"I play with the beauty of the moment."
He is widely regarded to be the child prodigy of the African photography scene, whereas all he ever really wanted to become was a soccer player. Mohamed Camara experienced his calling to become a photographer more or less by chance. The 16-year-old took his first pictures in the Malian capital of Bamako using a digital camera he’d borrowed. A one-person show at Tate Modern in London in 2004 catapulted the autodidact onto the stage of the international art scene. Jutta v. Zitzewitz on Mohamed Camara—the youngest artist to have an entire floor of the Deutsche Bank Towers in Frankfurt dedicated to his work.
||The photographer Mohamed Camara’s story begins in a side street of Bamako, where the 16-year-old soccer fan was leafing through a magazine featuring photographs of Dogon in West Africa. Mohamed bragged that he could do that, too; the French writer Antonin Potoski, in the country for the photography biennial in Bamako, took him at his word and handed the schoolboy his own digital camera. After a few unsuccessful attempts on the streets, and after having the camera almost stolen from him, Camara withdrew to the protection of his own four walls and pointed the camera lens at windows and doors instead. This work formed the beginning of his first series Chambres Maliennes (2000-02), now a part of the Deutsche Bank Collection.
Blinding sunlight shining through transparent curtains; windows and doors left ajar; a woman entering the house carrying flowers on her arm—Camara’s photographs feel like painted impressions of everyday life in the Malian capital. The images taken in the shadowy apartments of friends and family reveal an "art of the threshold" in a country where the permeability between indoors and outdoors is defined by searing light and the blazing heat of the Subsahara. The young photographer views light as living material that he can mold and use to express feelings—for instance fatigue, surprise, or happiness. His virtuosity is not, however, restricted to a treatment of light; it’s the very spatial limitations in Chambres Maliennes that give rise to an incredible formal sophistication. "I love interiors because they are as limited as a theater stage. I have to express what I want to say within these parameters—through playing with the light, the colors, and objects that are there," as he explained in a conversation with Marian Nur Goni for Africulture.
When he created his Chambres Maliennes, Camara didn’t yet know of his country’s great tradition of portrait photography, established by Seydou Keita when he founded his photo studio in the 1940s in Bamako—during the colonialist era, when Mali was still called French Sudan. At the time, Camara only knew his countryman Malick Sidibé by name, the photographer who captured the spirit of teenagers and twenty-somethings with inimitable spontaneity following Mali’s independence in the 1970s. And Camara had no knowledge whatsoever of Henri Matisse’s intimate interiors, which some of his photographs bring so poignantly to mind.
And so it is all the more astonishing how instinctively Camara masters the cropping, perspective, and motifs of his images, and how sharp his sense for graphic effect becomes as he captures the interplay of light and shadow on transparent fabric. His Paris gallery dealer Pierre Brullé speaks quite rightly of Camara’s photographic intelligence and his intuitive understanding of the "decisive moment", which Henri Cartier-Bresson placed at the center of his theory of photography in the early 1950s. In this regard, Camara explained in an interview with ArtMag: "I’m lucky to happen upon these precious moments. I truly love them, which is why I don’t usually miss them."
Camara augments such moments with his own interventions, of course, but he establishes a somnambulant balance between the given and the arranged in which even enigmatic motifs seem completely natural. In his second series, Certains Matins (2006), the surreal elements of his aesthetic of the everyday come even more vividly to fore. In these poetic vignettes, two shadows on the red earth allude to a love story: Certains matins, au réveil … (On certain mornings, while awakening…); or Camara dreams of his soccer hero: Certains matins, si je ne vois pas Zidane, c’est son nom qui m’apparait (On certain mornings, Zidane’s name appears to me when I don’t see him); or he becomes immersed in play with his cousin: Certains matins, ma cousine ma fait des trucs que je ne comprends pas (On certain mornings, my cousin shows me tricks that I don’t understand). In this series, private rituals such as a prayer, a walk, or waiting at a window are compressed into epiphanies in which the subtle interplay of light, shadow, and color always harbors an element of mystery.
Much like the West African griots—singers and poets that preserve the cultural memory of their people in oral tradition—Camara also tells stories, but his are in a state of suspension. The titles of his works contribute to this effect: Certain matins, je suis la cactus de Siberie (On certain mornings I am the cactus from Siberia) / C’est la chance qui est venue me saluer (Happiness comes to visit me) / Certain matins, le cactus se balade devant le chalet (On certain mornings, the cactus takes a walk in front of the country house).
Like Paul Klee, who shares Camara’s poetic play with image and text, the African photographer is hard to pin down. When asked about his work, he provides charming but evasive answers that demonstrate how little he cares to reveal about himself and how important he considers all elements of the playful and open to be, even in conversation: "I play with the beauty of the moment, and with the materials that are there, like fabrics and textiles", for instance, is his answer to the question concerning the meaning of material in his work. When asked about the aesthetic role of the autobiographical, his response is: "Of course I make art, but I also portray my everyday life and I often play with things I can’t say in my photographs."
The mystery of Camara’s images is not only a result of his artistic talent, but also has something to do with the distance between Africa and Europe—with a remaining quotient that cannot be translated when converting one culture and one context of perception into another. Conversely, Camara capitalizes on this distance. Far from all prevailing Africa clichés, the photographer resists the tourist’s gaze that many western viewers cast upon Africa—or he simply flips it around in his photographs. In his Chambres Maliennes, for instance, he completely leaves out the colorful chaos on the streets of Bamako and retreats to rooms that an outsider would never have access to. In Certain matins, je suis la cactus de Siberie, on the other hand, Camara approaches the European Alps with the dazed amazement of an African tourist who has just seen snow for the first time. Certains matins, je me vois en Pere Noel (On certain mornings, I see myself as Santa Claus) reveals the degree of exoticism that western rituals hold for him. Here, he stages himself in the midst of his own clichéd notion of a white Christmas, like in a kitschy postcard—complete with lights, artificial snow, and Christmas trees.
Like many African artists, Camara has been shuttling back and forth between the continents for some years now. This life between Bamako and Paris has left traces in his work. At the important 2009 photography biennial Rencontres Africaines de la Photographie, which helped launch his breakthrough, the photographer showed his series Les Maliens à Paris. The work points to this new "border identity", as Camara calls it, by combining African and European elements. In this series, which speaks of homesickness and alienation, colorful clothing and traditional Malinese jewelry form a glaring contrast to the cement towers of Paris’s Banlieue districts.
On a very different note, the familiar and the foreign, past and present are skillfully interwoven in the new series Souvenirs. Camara asked friends and relatives to pose with old photographs of themselves, which they hold inside plastic bags filled with water—the kind that can be bought on a street corner in Mali to quench one’s thirst. For him, these memory capsules symbolize the irrevocable bond to one’s own past—to youth, home, and family. He portrays these memories as a presence that is both fragile and persistent—precious treasures that are carried like wandering medieval altars or as repressed experiences of loss that rise to the surface. The series is marked by an elegant undertone: we see an older woman lost in thought behind the radiant likeness of her youth (Dans ma jeunesse); the image of two men alongside a photograph from better days in Paris conjures up hopes that went unfulfilled—Quand on était a Paris (When we were in Paris).
For Mohamed Camara, this wandering between continents has become second nature. When asked what he’d currently most like to work on, he reveals the unquenchable longing his dual life entails: "I’d like to travel to two different countries—but in a single photograph."