lives and works in Bamako,
Alioune Bâ, 2008
Money Can Buy A Bed, But It Can't Buy Sleep
Alioune Bâ, 2008
Vestibule of Stars
Alioune Bâ, 2008
Architecture Without An Architect
Alioune Bâ, 2007
AB I prefer detail shots. For example, in my photograph entitled Fashion, my focus is on the small details of the clothing. What’s striking in this image is that as we observe the delicacy of the woman’s hands and the textures of her dress, we imagine what her face might be like. In my view, a photograph’s strength lies in the details, because an image is not something that can be understood straight away. It’s not of great interest to take a photo of a person that shows everything from head to toe, because it leaves nothing for the viewer to anticipate. For an image to be meaningful, it must conceal more than it reveals. We must create the conditions that allow viewers to become active participants. We must urge viewers to ask questions, such as "What’s the reason behind this?" That’s my conception of photography, and what I strive to defend.
AN ARTIST TRAINED AT A MUSEUM
Q Can you tell us about your training as a photographer?
AB I first started working at the National Museum of Mali in 1981 as a public relations officer, with the task of presenting Malian culture to museum visitors. This coincided with the completion of renovations at the museum, and the plan was to launch a new audiovisual department. This created new opportunities for me, and I’m greatly indebted to the museum for that. I was offered training in Mali, France and many other places with leading professionals, working out on location. As a student, I’ve been very spoilt: instead of having to reach out to teachers, it was the teachers who approached me. My training has been comprehensive, ranging from laboratory photography to carpentry for the fabrication of picture frames. When I mount exhibitions, I’m involved in the organization from start to finish. Even if I consider that I’ll be a student all my life, I’ve certainly learned a great deal, and this knowledge is a valuable asset for me. The museum set out to train a technician, but the day-to-day reality of the job has developed the other aspect of my work: little by little, it’s made me the artist I’ve become. In addition to this, I grew up in the middle of two cultures, so that when I gained a better understanding of the reality of my country, I wanted to play a part in the development of a cultural centre that would highlight the importance of this new culture that I was confronted with, which is my own culture.
BETWEEN TWO CULTURES
Q What do you mean when you speak about your two cultural influences?
AB When I say that I have two cultures, I consider myself to be very fortunate. I had the opportunity to go to school – a Catholic school – and my father was a lawyer. In my family, we often spoke French. My father taught me to look at the positive sides of all the cultures around us. This is what I mean by living in the middle of two cultures. I try to draw on the good sides of these cultures, and when I realized that the image that is presented of Africa around the world was limited to the more negative aspects, I decided to take it upon myself to embrace the forgotten side of Africa. That’s what I’ve been doing for many years now. It turned out to be a rather foolhardy idea, because this commitment has led me to defend one culture over another, even if the culture I’m defending is unaware of the battle I’m fighting. The culture that is my intended audience, to whom I want to expose the reality of my own culture, respects and values my work. To sum up, I could say that I’m caught between the hammer and the anvil.
THE BODY, BETWEEN SUFFERING AND PLEASURE
Q The human body is an ancestral theme. Is this an important factor for you in your decision to utilize the body as both a medium and an image?
AB Yes, the body is indeed an ancestral theme. Whether in the field of music, painting or, especially, photography, the body plays a very important role. This is also the case in religious ceremonies. For example, in scarification practices and ethnic markings, the human body constantly experiences pain, and it bears the physical marks of this suffering. Even though the body can give pleasure, it also suffers pain.
Q How you do go about writing texts on your subjects’ bodies? Do you prepare your texts in advance? Are the situations you photograph staged?
AB Yes, I write all the texts in advance and then I set out to find the person whose body is most appropriate for my text. My texts come from all different sources, such as the New Testament, the Koran, or literary texts. I also like to write texts myself. Sometimes I ask people to write a text for me. For example, I might you ask you to write a short poem.
PHOTOGRAPHY AS A TOOL FOR SOCIAL EXPLORATION
AB I do a lot of workshops with children. I realized that I’m much more at ease with children than I am with adults. Excuse me for saying that, since you’re adults, but it’s true! I’m very interested in children’s sense of freedom, and that’s why I work with a number of international organizations that are involved with children. In this work, I come up with projects or I’m commissioned to focus on specific themes, such as AIDS, malaria or education (particularly that of young girls).
Q How do you structure your workshops?
AB I start by organizing a small workshop, and as a group we discuss the particular subject we’re working on. We talk and share information, and we all work closely together. I ask the children to illustrate what they’ve learned, and what they produce becomes the material for an exhibition. Workshops last around three weeks. It’s only a short time, so it would be unrealistic for me to claim that I teach children photography in that time. Not at all! You can’t learn a profession in just a few days! What I do is give them access to a new communication tool. That’s why I’m not particularly demanding when it comes to technical aspects; they’re not so important. I let them do their own thing, and I learn a great deal from the freedom that comes naturally to children. They often don’t even hold the camera upright or horizontally, they point it in whichever direction they want. The uninhibited way that children look at things is always a great lesson for me. I’ve learned so much from them.
Q You’ve also worked with people with mental health problems.
AB That’s right. The experience of working with children gave me the idea of organizing workshops with mentally- ill people. In my work with children, I had already come across great differences in mental attitudes, so I just pushed it one step further: I wanted to reach out to people who were not considered "normal". To my great surprise, it all went very well. I gave them disposable cameras – in fact, we went through ten times as much equipment as I had estimated, because they broke the cameras, dropped them and threw them around. But the result was gratifying as I was able to help them break out of their solitude, their isolation and inwardness, even if only for a short moment. That was where my success lay. What remains today from that workshop is a series of photos that I was able to capture now and then, which serve as a record and a communication tool in my work. They also bring back great memories of my time in the world that these people inhabit.
A POSITIVE IMAGE OF AFRICA
Q With your photographic work, is it your aim to change the image that outsiders have of Africa, or is it also to alter the image Africans have of their own continent?
AB That’s a good question. I must confess that in the beginning, I wanted to show the rest of the world a different image of Africa. My stance came about in reaction to the media, because in the press and on television, we only ever see and hear one thing: Africa at war, Africa menaced by disease and famine, and so forth. All of this is a reality in Africa, but if that were all that existed, Africa would have disappeared off the face of the earth long ago. But there are positive aspects, too, and that’s what I first set out to show people. Then I realized that it was necessary to be far more frank and open, and to show a different image within the image. What do I mean by that? I mean that it’s also very important to show African people the things that function well, in the culture and environment in which people live. When we delve a little deeper into this ignorance of the more positive aspects of African culture, we see that it comes entirely from the influence of Western media.
Q Has Western media had a destructive impact on young people?
AB To give you an example, I asked a group of students one day to do a photo-reportage on a subject of their choice. All I required of them was to shoot an entire roll of film on their chosen subject. Two of the students were not interested in photography at all, but those who were more motivated went out and shot precisely the same images that were being broadcast on television at the time, just to please their teacher. They took photos of people begging in the street, garbage dumps, and so on. These are the only images they brought back. On the other hand, the two students who expressed no interest in photography had forgotten about the project until the day before it was due. "Oh, that’s right!", they said, "Tomorrow we have to see Mr. Bâ." So they rushed off to take a series of photos on the last day. They wanted to fill up the roll of film as quickly as they could, so they didn’t go further afield than their own family compounds. In their photos, you could see a little sheep, or a younger brother. They were badly framed, but, to everyone’s surprise, I liked these boys’ work! Do you see what I mean? The other students were not happy about it, but when I explained my reasons, they understood. This brings back the idea we mentioned earlier about the two sides of things, and that’s a theme I always refer to in my work in some way.
Q What do you mean by the idea of "two sides of things"?
AB In my work, I show Africa to the rest of the world, but I never take photos on the other side of the world and exhibit them in Africa. In my career, I’ve done many residencies over the years, but I’ve never wanted to show those photos in Africa, because you must stay true to your objectives in life. When I show the positive side of Africa, I also show the positive side of Europe, but it would be madness to show the positive side of Europe in Africa! That would push even more young people to go to Europe, when Europe is no longer the El Dorado that people dreamed about. That’s no longer relevant.
Interview conducted in Bamako, National Museum of Mali, 16.02.2011
by Bärbel Küster, Marleine Chedraoui, Judith Rottenburg, Janine Schöne
TO SUM UP, I COULD SAY THAT I’M CAUGHT BETWEEN THE HAMMER AND THE ANVIL.
I SHOW AFRICA TO THE REST OF THE WORLD, BUT I NEVER TAKE PHOTOS ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD AND EXHIBIT THEM INAFRICA.
When I show the positive side of Africa, I also show the positive side of Europe, but it would be madness to show the positive side of Europe in Africa! That would be to push even more young people to go to Europe, when Europe is no longer the El Dorado that people dreamed about. That’s no longer relevant.
It’s not of great interest to take a photo of a person that shows everything from head to toe, because it leaves nothing for the viewer to anticipate. For an image to be meaningful, it must conceal more than it reveals.
Interview with Alioune Bâ in Bamako, 2011