Invited by Jean Paul Blachére Foundation to participate in a video workshop with the themes “the city” and “faces”, the challenge was to engage with the city of Bamako and it’s inhabitants, producing a video art work (being bamako, 2007) within ten days.

I have never been to Bamako, therefore I know nothing, from my own experience, about the city or the people that live here. When asked to come and be confronted, observe and reveal something about this place, I ask myself how one arrives in a new place, where one has never been before. Usually, we don’t allow ourselves to admit that we know nothing. Instead, we bring along pre-conceived ideas and draw them like a coat over whatever we find. In order to give ourselves a sense of security, we rashly come to conclusions, dipping all that we meet in familiar concepts. We think that we are looking and observing, but often we do so, not in order to learn something new, but in order to compare, judge and reassure ourselves of our knowledge.

Reflections about the African continent are often subject to this fate. Countries within Africa tend to be thrown into one basket, being seen mainly through the filters of having a history of colonialism. They are constantly being compared with occidental systems - and are most often found to be lacking. Even as an African, it is difficult to get away from the impressions that the media leave in our minds; rigid ideas of efficiency and the ‘right kind’ of progress, negative examples of misrule etc. These handily-packaged and digestible information bites often have little to do with the reality of how millions of people live, meeting the demands of daily life with vigor. Dangerously, we feed ourselves in order to be ‘informed’ and to be critical, not realizing that a few peoples’ opinions are becoming our opinions.

But it is not only other peoples’ opinions becoming my own, which worries me. I wonder about my very own opinions, my own way of seeing and judging the world. I too am a producer, a creator of my own packages of images/sounds/information that I present to others. What exactly am I proposing to see and be able to communicate?

I think that artists often search for artistic commentary that is somehow truthful. We desire others to see what we have seen and to know what we have found out. We regularly take on difficult topics such as justice and equality. But in all these attempts it is about us: we search, we want, we desire, it is our fight for justice and equality, not of those that we are supposedly fighting for or wishing to give a voice. Perhaps our intention is good when we go to a place, but if we remain blind to what is actually there, or see only the half of it, then good intentions can easily become imposition, misrepresentation and even exploitation. We go away with interesting images and much to say about it, but it remains our words, thoughts and presentation.

Perhaps there is no other way to go about it. The storyteller always fictionalizes. A story told repeatedly always transforms over time. One person’s story is simply that. It might be enough to acknowledge that this is so. To avoid thinking: ‘I know about that place because I heard from someone, I saw his or her images’. Subtler still, perhaps it is better to be more cautious than to think, ‘I know about that place because I was there, I saw it myself’. Instead it could be useful to ask oneself, ‘what did I see - did I really see?’ and to become aware that what we see and experience is immediately self-interpreted, like telling a story to ourselves.

Finally, after ten days of experiencing a place like Bamako - or even months, years or a life-time spent in any place, all that might be left to say is “I was there: at that place, at that time”. Although this seems neither spectacular nor scandalous, if it is truthful statements we are looking for, this might be closer to the point.


© Mwangi Hutter, 2007


becoming bamako

by Mwangi Hutter