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Bisi Silva : Telling time, rencontres de Bamako 2015 / Interview Olivia Marsaud

From something we Africans got issue 10
Tribute to Bisi Silva
Olivia Marsaud

« My main question is how to make a Biennale that is both international and local. The theme, the program and its engagement are global, international and Pan-African, but my main goal is to work on the local side, that requires more work. We want to make a Biennale that speaks to Malians, where they can feel engaged. »

– Bisi Silva

Bisi Silva © the artist

The next International Photographic Encounters in Bamako are finally resuming after the 2013 edition being cancelled because of a war in Mali. It will be their 10th anniversary. Nigerian curator Bisi Silva, assisted by Yves Chatap (France) and Antawan Byrd (USA) will be the artistic director of this much expected edition.

Olivia Marsaud: How did you react to your nomination as art director of the Encounters?

Bisi Silva: It’s been a beautiful and happy surprise to be invited. I truly love Mali and I’ve been coming to the Encounters since their 3rd edition.
I feel engaged with this country where I’ve always had projects. In 2007, the director of Mali’s National Museum Samuel Sidibé invited me to curate the project Contact Zone, along Rachida Triki, from Tunisia, et Ngoné Fall from Senegal. We invited artists to consider the historical ties between their respective countries and the empire of Mali, but also the ideas of voluntary exile, independence and borders. I have also invited Finland to the Biennale, worked with textile artist Abdoulaye Konaté, worked on the artistic development of youth in Segou (I love their dynamic Festival on the Niger).

What do the Encounters represent to you? It’s an important event for Mali and photography in Africa. The Encounters are an apt name: It’s for photographers to benefit from the event, to learn and meet each other and other professionals. 

Lebohang Kganye, « Her Story » © the artist, courtesy Afronova Gallery

You’ve received a record 900 applications. How do you explain that number? That was a crazy surprise. We usually receive around 350… This comes to show how important the Biennale is to photographers. People are looking forward to seeing it resume and want to be a part of it. They want to show  strong moral support and solidarity with Mali. We mustn’t leave Mali alone.

Did you see new photographic practices emerge from these applications? This edition is fairly artistic. We only have 4 or 5 documentary or reportage photographers, which is a low number compared to previous years. Malian Seydou Camara mixes documentary and fine art photography while South African George Mahashe Abdoulaye Konaté is planning to do an instalation. We’ve received some series that are more conceptual, some experimental works and it’s fantastic. We also want to be forward looking in our ways to show the projects. For the series The Plantation Boy from Nigerian Uche Okpa-Iroha, we will be showing the whole series, more than 40 images!

What is your goal this year? My main question is how to make a Biennale that’s both international and local. The theme, the program and its engagement are global, international and Pan-African, but my main goal is to work on the local side, that requires more work. We want to make a Biennale that speaks to Malians, where they can feel engaged. The archives of many photo studios will be plastered in public spaces and we’ve put in place a strong educational program with a hundred schools. I’ve been asked lately what a successful Biennale would look like. Well, if we realize our goals with those hundred schools, it will be true success. A recurring criticism is about the lack of engagement from the local population. I want youngsters to come with their parents, to talk about it. Particularly at a time of low morale in the country, when many artists wonder how to make a living with their work. In spite of this dire situation, I feel a strong sense of purpose and a strong will to reclaim their country and build a better future. Local engagement is a vital part of my work.

© Aboubacar Traoré

Do you face similar problems in your art center in Lagos? Situations are very different with each country. I’ve traveled extensively on the Continent; I clearly see those differences. Needs and outcomes are also different. Africa is not a country… But the main question remains the same: how to engage with a local audience? It’s what energizes me. I want to show exhibitions that everybody can see, in a professional way, with the same standards you find in London or New-Delhi. My curatorial practice focuses on how the local exists in the global. How do social realities influence the artistic production and how artists and intellectuals react to international news? I want the world to come to Bamako because the world is ours and we need to say it clear and loud.

Will you receive all of the financial support to push your vision? The important thing is to dream and do things. If one can make them come true it’s even better! For instance, we launched the project 1384 Days Wide. 1384 is the number if days between the start of the Malian crisis and the day the Biennale opens. We’d like for everyone, artists or not, to send us their images from that period, whether it is a fragment of daily life or of a thought. If we only get a few hundred images, it will be a positive step!

Did your access to certain locations got restricted because of security concerns? We will have two less locations than in 2011, for security and financial reasons. My goal was to have the right places to show what I want to show, not to have more of them. I’m not the curator of a « big biennale » but a curator of « big work ». What’s important is to give each it’s place and let the series blossom. I’d rather show less artists but with better conditions. That makes me thing deeper about scenography and the breathing to give to the work.

JD Ojeikere © The Estate

As a curator, what does represent the photographic medium for you?What I like is the story that photographs tell. I have edited a book with the work of J. D. Okhai Ojeikere and I wanted to explain where he comes from, what his influences are, his background. We have such large and rich archives; they allow for us to better know ourselves.

This interview has been previously published in OFF the wall issue 8, December 2015

(…) Find French andEglish version of the text in Something we Africans got Issue 10. Get the 320 pages.

                                                                    Something we Africans got Issue 10
Olivia Marsaud
November 2015
English text Marion Durand (2019)