The Biennale was founded in Bamako, hometown of acclaimed Malian photograpers Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, in 1994 in order to provide a platform for African photography. It is jointly organised by Mali's culture ministry and the French Institute.

This edition's curator is Paris-based Marie-Ann Yemsi, who has German and Cameroonian origins, and features an 'Afrotopia' theme channeling ideas and aspirations about Africa's future. For Yemsi, Afrotopia – named after a book by Senegalese intellectual Felwine Sarr – represents “the capacity of artists to reflect on the challenges on the African continent” and how “there's a new generation thinking that Africa can find solutions”.

Over three weeks in the summer, Yemsi and her team reviewed 300 submissions, from which they selected 40 photographers, including many emerging talents, for the 'Pan-African' exhibition in the National Museum of Mali. Alongside this, the District Museum is hosting a retrospective on the pioneering, 88-year-old Ghanian photojournalist James Barnor, and other shows are taking place in the French Institute and Galerie Médina. It in the latter that Fosso's self-portrait as a black pope is displayed. The Cameroonian photographer, who has previously depicted himself as numerous African leaders, raises the question of whether a black man could one day become leader of the Catholic church. The piece also recalls Maurizio Cattelan's 'La Nona Ora' (1999) – a sculpture of Pope John Paul II struck down by a meteor.

This edition aims to demonstrate Mali's determination for culture to not be thwarted by terrorism. In response to ongoing jihadist violence in the north of the country, where four UN peacekeepers and a Malian soldier were killed by an Islamic group in November, security across all venues has been intensified. Mali is determined to resist intolerance and give the image of opening itself to the rest of the world, explains Samuel Sidibé, managing director of the biennale and director of the National Museum of Mali.

A strong human rights thread runs through the show. British-born, Nigeria-based Rahima Gambo has made a project, 'Education is Forbidden', on schools in northeast Nigeria that were attacked by Boko Haram and whose female students witnessed bombings or stayed away from school out of fear from attacks. Gambo carried out “memory work” about the girls' experiences and how they felt victimized by wearing school uniforms.

Angola's Lola Keyezua tackles female genital mutilation in her powerful series 'Stone Orgasms', comprising classically staged, ethnographic portraits of tribal women that Keyezua has appropriated by placing stones over their faces. Her intervention both masks the women's identities and refers in an abstract manner to the brutality of FGM.

Meanwhile, Ghanian photographer Eric Gyamfi documents members of Ghana's gay community and the homophobia facing them in his installation 'Just Like Us'. The tender photographs of gay men and lesbians were first exhibited at the Nubuke Foundation in Accra, the Ghanian capital, where Gyamfi installed a board where visitors could post comments. The ensuing comments, along with a homophobic letter published in a Ghanian newspaper and messages posted on social media, reveal the level of prejudice endemic in Ghana. “This installation is an attempt to paint a portrait of what it means to be queer in Ghana,” Gyamfi says.

Terrorism is another spotlighted issue at the biennial. Ivory Coast's Joana Choumali visited her country's seaside town Grand Bassam two weeks after it was the scene of a deadly terrorist attack in 2016 to photograph people in everyday situations with her iPhone. “What I found was melancholy and desolation,” she says. After printing her images on canvas, Choumali, 43, embroidered over them, the cathartic activity of sewing helping her to overcome the trauma.

Only one photographer living in Mali – Ivory Coast-born Fototala King Massassy, who captured smiling local people in front of a wall that he painted yellow on a Bamako building site – features in the biennale. His joyful, staged portraiture, produced with few financial means, encapsulates a spirit of optimism, despite Mali being one of the most impoverished nations in the world.

Four prizes have been awarded. South African artist Athi-Patra Ruga, 33, whose extravagantly staged photograph 'Miss Azania, Exile is Waiting' (2015) parodies the fantasy of migrating, scooped the Seydou Keïta Prize, Grand Prize of the Rencontres de Bamako, worth €5,000. Other prize winners are Julien Creuzet for his work 'Head-to-Head, Hidden Head, Light' (2017) superposing dancing figures and poetry, Algeria's Fethi Sahraoui for his black-and-white reportage of his cousin suffering from mental illness, and South Africa's Gabrielle Goliath for her video, 'Personal Accounts' (2013) on five South African rape victims. In Goliath's work, the women's speech has been redacted so that only their sighs, gasps, breathing and clicks of the tongue are audible, conveying the distress and taboo of widespread rape in the country.

©Eric Gyamfi (Ghana) – Just like Us – 2016

 ©Julien Creuzet (France) – Head-to-head, hidden head, Light – 2017

  © Joana Choumali (Côte d’Ivoire) – Ça va aller – 2016