South African artist Lebohang Kganye's photography often fuses with her interest in sculpture and performance.
South African artist Lebohang Kganye's photography often fuses with her interest in sculpture and performance.

BAMAKO, MALI - Two years ago, Mali cancelled a popular pan-African photo festival amid a post-coup political crisis and militant occupation of the north. Artists say the biennial Bamako Encounters, introduced in 1994 and returning after a four-year absence, gives them a chance to refocus on the positive.

Malian artist and documentary photographer Seydou Camara says the event, which opened Saturday and continues through December, offers an opportunity to revive Mali's image.

"There’s the hospitality and kindness toward strangers, the sun, the architecture and the feeling that everything is possible. That’s the Mali we as photographers need to show," says Camara, who’s showing photos he shot in Timbuktu before the crisis.

In March 2012, Mali’s military seized power from the civilian government. Islamist militants took advantage of the political chaos and occupied the north for nine months. Armed rebels threatened civilians and destroyed many of Timbuktu’s sacred tombs and other historic architecture, and also burned ancient manuscripts.

Camara's images show the stacks of crumbling papers that local librarians would later smuggle to Bamako for safekeeping. Most of the mausoleums were destroyed and have only just now been rebuilt.

Bamako Encounters, now in its tenth edition over two decades, has become a key event for Malian and African photography. The centerpiece is a group exhibition featuring 39 artists from 14 countries, including Mali, South Africa, Ghana and Nigeria.

Works are shown at the National Museum and around Mali’s capital city.

Festival as time machine

This festival, with its "Telling Time" theme, includes a retrospective of previous events. It lets visitors explore the archives of Bamako's many photo studios, including that of Malick Sidibé. The Malian photographer earned fame for his black-and-white portraits of youth and nightlife in the 1960s and '70s.

Seydou Camara says Sidibe remains a touchstone.

"Malick showed the vibrant youth. It’s a work we need to continue, even if we don’t do exactly like him," Camara says.

Photo studios can still be found all over Bamako, but their importance as incubators for young artists is diminishing. High-quality smartphones with cameras are increasingly affordable, and more and more Malians are using mobile phone applications such as Instagram and Hipstamatic.

This year's festival organizers plan to incorporate works from members of the public. They can contribute photos taken during that time. Selected images later will be displayed on a photo walk in Bamako’s National Park.