Collection Spotlight: Ebola Times, Emmanuel Bakara Daou

Artist:  Emmanuel Bakary Daou (Malian, born San, Mali, 1960)

Titles:
Compagne de lavement de mains (Handwashing Campaign) from the series Le temps Ebola (Ebola Times), 2018.10.1 [featured image]

Compagne de lavement de mains (Handwashing Campaign) from the series Le temps Ebola (Ebola Times), 2018.10.2

Centre Opérational d’urgence Bamako (Emergency Operations Center Bamako) from the series Le temps Ebola (Ebola Times), 2018.10.3

Centre Opérational d’urgence Bamako (Emergency Operations Center Bamako) from the series Le temps Ebola (Ebola Times), 2018.10.4

Centre Opérational d’urgence Bamako (Emergency Operations Center Bamako) from the series Le temps Ebola (Ebola Times), 2018.10.5

Stop Ebola from the series Le temps Ebola (Ebola Times), 2018.10.6

Date: 2014

Medium: Chromogenic print[s]

Dimensions: 2018.10.2–5, 11 13/16 x 17 11/16 inches; 2018.10.1 and 2018.10.6, 19 11/16 x 29 ½ inches

Credit Line: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Irwin and Andra S. Press Collection Endowment Fund purchase, 2018.10.1-.6



Speaking in 2014, Emmanuel Bakary Daou shared his concept of photography as “…a means of communication, a way of conveying messages, and, above all, a tangible witness to a moment in time.”[i] Daou studied painting before turning to photography, and his work frequently explores the intersection between photography’s documentary and expressive potential. His series Le temps Ebola (Ebola Times) comprises a haunting evocation of a fictional Ebola virus epidemic in Mali’s capital city, Bamako. Daou’s images reference the lethal Ebola epidemic of 2013–2016, which began in Guinea, Mali’s neighbor to the West, and quickly spread with devasting effect to Sierra Leone and Liberia. Before it was contained, isolated cases of the virus were recorded in Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Italy, Spain, and the United States. During the crisis, Ebola, which causes fever and hemorrhaging, infected over 28,500 individuals worldwide, more than 11,000 of whom died.[ii] In Mali eight cases were diagnosed and six individuals died of the disease. Purchased by The Block Museum in 2018, Daou’s Le temps Ebola evokes a heightened sense of urgency and relevancy as I write this in the midst of the serious Covid-19 pandemic of 2020–2021. For me, the experience of life during a pandemic has provided perspective and a vocabulary for understanding Daou’s photographs with deeper intimacy. 

For me, the experience of life during a pandemic has provided perspective and a vocabulary for understanding Daou’s photographs with deeper intimacy. 

In three works in the series, Daou, who is an internationally published photojournalist, documents the Centre Opérationel d’urgence Bamako (Emergency Operations Center Bamako). Established to direct a proactive response to the threat of Ebola on Mali’s borders, the center was equipped to swiftly diagnosis Ebola and to undertake detailed contact tracing.[iii] Set within the compressed and anonymous interiors of medical tents, these images are sterile and eerily still. Each features a medical professional dressed from head to foot in Personal Protective Equipment, two of whom are portrayed alongside shadowed secondary figures in scrubs. Cast in artificial light and centered in the photographs’ frames, the figures appear heroic, yet dehumanized, in their uniformed anonymity. These images capture the preparedness of Mali’s medical community, while also conveying the anxiety and ennui that mounts as one waits for a crisis to accelerate.

Daou supplements this glimpse into Bamako’s Emergency Operations Center with three contrasting images that are action packed and dramatic. While the emergency center images are cool and bright, these images are overwhelmingly dark. In them Daou calls on his experience as a photojournalist to create moments that appear plausible at first glance, but are, upon closer scrutiny, recognized as fictions. These imagined scenes were staged by the photographer using hired actors and acquaintances and handcrafted costumes.

In two of the photographs, both entitled Campagne de lavement des mains (Handwashing Campaign), figures in white jumpsuits and light-blue foam masks hold bottles of chemical sanitizer and gesture at people in the tight spaces of family compounds. In the foreground of one of these photographs, a man sits with his hands raised and his fingers outspread. His white beard and piercing eyes, which are focused on something unseen in the distance, are ghost-like and gripping. In the third image, entitled Stop Ebola, the artist imagines the virus entering Mali’s political and economic capital. A corpse wrapped in plastic sheeting lies in the middle of a major traffic circle in Bamako’s busy commercial district attended by three figures also wearing white uniforms. The long snouts, wide eyes, and large laidback ears of the figure’s masks are more animal-like than the goggles and mouth coverings of the healthcare professionals of the emergency center images. In form they resemble the ritual masks of Mali’s men’s regulatory societies, which over centuries have been tasked with wielding the supernatural knowledge that links the human world with the spirit world for the good of society.[iv] In the context of Mali, then, these masks invite speculation beyond what is real and what is imaginary. They also raise the question: are these figures human or are they spirits?

Daou’s photographs unflinchingly probe how an epidemic raises awareness of the razor’s edge between life and death and invites reflection on the proximity of the supernatural.

Le temps Ebola is Emmauel Bakary Daou’s boldest conceptual work to date and was selected for inclusion in the 10th edition of the Rencontres de Bamako, Biennale Africaine de la Photographie, in 2015, where he received the Tierney-Bamako-Award.[v] With Le temps Ebola, Daou used photography to witness and communicate the physical and psychological toll of trauma. Together the six photographs in the series evoke the anticipation, confusion, and urgency of a sudden public health crisis. With imagery that moves from the surreal reality of makeshift emergency centers to the uncanny fiction of an all-too-real “what if” scenario that envisions the virus entering Mali’s largest city, Daou’s photographs unflinchingly probe how an epidemic raises awareness of the razor’s edge between life and death and invites reflection on the proximity of the supernatural.

– Contributed by Kathleen Bickford Berzock, Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs


Bibliography

  • “Emmanuel Bakary Daou, Le temps Ebola (2014).” In Telling Time: Rencontres de Bamako, Biennale Africaine de la Photographie, 10th edition, edited by Bisa Silva, 48-53. Organized by Ministère de la culture du Mali and Institut Français du Mali. Heidelberg and Berlin: Kehrer Verlag, 2015.
  • “Emmanuel Bakary Daou.” Interview conducted by Bärbel Küster in 2014. Photography and Orality: Dialogues in Bamako, Dakar, and Elsewhere. Accessed January 26, 2021. http://dakar-bamako-photo.eu/en/emmanuel-bakary-daou.html.

Block Collection Spotlight invites a closer look at objects in the Block Museum permanent collection from students, staff, faculty, and museum audiences


[i] “Emmanuel Bakary Daou,” interview conducted by Bärbel Küster in 2014, Photography and Orality: Dialogues in Bamako, Dakar, and Elsewhere, accessed January 26, 2021, http://dakar-bamako-photo.eu/en/emmanuel-bakary-daou.html.

[ii] Cordelia E. M. Coltart et al., “The Ebola outbreak, 2013-2016: old lessons for new epidemics,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B, Biological Sciences 372 (April 2017): 20160297, https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2016.0297.

[iii] Bissirou Diarra, David Safrontetz, et al., “Laboratory Response to 2014 Ebola Virus Outbreak in Mali,” The Journal of Infectious Diseases 214 (October 2016): S164–S168, https://academic.oup.com/jid/article/214/suppl_3/S164/2388102.

[iv] For more information on the role of aesthetic objects in regulatory societies in Mali see, Patrick R. McNaughton, The Mande Blacksmiths: Knowledge, Power, and Art in West Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988); for more on the horizontal mask form, see Patrick R. McNaughton, “Is There History in Horizontal Mask? A Preliminary Response to the Dilemma of Form,” African Arts 24, no. 2 (1991): 40–53, 88–90.

[v] The Tierney-Bamako-Award enables the awardee to develop a body of work with the support of an established mentor within the infrastructure of the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg, South Africa. See “Tierney Bamako Award at the Market Photo Workshop,” Market Photo Workshop, accessed March 2, 2016, http://www.marketphotoworkshop.co.za/news/entry/tierney-bamako-award-at-the-market-photo-workshop.

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