencontres remain a crucial venue for those artists who are practiced in putting themselves forward and have experience discussing their work with curators, journalists, financial backers and the odd collector. But the event has not done enough to make these conversations possible for those who have not yet developed the necessary fluency upon arrival. In 2009, 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 programs and other forms of professional development are of dubious benefit for photographers and fail to capitalize on the richness of face-to-face encounters. And in the end, it has become clear that the greatest value of the biennial stems not from the exhibitions or from the exposure they can bring, but from the role the event plays as a gathering place, above all, for photographers – amongst whom networking, face-to-face exchange, and real-time discussions of work have become crucial.
The most meaningful criticisms we heard in Bamako rose above the level of complaint to frame creative responses to these and other limitations. A new generation of activist artists and curators are focusing on ways to harness the event’s momentum to launch their own initiatives. The most interesting are picking up where Bamako leaves off, and they are reconfiguring exhibitions as only one of many platforms for promoting new artists.
Two: For artists and curators based on the continent, the Rencontres are serving as a springboard for new activism. We could mention two of the most notable endeavors here. Curator Bisi Silva’s initiatives through her Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos are designed with a keen awareness of the limitations of biennials, workshops, and arts festivals on the continent. Her space in Lagos serves as a studio, exhibition gallery, library and magnet for an array of people working in creative fields. Exhibitions and programs organized by Silva and her staff deliberately court artists working in new media. Workshops of invited educators and younger participants encourage experimentation in new media and techniques. Silva is equally keen on encouraging a strong conceptual and critical narrative that drives the most compelling artistic projects, and which will reach a wider audience. Her approach goes against the grain of what might be considered a conservative local art patronage, but also addresses what she sees as lack of critical follow-through in the ad hoc approaches of some younger artists. Silva has certainly been successful in energizing and mobilizing a new dynamism of younger patrons who work in or travel through Lagos. Yet CCA’s efforts are not cheap. Investments in artists may take some time to materialize, and there is no guarantee of any educational component’s success. The ephemeral qualities of exhibitions and events can be frustrating when resources are so tight. New projects for CCA may shift focus towards purveying another locally-inflected project: publishing high quality and critical publications that combine local concerns with the drive to inform a widening audience. Such wide-ranging efforts are laudable, and stem from a joint premise: one, the most resonant work must constantly confront an engaged and informed audience, and two, that arbiters of such decisions need not keep to Paris, London, Brussels and Cape Town.
Aida Muluneh’s pioneering photography fair, Addis Foto Fest (7-12 December 2010), set out from a different imperative. Struck by the lack of educational institutions on the continent, Muluneh strove to create an intervention from which attending photographers would directly shape, participate, and benefit. She conceived of serious professional engagements designed to include high-level photographers invited from Africa, Europe and the Americas in order to challenge the particularities of the global professional terrain. Workshops and other negotiated exchanges were integral to the festival’s initial conception. The passé exhibition-and-party format, which does little to educate many young photographers, had been thoroughly critiqued by veterans of Bamako and other mass exhibitions. Muluneh’s experience as an educator has been key, and carefully collaborative: she brings students and colleagues to meetings to negotiate with governmental institutions and international funders. The results of these partnerships will play out long after the displays of international artists in the public spaces of the city come down. Further, in emphasizing the range of professional capacity of photographers, she attends to the variegation of work, suggesting that building relevant schools and programs would benefit everyone, whether they call themselves artists or not.
Three: A third consideration is the withering of funds to support the most promising creative projects. Though some would suggest that this is nothing new, there is a clear and present ebb of subventions to support quality publications. Increasingly, editors say that they lack the means to publish proper images in books, and this at the very moment that more and more photographers, curators, and collectors are turning to publication as meaningful and enduring means of promotion and valorization. We are seeing a remarkable flurry of catalogues related to small exhibitions and a veritable flood of artist-published books. The cost of printing images may not be as low as we had been led to hope or expect – despite much-vaunted technological advances – yet it is clear that books can get made, and many of them are serving as inspiration to photographers, big and small, who are emulating these efforts at self-publication. If the mainstream or more recognized presses are clearly succumbing to conservatism and retrenchment, the most imaginative editors will do well to see books as something beyond a mechanism for reinforcing the value of constituted collections and the model of’buying by the name.’ Books that focus on the names of artists, rather than on a given project’s merits, drive decisions which read as cynical, safe, and unimaginative. The recent lavish publication of the Walther collection celebrates the status quo: established artists, many of whom appeared at Bamako, form the core of an important photography collection. The publication, to be sure, adds to the value of the collection, but the (very short) list of excellent publications on photography could have stood with a sharp infusion of new imagery. Ironically, the tendency to rely on the same, tried and true, set of images comes at a time when diversification of the archive is happening, and more possible than ever.

///Article N° : 11065

Les images de l'article
Palais de la Culture, exposition collective et installation du workshop Matola Committed to Memory, Mozambique, avril 2008 © Jennifer Bajorek, november 2009
La gare de train, Bamako, Mali, 2006 © Ananias Léki Dago
Installation du travail de Mohamed Ali Osman, Port of Sudan © Jennifer Bajorek
L'Institut national des Arts et une bannière avec les travaux d'Hassan Hajjaj, issus de sa série Dakka Marrakech © Jennifer Bajorek

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