My encounter with Africa came through the high politics of physical and poetic excellence: Kenyan boxers, Senegalese wrestlers, inventers of writing and bearers of ancient traditions. My photographic subjects were self-taught heroes, relentless strugglers brimming with kindness, admonished by black and white elites alike, respectful titans. People with terrifying virtues and determination. Artists chanting anthems, wild animal hunters, tamers of hyenas and trainers of language, alphabet sculptors, champions: every one a mystical warrior the like of which was nowhere to be found on my childhood soil.
Dripping with amulets and talismans and armed with rifles from a bygone age, the hunters of Mali are the living memory of the African Middle Ages. They are descendants of the Malian imperial elite corps; they wear the same uniform and obey the same laws as the cavaliers and soldiers of King Sundiata Keita (1190–1255).
The hunters ignore the boundaries born of colonisation and live in an area that covers practically the whole of West Africa: Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea- Bissau, Mauritania and a part of the Ivory Coast.
They transmit the oral history of the Empire of Sundiata Keita – which stretched from the Sahara to the equatorial forest, and from the Atlantic Ocean to the loop of the Niger – a period when Islam and animism coexisted. After centuries of tribal warfare and slave trading, Keita united an army from the smaller kingdoms and ousted his rival, Soumaoro Kante, in 1235.The hunters functioned as a fraternity where recruits were co-opted with no distinction of birth, origin or class. At once alive and legendary, they were the authorities of the village, the depositaries of justice and a powerful musical and poetic tradition; they also held the key to therapeutic, cynegetic, geomantic and magical knowledge. In the face of the corruption and chaos generated by neo-colonialism and the systematic neglect instilled by liberal globalisation, the sovereign and transnational power of traditional hunters forms an important spiritual cornerstone of Africa, a founding myth, a living utopia.
Philippe Bordas (France)
Les Chasseurs du Mali, 2001 – 2007
Curator: Laura Serani