Any photographer can tell you that the strictures of being successful – or trying to get there – include near-constant travel, jet-lag, aloneness: residencies, promotional talks, openings at galleries, art shows, festivals. One lives out-of-place, and out of time, performing a presentable, palatable version of self. Given these disjunctures in modern photographers’ lives, I wondered what might mean for them to be engaged in “telling” time, Bamako Encounters’ theme, using a medium that is, essentially, about distilling time into a “still”. In stilling a moment in time through recording it in an image, we are engaging in a form of melancholia – an inability to let go of a past as time moves on. Our longing for that past is strong enough that it appears in our mirrors sometimes, and in frames of photography and film – uncanny visitors from histories we cannot untie from the threads of our present.
Some work at Bamako Encounters remarked on the way that past attachments stay ever-present, using deeply personal reflections; they meditated on the way that time – and the geographical, political, and genetic locations through which we have passed – keeps telling and retelling itself on our psyches and our bodies. Mimi Cherono’s collage of photographs, the first to greet the visitor in the cool, white tent, comments on that relationship with time in a way that was more indicative of melancholic presence – an inability to let go of a past that insistently wounded one’s present. Cherono’s work, “Do You Miss Me? Sometimes, Not Always” is an invitation, a secret garden of jewel greens overlapped by darkness and dappled light. “Do You Miss Me” consists of a selection of photographs taken in Kigali, Abidjan, Kampala and Nairobi, images of both cityscapes and suburban loneliness. They were taken during six months of travel, subsequent to the passing of one of Cherono’s close friends, South African photographer Thabiso Sekgala. These studies tell us stories of cities built by architects influenced by poor-man’s Bauhaus and post-colonial practicalities: minimalist, concrete, easily replicable. But Cherono also bookmarks structures that hope to escape that mediocrity, aspiring to something to do with indicating affluence: a white home with a double peaked roof, its white columns holding up twin stories, accompanied by an immaculate, close-cropped green lawn. In another photograph, a red brick wall shows us the perimeter of a property and the limits of its inhabitants’ freedom; an ornate, russet settee, devoid of a sitter, tells one just how uncomfortable this aspired-to comfort is. Shoes – heeled court shoes, kiddies’ sandals, and some fashion-conscious youth’s sneakers with Velcro tongues – are piled up at an entryway – waiting their owners’ return. A wide avenue where a red sports car barrels down, past sleepy conifers and hedges, is reminiscent of Americana; a seashore, where a distant couple is walking could be a postcard: one of them is wearing a red shirt, and the other is in dark clothes, and their feet are catching the silver web of saltwater lapping the strand.
The largest image in this collage is a close up of banana leaves – broken and battered by rainstorms, some ragged by age, others being choked by undergrowth. There is an abandoned, dirty white pony figurine – once part of a carousel, perhaps? – poking its unlikely head out. In the middle of that refulgent foliage and decaying objects, Cherono has imbedded a small, blurry, black and white image: it is a photograph of a man, who is either just waking up, or he is a little tired, because it is late at night. The small shadow by his elbow tells me that it is probably night, because the light is artificial. His slim body is lounging comfortably on a sofa, elbow placed along the top of a cushion, his head resting on his right hand. He smiles from some far away place, already part of a history we are forgetting. But that smile-that-is-not-a-smile, more haunting and mysterious than any European Renaissance beauty can offer, keeps shadowing us.
Many photographers who came to this Biennale knew that Sekgala ended his life only a year prior. Mimi and he were friends and collaborators on photographic projects; in fact, it was through Mimi that I learned of Thabiso’s death in October, 2014. But even now, in a year’s time, the memory of him has become a garden that is not well-maintained. Looking at this image of a man – so slim, so small, already blurring into the undergrowth of a badly maintained garden – I am reminded, immediately, of Sekgala, and the collective of our narratives surrounding his absence. Yet, I wondered about the effectiveness of imperatives admonishing us to remember the past as an elixir against forgetting.
South African Lebohang Kganye’s “Her Story & “Heir Story” are family stories, imbedded into the narrative of South Africa. She reflects, like Cherono, on the way that a beloved figure can insert herself into present narratives for which she is no longer present. But Kganye also actively orchestrates her return to the past, maintaining history as part of her living present. Unlike the melancholy evident in Cherono’s work, the tone that comes across here is sweet and tender in some instances, and fall-down funny in others.
In “Her-Story,” a series of digitally edited photographs, Kganye overlays images of her late mother with a second set of images, in which she has re-enacted the same scene, dressing and posing in the same manner as her mother.
The two images – one from the past, and one from the more recent present – shadow each other, reminding us, simultaneously, of our demise and our ever-presence. This is a loving homage to a parent gone too soon from one’s life, a longing for a presence to which one cannot return. But instead of melancholy – a wounding from which one is unable to recover – we see that this is a mourning that allows Kganye to lovingly celebrate her mother’s life. We see that she isn’t overshadowed by her mother’s omnipresence or her loss; instead, she accompanies her daughter in the bittersweet present, in the absence of her mortal self.
In the second set of images, “Heir-Story,” Kganye costumed herself as her late grandfather – a larger-than life figure legendary for the way he brought one after the other of his family members from apartheid “homeland” in the Free State to the city of Johannesburg in Transvaal Province. Kganye then embodies the role played by the Pied Piper of the family – also famous for his comical drunken episodes – re-enacting her grandfather’s exploits, including one escapade where he had to be brought back home in a wheelbarrow.
To tell this story, she re-invents the apartheid stage – placing life-sized cutouts of relatives among props that recreate the city, township, and domestic spaces as her grandmother described them; in so doing, once again, she attempts to inhabit a past that is no longer available to her and her age-mates – those who are part of the so-called “Born-Free” generation of South Africans who came of age after 1994. Yet, we also know that past is very much a part of the present – that though the visible structures Kganye recreates and bookmarks as part of the apartheid past were erased or discarded, the less visible structures remain, shaping her generation’s life. In her reenactment, Kganye goes a step further, by making a stop-animation film using the life-sized cutouts of family members and rolling dollies to move the scenery.
The result is a historical narrative that “tells the nation” and tells the personal, intertwining the effect of colonial and apartheid-era land dispossessions, Group Areas acts, and liquor laws. We see the determination of one man and his family to survive this politically orchestrated tragedy, the impossibility of making it in this heartbreaking country, and the comedic eye-roll in Kganye’s re-telling. How else can one behave in the face of a history – one intended to make us break down and weep – but tell and tell again, whilst laughing?