The 12th edition of Les Rencontres de Bamako (Bamako Encounters) , a photography biennale that takes place in the capital of Mali, marks its 25th anniversary. Titled Streams of Consciousness. A Concatenation of Dividuals, the current project was conceived by its artistic director Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung and the team of three curators, namely, Aziza Harmel, Astrid Sokona Lepoultier, and Kwasi Ohene Ayeh. The exhibition is on view at a variety of venues in Bamako from the 30th of November 2019 to the 31st of January 2020.
Aziza Harmel is a co-curator of Les Rencontres de Bamako. She is an independent curator based in Tunis, Tunisia, who has in recent years worked at documenta 14 and Steirischer Herbst 2018. Aziza is currently developing a curatorial research program Qayyem, which will be roaming between Mass Alexandria (Alexandria), MMAG Foundation (Amman) and l’Appartement 22 (Rabat). In the interview conducted by Lesia Prokopenko, she talks about the structure and the concept of the biennale, her work on the project, the dialogue between the African diaspora and the continent, and zombification as a way to resist the immateriality of labor.
Interview in Russian can be accessed via this link — https://syg.ma/@lesia-prokopenko/potoki-i-zombi
Lesia Prokopenko: How did you start working on the project of Les Rencontres de Bamako?
Aziza Harmel: It started with Bonaventure — he simply called me and said, «Listen, this is the last moment thing, Would you want to come on board and co-curate the 12 edition des Rencontres de Bamako with me?» Then he immediately sent me the proposal, and I was very interested.
Actually, I was always interested in working more in the continent. And I met Bonaventure in 2017, when I was working at documenta 14 as a curatorial assistant and the coordinator of the whole exhibition of Learning from Athens. It was really nice that we’ve already had a trustful relationship… It’s interesting that documenta 14, which was also quite a controversial one, with its idea of inclusion, brought my way all these beautiful chances and encounters. I am very thankful for this crazy and beautiful experience.
So I began working on Les Rencontres in late February 2019, right after I got the invitation. I came to Berlin and started thinking about the public program in relation to the conceptual framework Bonaventure had proposed to us, we discussed it a lot at our weekly meetings.
LP: What was your cooperation with the curatorial team like and how did you structure the working process?
AH: I would say that it was pretty organic. Right now, looking back at it, I wouldn’t be able to tell who did what exactly, but it had quite a clear framework. Much of my work had to do with the public program, the talks and forums. Astrid was dealing a lot with the accompaniment of artists, and Kwasi did a lot of writing and worked on the film program… I feel like there was a very close relationship between the three co-curators and Bonaventure. I feel like we had a lot of freedom. Kwasi was in Ghana: at the time he was in Accra and now he is in Kumasi, and Astrid is from Mali, but she moved to Paris, so she was traveling between Bamako and Paris. And I was in Tunis most of the time — or in Egypt. A lot of the conversations were taking place via Skype.
Sometimes things would get unbearably intense: we were understaffed, and it was impossible for us to do both the curatorial work and the production for 85 artists. I really salute the courage of my colleagues, they were amazing. Every time I was thinking, «This is it!» they would be supporting me and moving forward.
LP: What about the theme, Streams of Consciousness? What is your own vision of it?
AH: It really took me some time to reappropriate it. In the conceptual notes that Bonaventure wrote, he talks about the album of Abdullah Ibrahim and Max Roach titled Streams of Consciousness, and how there is this back-and-forth motion, the flow between the two soloists, like a flow between the black African diaspora and the continent. And also there’s a flow in terms of taking a risk and putting yourself out there. To me, it was really about the inner voice and the idea of the flow. It began with the thinking about the possibility of freedom, the potentiality that each body could have that makes it able to have streams of consciousness. I was interested in the possibilities this could give: who could improvise, who could take a risk — and who was allowed to take risks. It’s about creating a space that allows these flows.
The idea I find quite important is the idea of the diaspora and the African continent. It was important to all of us for different reasons. And also the idea of the African world — trying to think differently about the African continent. Which is quite difficult because we have to negotiate with what it means for us to be Africans and what it means to be an African in front of an audience, for instance, how performative or how commodifying it could be — but also how to protect that. It’s about protection and sacrifice.
And then there is the concept of the river Niger… I think there was really no fear of metaphors, which was not that easy for me to comprehend in the beginning, but it turned out to be very beautiful. My colleague Astrid Sokona Lepoultier has been very inspiring in terms of thinking in poetry, in her essay Le doux frétillement des eaux fertiles, she expresses beautifully the essence of The Streams of Consciousness.
LP: I was actually going to ask you something that has to do with the mentioned idea of pan-Africanism. How does it correlate with a different position of the complex and eclectic Africa, which is supposed to confront the common colonial assumption that Africa is something solid and completely integral? Isn’t it tricky to negotiate between these two poles?
«It is still important to keep updating your notion of locality»
AH: I think it’s definitely tricky because there is also an importance of locality in this biennale. The diaspora has certain access to the paradigm of contemporary art that is not present here per se. Even the visual culture they have been growing in — bringing it to the local context is quite complex. You know, Mali is a country at war — and you understand what it means to do a biennale in such a context, during the terrorist attacks and bombing in the North. So I think it was challenging, but there was really a will to think that the construction of Africa is not exterior to its diaspora. And we have to find a certain balance, as well as create a dialogue between what is happening in the continent and what happens through the continent. There is also an idea of the omnipresence of Africa. As well as the idea of an invisible presence, of the layering of histories. What, for instance, Denise Ferreira da Silva speaks of as «residence time» and «blacklight.»  I think there is a search for certain justice. Also, because all of us have been away, we have a complex relation to our motherlands and all these ideas of nationalism. But if you speak from an African point of view, it is still important to keep updating your notion of locality.
LP: I’ve read in Le Monde that this time the whole production of the biennale was taking place in Mali, while in the previous editions it was usually split between France and Mali. I’m curious about the logistics of the project in terms of what we’ve just been talking about…
AH: To begin with, I have to say that the idea of including different voices was not a desire or a fantasy of internationalism — so that we would have many things done in different places and then collage them all together in the exhibition. It was just the impossibility to ignore certain voices that are not from the continent but are still echoing what Africanness means and what Africa means today.
Indeed, this is the first edition of Les Rencontres de Bamako that was trying to be independent from the Institut Français, the initial organizer of the project. And there was a desire to show that it was Mali that was an organizer this time. Even though it’s an “African” biennale, it’s still organized just by Mali. So it was a statement regarding colonialism — but the French were still paying half of the budget. And the Malian state was very difficult with us, it wasn’t as supportive as we wished it to be. The money couldn’t be paid on time, some of the venues were cancelled. We had a lot of administrative bureaucratic issues, no transparency in figures, communication issues — it was tough!
So it was a statement of independence, but also a claim that we didn’t need things to be completely polished and perfect in order for them to be exhibited. We wished it could have been done perfectly, it was still important for us to have good paper, good printers — but we did it in a low-key manner, and it was great.
LP: In the end, you had 11 venues. You told me some of them had got cancelled, right?
AH: Right. I wasn’t very much involved in that part of the process, but I knew that we were supposed to have Le Musée de la Femme, which was quite important for us. And so, Le Musée de la Femme got cancelled the last minute, which made the whole thing even more complicated as we had to redistribute the artists. And it was also a symbolic thing to have Le Musée de la Femme, we were all wondering what it meant — it’s like the Ministry of a Woman, it’s a tricky thing. So, I think, as for the spaces, it was difficult. I heard that sometimes they didn’t make it easy for us to cooperate with them. Even though they were supposed to be organizing things, they slowed us down a lot. But ultimately we did have all the venues we wanted — apart from the one that got cancelled.
LP: Coming back to the conceptual project structure, could you tell me more about the four verses and the way the exhibition was divided?
AH: In the beginning, we thought that we needed to have chapters, and there was also a desire to think in poetry — as a form of knowledge. In the concept note that Bonaventure gave to us, there was a poem by Ama Ata Aidoo. It goes like this:
there is some elation here
… and some bitterness too.
But if you want to find out
the more equal ½ of us are,
come see us at any public library
— after a normal 9-5 working day.»
I was quite struck by this. And thinking of Ama Ata Aidoo, the idea of the ghost, the omnipresence of certain things and the layerings of histories, we decided that the titles of chapters would be taken from the strophes of a poem featured in the prelude of The Dilemma of a Ghost, a play by Aidoo.
So, the first chapter, The Sudden Scampering In The Undergrowth, was dealing with the idea of the remote, the marginal, the unseen. It’s not that what you don’t see doesn’t exist. And for us it was quite obvious that we would talk about what we don’t see in all those photos, the choices of places. Again, it has to do with residence time. It’s quite important for me.
«Everything that is alive exists because a part of it has killed itself»
The second chapter — For The Mouth Must Not Tell Everything — is related to the politics and poetics of ecosystems. It’s about being more attentive to nature. The idea of attention and apprehension was something I was really interested in, it was also related to the essay that I wrote for the biennale, dealing with the notions of care and sacrifice. There is a text by Ray Brassier about the death of the Sun, where he says that the outside, the surface of something is always sacrificing itself to protect what is inside — for him, this was the original trauma. The surface sacrificing itself is constantly making us aware of the death drive. I was interested not so much in the idea of human thought after the death of the Sun, but in the idea of the sacrifice. As I wrote, «Sacrifice is a method that reminds us that everything that is alive exists because a part of it has killed itself.» I’m thinking about institutions as a surface that has to sacrifice itself, but is instead keeping itself alive while the inside is dying. I’m curious how such a thing as a biennale could sacrifice itself in order to care for the voices and the people within it.
Then, the third chapter, We Came From Left, We Came From Right, was related to migration, displacement, flows of movement and immobility, scattered voices and diaspora. I live on the Mediterranean Sea, the most deadly road existing. The idea of the constant back-and-forth movement and death that takes place in between the two continents is something I’ve been obsessed with it.
The fourth chapter, The Twig Shall Not Pierce Our Eyes, is about hope. I was very keen on the method of hope — because I’m not sure what it is that makes me wake up and keep doing my job. I still have hope that I will have hope! Resisting exhaustion, acknowledging the invisibility of impact. We were taking into consideration the histories of struggles and thinking of ways our own structure could make an impact. This is the link between the four verses.
LP: There are several special projects in the program — what are they?
AH: I can tell you a little bit about the selection process of the biennale. We had an open call on the internet, which brought 331 proposals that we needed to go through — it was quite intense. In addition to that, each of the curators proposed certain names. Ultimately, the number came to 85, as we tried to include many voices. To give just a few examples: Rahima Gambo with her very strong series The walk, Keli Safia Maksud, Faces of Africa, Adeola Olagunju, Transmutations, Eric Gyamfi, Fixing shadows, Julius and I…
Collectivity was an important idea, so we wanted to also invite artist collectives, to study this way of working while acknowledging its violence, in a way. Therefore we were lucky to have with us Invisible borders, the Otolith Group…
«The way photography reproduces, the way it reflects the reality makes it a very dangerous medium»
Also, there were special projects for which we wanted to invite curators — so there were more exhibitions within the main exhibition. For example, we invited Fatima Boccoum who showed a very strong exhibition around women and violence titled Musow Ka Touma Sera, we decided to have it in the girls’ high school. Among the artists that she selected were Amsatou Diallo, Fatouma Diabaté…
And there were also what we called Solid Rocks, the people who were accompanying our thoughts and who have been influential and decisive — like Akinbode Akinbiyi, who was also graciously guiding and advising the curatorial team through the whole adventure, Felicia Abban, Eustaquio Neves… But the exhibition was one whole, without the separation of different categories. Everything was entangled.
LP: As far as I understand, you also had pictures from three family albums included in the show?
AH: Yes, you know, there is a great tradition of taking portraits, inside of one’s house or at a studio, sometimes families would be photographing themselves. It is impossible to do an African photography biennale without having any link with the history of photography in Mali. We wanted to do it too, but then, it’s the 25th anniversary of the biennale, all these amazing photographers like Malick Sidbe, Seydou Keita (among many others) have been omnipresent throughout all these years. So this was a way to pay homage to the history and to acknowledge what was already there. Because, to be honest, I don’t think it was a very “local” exhibition — apart from production being done in Bamako and only by local subcontractors.
LP: Was it the first time that you worked with the photographic medium at such a scale? Have you been able to see photography in a different light?
AH: This is indeed the first time. I would not say I am a big photography specialist, so it was quite challenging. But that’s why I’m so happy I joined this initiative, and I’m aware of what it means. For sure, I became less apprehensive, I got closer to the medium as I had to go through so many photographs attentively, trying to access the necessary sensitivity in order to understand it. It also taught me to let go, to think less of perfection and quality, but to see other things as well. It was about being able to listen carefully (to quote the wonderful Akinbode Akinbiyi) — while looking. The way photography reproduces, the way it reflects the reality makes it a very dangerous medium. For me, this idea of improvisation, of streams of consciousness of a person who is waiting and then taking a risk to shoot, to catch the moment, was really about understanding what it means to be attentive, what it means to show something, what it means to let go. That moment of risk and the idea of tracking significance is something I find very fascinating.
LP: It a very beautiful way to put it. Is there anything you would like people to know about this project?
AH: I’ve been thinking a lot about undead art and zombification. In my essay, I didn’t really talk about art, but I talked more about labor, the internal labor, and the labor of the artists. In that sense, I wanted to bring attention to the immaterial labor, the alienation it implies, and also to show resistance to the polished art world. It was actually difficult to think that this was not just another biennale. With all these voices, something did happen — maybe not on the level of the exhibition itself, but on the level of the encounters. We still have to think about the idea of the sacrifice and what it is in the structure of such a big project that has to be sacrificed, although I guess we have already felt it. One has to be aware of the violence of such structures.
«A zombie is the only way to resist immateriality»
It is important for me to speak about zombification, because a zombie is the only way to resist immateriality — as it still has flesh, right? So it can resist the immaterial labor and the invisibility of the abject. In a way, it could be a negative character, but let’s try to think as well of what a zombie represents in the continent and how it came to Haitian culture. There is an idea of Bondye, the god in Haitian Vodou culture — and we can’t reach Bondye directly, so we need to access the spirits called Loa. Quoting my essay, «The ritual of the sacrifice is performed in order for the life of the sacrificed animal to be transfused to the Loa. The aim and emphasis of sacrifice is not about the death of the sacrificed, but rather it is about the transmission of its life to something else.»
I want to acknowledge my desire to think of the platforms of Les Rencontres not as a means of representing culture, but as a means of producing culture. And it is a really tricky thing. I’m still not sure how to do that, and I’m not sure how to protect myself and my colleagues from the unjust ways of working for the sake of the institution. My essay is called S’en Fout la Mort («Don’t care about death») — it’s the title of a movie by Claire Denis. It is a beautiful movie on death, zombification, emigration — and violence, the ways violence can be invisible.
I’m a product of today, informed by many prefabricated forms of knowledge. It’s a lifetime’s work, to decondition ourselves. It goes for racism, as well as for many other things. North Africa is a very racist place, so talking about “pan-Africanism” we also had to be clear whom it was for. We have to take into account that violence is part of the idea of living together.
A Concatenation of Dividuals is the subtitle of this Biennale. The one/the whole is a construction yet it is the place where struggles and revolts can entangle. In order to imagine the shell that could hold those struggles ghosted and inhabited by each other, I would like to mention love and desire as a curatorial force.
 The biennale presents the work of 85 artists in total, among which are Ibrahim Ahmed (Egypt/USA), Nirveda Alleck (Mauritius), Emmanuelle Andrianjafy (Madagascar), Roger Anis (Egypt), Yannick Anton (Canada), Afrane Akwasi Bediako (Ghana), Jean-Pierre Bekolo (Cameroon), Jodi Bieber (South Africa), Milena Scherezade Carranza Valcárcel (Peru), Cédrick-Isham (France), Nidhal Chamekh (Tunisia), Amsatou Diallo (Mali), Moustapha Diallo (Mali), Dickonet (Mali), Adji Dieye (Italy / Senegal), Fakhri El Ghezal (Tunisia), Badr El Hammami (Morocco), Yagazie Emezi (Nigeria), Theo Eshetu (Ethiopia / Italy / The Netherlands/ United Kingdom, Fototala King Massassy (Mali), Abrie Fourie (South Africa), Rahima Gambo (Nigeria), Eric Gyamfi (Ghana), Yasmine Hajji (France), Halima Haruna (Nigeria), Fanyana Hlabangane (South Africa), Renée Holleman (South Africa), Adama Jalloh (United Kingdom/Sierra Leone), Maxime Jean-Baptiste (France), Amina Ayman Kadous (Egypt), Mansour Ciss Kanakassy (Senegal), Mouna Karray (Tunisia), Godelive Kabena Kasangati (DR Congo), Bouchra Khalili (France/Morocco), Nicène Kossentini (Tunisia), Kitso Lynn Lelliott (Botswana / South Africa), Keli Safia Maksud (Kenya/Tanzania), Harun Morrison & Helen Walker (United Kingdom), Santiago Mostyn (Sweden / Trinidad / Zimbabwe), Khalil Nemmaoui (Morocco), Yvon Ngassam (Cameroon), Antoine Ngolke-do’o (Cameroon), Christian Nyampeta (The Netherlands/Rwanda), Abraham Oghobase (Nigeria), Adeola Olagunju (Nigeria), Léonard Pongo (Belgium), Nader Mohamed Saadallah (Egypt), Amadou Diadié Samassékou (Mali), Mara Sanchez Renero (Mexico), Ketaki Sheth (India), Buhlebezwe Siwani (South Africa), Selasi Awusi Sosu (Ghana), Mohamed Thara (Morocco), Dustin Thierry (Curaçao / The Netherlands), Bouba Touré (France / Mali), Hamdia Traoré (Mali), Andrew Tshabangu (South Africa), Guy Woueté (Cameroon). The participating collectives are: Association des Femmes Photographes du Mali (AFPM) (Mali), Collectif Orchestre vide (France), Collective 220 (Algeria), Iliso Labantu Photography Collective (South Africa), Invisible Borders (Trans-Afrique), Kamoinge (USA/Pan-Africa), Kolektif 2 Dimansyon (K2D) (Haiti), MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora (Pan-Africa), The Otolith Group (Ghana/India/United Kingdom). The Solid Rocks section includes Felicia Abban (Ghana), Akinbode Akinbiyi (Nigeria), Jihan El Tahri (Egypt), Armet Francis (Jamaica), Liz Johnson Artur (United Kingdom), Deborah Willis (USA), Eustaquio Neves (Brazil). Special Projects: Do you hear me calling? (video installation by Theaster Gates, USA), Musow Ka Touma Sera (curated by Fatima Bocoum, Mali), Dja Tigui: L’hote de Mon Ombre (curated by Nakhana Diakite Prats, France/Senegal), The Works of Tolu Odukoya 1945-2015 (curated by Uche James Iroha, Nigeria), Legends of the Casbah (curated by Riason Naidoo, South Africa), À l’Est de Bamako (curated by Françoise Huguier, France), Five Photographers: A tribute to David Goldblatt (curated by John Fleetwood, South Africa).
 In a note to her interview with Denise Ferreira da Silva, Margarida Mendes provides the following quote to explain the notion of residence time: «The amount of time it takes for a substance to enter the ocean and then leave the ocean is called residence time. Human blood is salty, and sodium, [Anne] Gardulski [Tufts University, Dept. of Earth and Ocean Sciences] tells me, has a residence time of 260 million years. And what happens to the energy that is produced in the waters?» Excerpt From: Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press: 2016).
This is how Denise Ferreira da Silva refers to the concepts of residence time and blacklight: «Well, I would add that this “vital space” actually becomes (has become) what/how it is now, because it is constituted by these dead people who did not complete the voyage between the West African coast and the Americas or Europe. And not only the dead ones: those who completed the crossing to be sold as slaves also left traces of their bodies, as sweat, blood, urine, spit in the waters along the way. Residence time reminds us of that. Residence time also tells us that traces of the flesh of the dead slaves remains here/now as part of the composition that is the Atlantic Ocean. But if you consider how, for instance, fish from the Atlantic is consumed everywhere; and if you think about evaporation and how clouds gather all kinds of things (as aerosol, I think), and move them along, well, then you realize that these traces exist in the composition of all kinds of bodies on this planet. Blacklight, as I have been thinking of it, is about a method, a how. By throwing blacklight at something, one can attend to what is there but is not highlighted: to what is there as a filler, a detail, as means, or a raw material.»