François-Xavier Gbré: Combining Images and Signs to Reflect Complexity

Born in 1978 in Lille, France, photographer François-Xavier Gbré is particularly interested in architecture and the traces that history leaves on it over time. After a period spent in Italy, where he worked in the world of fashion, he settled in Bamako and began working on  the Olympic pool at the Modibo Keita Stadium, built in 1962 and named after independent Mali’s first president. The series comprises the first part of an on-going study of Bamako, its buildings, and urban changes that examines the past and present tensions. In this interview, François-Xavier Gbré explains the work he has carried out in the Sotuba neighborhood and on the new Avenue des Armées.

Q: François-Xavier, how did you become involved in photography? What is it that fascinates you about this medium?

A: In 1999, I was studying science at university, but I was very interested in graphic arts. A friend took me along to a communal photo studio. I developed my first image there. It was magic and I caught the bug!

First of all, photography answers your curiosity, opening avenues to all domains. Then it induces a free, independent and passionate way of life. With time, the camera becomes a weapon for raising awareness. I love the immediacy of the medium in service of narratives that can be written over the course of several years. Photography is also an excellent excuse to travel and meet people.

Q: Because of the current political crisis in Mali, you have moved to Côte d’Ivoire. Initially, however, you left Paris to go to live and work in the Malian capital. In one of our exchanges, you said that “Mali remains one of my favorite playing grounds”. Why and what is it you have found there?

A: Bamako as a city is undergoing profound transformation. Up until the 2000s, it was locked in a model inherited from the colonial era, dotted with several fine achievements in the town center or on the banks of the Niger. In my photographic work, I am interested in historically charged, abandoned places awaiting transformation. I look for an in-between, a link between the past and the future. That was how I discovered the Olympic pool at the Modibo Keita Stadium in 2009, which was in the middle of being renovated more than forty years after it was built.

Today, entire districts are being built or transformed and that’s why I’m fascinated by this town. There are vast cleared spaces, innumerable construction sites. Bamako is developing fast to meet its demographic growth and to equip itself with the necessary infrastructures to meet its economic perspectives. Districts like ACI 2000 have been subjected to strict town planning, which has given rise to very spacious and organized zones. You can get round them easily, but this district hasn’t yet really come to life. Is the collective housing model based on that of the West in keeping with the Malians’ habits? Humans build their environment and, little by little, the environment ends up shaping them. Only time will tell whether this project is a success or not.

The old neighborhoods are overflowing, very busy and full of life. How does one connect these two worlds? Is there an overall vision for the town?

On an individual level, the rich have delusions of grandeur. Grey districts are emerging, with a whole host of half-built private construction projects that are often left abandoned until additional funds are found. Bourgeois villas stand side-by-side with makeshift dwellings and unauthorized dump sites. What’s paradoxical is that millions are invested in construction, but most of the town remains unsanitary. It’s vital for the politicians to take responsibility and to start raising the population’s awareness on this.

Q: Can you tell us about your Bamako, beyond the media legend of the town of Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibé?

A: Bamako is full of contrasts and contradictions. It’s a huge village. Tradition holds a very important place and the youth resolutely aspires to modernity. To me, visually speaking, Bamako is an open-air installation. I love its light, its river, its hills, its new tarmacked avenues that suddenly turn into little bumpy roads.

The photographers Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibé photographed society. I use architecture as a language to bear witness to social change.

Q: How did you become interested in the new Sotuba district and the Avenue des Armées, which you have photographed extensively?

A: I started photographing the Sotuba district in November 2009. The wet road was accessible and passersby would stop to watch the first stages of construction of the town’s third bridge. When I went back to Bamako in October 2011, I hurried to see the finished and freshly inaugurated construction. The building of a bridge inevitably transforms the neighboring districts. It was this change I was interested in. Continuing on from the bridge, I thus discovered the Avenue des Armées which, to me, is a concentration of architectural aberrations. Beyond the specific aesthetics of the monuments, I have my doubts about the quality of the workmanship. The different concrete parts of the statues are molded, assembled and the lot covered with a bronze-colored patina. Marble has been substituted with tiling. I fear that these low cost creations will have a limited life-span. But as the budget allocated for the works was slashed right from the start by the client (the State), they made do with what was at hand: the left-overs.

In a context the news is focused on certain things – the Islamists’ advance, the take-over of Mali’s cities, the number of deaths – I prefer a more sensitive approach, establishing a parallel between the situation in the north and this avenue devoted to the army.

Sotuba is a highly mystical place for the people of Bamako too. Some even claim that Mali’s current problems are a result of this new bridge, because a sacred ancestral ground was violated.

Q: Several related themes emerge and intertwine in this work: the multifaceted nature of the increasingly important exchanges between the African continent and Asia, the transformation of the landscape in both its private and institutional aspects, with the adoption of certain aesthetics, the grandiloquent inscription of narratives that reference national myths in the city space… In this profusion of narratives, how did you seek to write your own? And what issues and stakes were you confronted with in this work?

A: The complexity of social landscape photography is to get the viewer to reconsider history.

The Sino-Malian Friendship Bridge, inaugurated on September 22, 2011, the day of the 51st anniversary of Malian Independence (September 22, 1960), symbolizes a connection between Asia and Africa. Clearly a 1616 meter-long construction costing thirty billion CFA Francs is a considerable gift. The Malian State will in return offer major construction sites and mining concessions. It’s an interesting starting point for looking critically at governance.

Was building monuments to the glory of the army a priority when the country’s territorial integrity was seriously under threat during that period? The government was hiding a disastrous situation in the north of the country, which the people were enduring, powerless. The homage that the country’s officials paid on January 20, 2012, Armed Forces Day, thus seemed a disrespectful and hypocritical act. A few days later, news broke out of the rebel forces’ massacre of over one hundred army soldiers at Aguelhok.

Furthermore, I think that the continent has enough talented people mastering the cultural codes and capable of making quality monuments. But as we still prefer what comes from abroad in Africa today, representation suffers from a lack of appropriateness in its expression of certain values. “North Korean” Socialist realism style works are perhaps not what’s best suited to Mali.

Q: You say that “North Korean” Socialist realism style works are “perhaps not what’s best suited to Mali,” but Socialist realism was prevalent during Modibo Keita’s first presidency. One might consider that this aesthetic is also part of the country’s heritage. That’s not, of course, to reduce the distance between what was in the ‘60s and 2012. What are your thoughts on that?

A: Mali, of course, experienced and lived through socialism under Modibo Keita, who maintained close ties with the ex-USSR after independence. But why not favor Sudanese architectural methods rooted in the country for centuries? A rupture with past outside influences is needed to enable Malians to focus again on their own culture in terms of representation.

Photographically, it was essential for me to place the statues in their environment, including elements that have a narrative force. For example, during their construction, the statues were covered with plastic sheeting each night. For me, this image of veiling brought to mind the occupied zone controlled by the Jihadists and the imposition of Sharia law. Women’s freedom was under threat there, as they were forced, among other things, to adopt a clothing style that, up until then, wasn’t at all widespread in Mali. These wrapped statues could also be seen as an absence of the army, a blindness.

Certain images require deduction, appeal to the imagination. The details of the unfinished statutes evoke a totally disorganized army. What interested me was the combination of images and signs capable of reflecting the complexity of the subject.

Q: When were these images taken?

A: Most of the pictures were taken before the coup d’etat on March 22, 2012. It was clear that something was going on, then it effectively transpired. Later, homes on either side of the Avenue des Armées main axis were cleared so that the road could be widened. I included a few shots taken in 2013 in the series for their war zone aesthetic: between construction and destruction, the landscape looks a bit like a battle field before the fighting actually starts. One can feel a certain tension, even though the fighting didn’t directly affect the capital. Often the construction sites drag on forever, due to lack of funding, and you don’t really know if the buildings are being built or whether they’ve been damaged. There’s a kind of floating uncertainty, a confusion.

Q: Roundabouts, statutes, sculptures, buildings. Since 2011, this is what you have focused your gaze on, proposing an interpretation in this photographic series. What, in your opinion, is the view of the inhabitants of such districts? This space seems so vast and virtually lifeless.

A: Since it was inaugurated, the local inhabitants have massively invested in the Carré des Armées. The gardens are lovely, it’s nice to live and go out in a neighborhood that’s for the main part tarmacked; you breathe less dust. Despite the considerable social divides, the place is becoming an attraction park of sorts where everyone hangs out. The passersby pay less and less attention to the statues and what they represent.

It’s true that very few people are featured in my pictures; that’s to leave more room for imagination. However, there is life in this neighborhood, unlike those referred to earlier, built out of nothing. Sotuba was already a place of convergence; it’s a transformed neighborhood with a more residential aspect now. It’s true that it is calm at the moment, because it’s a difficult time and people tend to stay at home more.

Q: What projects are you working on now?

A: The “Tracks” series is still ongoing and the list of symbolic, historically charged places is growing longer. I recently photographed the Porto Novo National Print Works (Benin) and the Governor’s Palace in Lomé (Togo), two buildings built by Germans. The transformation of landscapes, and notably urban spaces, remains one of my main preoccupations; little by little, close ties are emerging in the different West African capitals I photograph. I’m now going to take the time to work in Cote d’Ivoire.

Thank you for your time, François-Xavier!

- Leica Internet Team

To see the interview in its original French text, click here. To see more of François-Xavier’s work, visit his website.