The Heroic Africa : Philippe Bordas, The Essence Photographic
The Heroic Africa
Philippe Bordas, The Essence Photographic
P.B., December 9, 2013
Writer and photographer Philippe Bordas began his African experience in 1988, sharing the everyday lives of Kenyan boxers in Mathare Valley, the largest slum in Africa. In 1993, he met the artist and writer Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, whose poetic journey he celebrates in L'invention de l'écriture (The Invention of Writing) (Fayard, 2010). Between 1994 and 1999, he entered the closed world of Senegalese wrestling. The lives of boxers and wrestlers provided the theme for his book L'Afrique à poings nus (Africa with Bare Fists) (Seuil, 2004. Awarded the Prix Nadar), the first part of an ongoing trilogy which formed the subject of an exhibition in 2004 at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie. In early 2001, in Bamako, Philippe Bordas discovered a resuscitated army of hunters from all over West Africa who had not come together for almost seven centuries. He followed their movements over a period of seven years.  

Philippe Bordas/Chasseurs du Mali, 2001
Philippe Bordas/Chasseurs du Mali, 2001
The Hunters of Mali

Bristling with amulets and talismans, armed with rifles preserved from time immemorial, they are the intact memory of the African Middle Ages.  Descendents of the elite army corps of the Malian Empire, they wear the same costumes and obey the same laws as the riders and soldiers of King Soundjata Keïta (1190-1255).  The hunters ignore the borders that were drawn under colonial rule and live in most of Western Africa, in modern Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Guinée Bissau, Mauritania, and parts of Ivory Coast.  They ignore totalitarian regimes, instead following the oral democratic code of Keïta's empire, which stretched from the Sahara to the Equatorial forest and from the Atlantic to the River Niger. Keïta's reign was a time of peace and prosperity when Islam and animism coexisted and during which slavery was abolished.

Philippe Bordas/Tiken Jah Fakoly
Philippe Bordas/Tiken Jah Fakoly
After centuries of tribal war and trade in humans, Keïta gathered together the armies from his small kingdoms and supplanted those of his rival Soumaoro Kanté in 1235. He built his capital in Niani, Guinea, near the border with Mali.  The Empire of Mali founded a slaveless society ruled on egalitarian principles, a political organization that may prefigure later western democratic constitutions.  The hunters form a freemason-like brotherhood in which new members are co-opted, irrespective of their birth, their origin or their class.  These living legends represent village authority and are the depositories of justice as well as poetic and genealogical oral traditions. They are also the masters of therapeutic and magical knowledge and time-honoured hunting skills.  Against the corruption and chaos generated by neo-colonialism and the systematic erasure of memory instilled by liberal globalization, the underground transnational power of these traditional hunters forms one of the spiritual foundation stones of Africa: an active utopia.

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