Despite being the largest country in West Africa and sharing borders with no less than seven neighbors, most Americans would have a hard time locating Mali on a map. But this month, January 2013, Mali is suddenly in the news as radical Islamists linked to Al Qaeda are threatening to destabilize the country and France, its former colonizer, has returned to the region to intervene. Algerian support for the French use of their air-space has, at the time of writing, resulted in a punitive attack on a gas plant in Algeria by insurgents and more than 80 deaths. All of this has to seem very remote to the majority of Americans but there are at least two for whom it doesn’t seem far away at all. They are New York-based curator Daniel M. Leers and SUNY New Paltz professor and photographer François Deschamps. By coincidence both men, along with the staff of the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at the SUNY New Paltz campus, have spent a good deal of January putting together two exhibitions of photography at the museum with Mali at their heart.
The exhibitions, both of which are curated by Daniel Leers and open on January 23, are connected like a mother and child. In the Alice and Horace Chandler Gallery Professor Deschamps is showing a body of work created during a Senior Research Fulbright fellowship in Mali in 2010 –2011. The adjoining North Gallery hosts a show of Malian photographers all of whom are near contemporaries born between 1922 and 1936; they are Seydou Keïta, Malick Sidibé, Hamidou Maïga, Abdourahmane Sakaly, and Tijani Àdìgún Sitou. Mali is among the poorest countries in the world, but at one time it was one of the wealthiest — in the 14th century Mali was one of three African empires that controlled the wealthy trans-Saharan gold trade; it was a place where mathematics, astronomy, literature, and art flourished. It is home to the legendary city of Timbuktu and the mysterious Dogon people. Even today gold is one of Mali’s primary exports, yet over half of the population lives below the international poverty line. In the late 1800s, as part of the European scramble for Africa, France colonized Mali, dubbing it Soudan Français (French Sudan). In 1960 the country regained its independence and its name, but kept French as the official language, and, said Deschamps, a good deal of his ability to be successful during his time there was due to his facility with that language. Deschamps, a native of Manhattan, is half French and was raised bilingually. Leers, formerly a Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Curatorial Fellow of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is an independent curator with a longtime interest in contemporary African art and, in particular, photography. “We are fortunate to be able to experience this work here in New Paltz,” he said.
The French colonialists brought photography to the people of Mali in much the same way that European settlers brought photography to the Native Americans, primarily for anthropological and ethnographical purposes. But the Malian photographers took the western portrait form and gave it a distinctly African flavor — they made it their own and without pretentions to anything other than confident self-representation. Their unique take on photographic portraiture was unknown outside of Mali until French curator André Magnin happened across them in the 1990s. The photographs in this exhibition are from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and so span the period leading up to, during, and after Mali’s independence from France in 1960. Some photographers, like Seydou Keïta (1922 – 2001), are self-taught and others, Malick Sidibé for example, had attended art school. Sidibé found his way to the photography studios as a painter of backdrops in Mali’s capital city Bamako. There, as elsewhere in the world, photographers set up studios with painted backdrops and props. But while a European studio would have had vases of flowers or small statues as props, here the props might include anything from eye-glasses, watches and bicycles to western-inspired clothing including suit jackets and fedoras. In the late 1960s and 70s, props began to include record sleeves, and bellbottoms and leisure shirts made from the boldly-patterned fabric of Mali. Unlike their western counterparts who aspired to capture the true personality and, in the case of Richard Avedon, the soul of their subjects, Malian photographers seem more interested in theater — not so much “what is” but “what could be,” yet their subjects are utterly present and candid. Keïta is the oldest of those exhibited at the Dorsky and is considered the father of Malian photography; he is a contemporary of Avedon’s although his work has more in common with photographers such as the Philadelphian John Frank Keith (1883 – 1947). Keïta’s portraits tend to be formally posed family groups or individuals and, according to Malick Sidibé, local dignitaries and society people. Keïta made excellent use of Malian fabric designs as backdrops for his subjects and many of his portraits, particularly of women, have a richness of texture and pattern that Matisse would have appreciated.
Malick Sidibé, half a generation younger than Keïta and less conventional, set out to capture the post-colonial 1960s exuberance of the Malian youth. Unlike Keïta whose works are studio-bound, Sidibé’s photographs are on the streets, at the beach, and at dances; he catches the yearning of the youth towards the James Brown rock and roll of the west, the shrugging-off of both colonialism and tradition — the appearance of it anyway — circumcision rituals and arranged marriages continue to be practiced in rural areas of Mali, and Sidibé himself has four wives. In his studio portraits Sidibé also pushes the envelope in a decidedly contemporary and peculiarly Malian way in how he poses his subjects and his occasional use of hand-painted glass frames. The frames act almost like a mat with the photograph protected behind the glass while the front of the glass framing the image is painted in brightly-colored floral designs. Some of his most surprising images are individuals or groups photographed from behind, one of which is included in the exhibition: “Les Très Bons Amis dans la Même Tenue” (Very Good Friends in the Same Outfit).
Two particularly interesting aspects common to Malian photographers are the hand-painted theatrical backdrops they employ, and their interest in “twinning.” Both are illustrated in the work of Abdarahmane Sakaly (1926 — 1988). In Sakaly’s photograph of a young woman standing in front of a painting of a garden with a mosque we see, at the edge of the image, that there are other backdrop options behind from which the subject can choose — incidentally, these untidy edges would almost certainly have been cropped in the photograph given to the customer; these Sakaly images are scanned from negatives that were printed by Deschamps’ students. Also noteworthy is Tijani Àdìgún Sitou’s fabulous self-portrait in front of an elaborate backdrop of an airport. Oftentimes the backdrop would indicate an aspiration of the sitter, a popular choice would be an image of Mecca and if one wasn’t able to afford to make a pilgrimage (the Hajj) as is expected of good Muslims, at least one could appear to have gone.
West Africa has an unusually high rate of twins — four times the rate of other parts of the world — and twins are greatly cherished and considered a special blessing. Therefore it is not uncommon to see twins in photographs and efforts are made to ensure that there is no doubt that these are twins, as is the case in another of Sakaly’s photographs. Leers explained to me that, when a family loses a twin at birth or as an infant, oftentimes photographers will do a double exposure of the surviving twin to recreate the set. It is also common to see photographs of pairs of women or girls who, if they are twins, are not identical but wearing identical clothes — these may be fraternal twins, ordinary sisters, or two wives of one husband, but it is another illustration of the West African interest in “twinning.”
One of the salient aspects of these photographs is the role the sitter plays in the design. The final image is a true collaboration between sitter and photographer in that the sitter or sitters will choose the backdrop, most likely the floor covering, and the props, essentially the mise-en-scèné, with the photographer advising and suggesting poses (the latter is beautifully illustrated in a short video by Susan M. Vogel about and with Malick Sidibé at his studio in Bamako). This practice of collaboration is something François Deschamps emulates in his project Photo-Rapide done during his Fulbright fellowship in Mali.
Deschamps’ exhibition of work is, in fact, the first thing visitors to the museum will encounter, as one must enter the Chandler Gallery to reach the North Gallery. His exhibition consists of four parts: the photographs which themselves comprise three distinct stages of the project Photo-Rapide; a group of scale models or dioramas of typical Malian photo studios; an actual photo studio recreated in one corner of the gallery; and a series of small cut-out portrait paintings on plywood made by a Malian commercial artist, Joseph (Jo) Koné, based on Deschamps’ photographs.
The Fulbright fellowship program was established to increase mutual understanding between the USA and other countries; Deschamps describes it as “soft diplomacy.” That isn’t to suggest cynicism on his part, it is clear from the work Deschamps produced in Mali that he realized the purpose of the fellowship as much as anyone could have.
Deschamps riffs off the tradition of the photo studio in ways that are particularly interesting. While in Bamako, he created a studio complete with a hand-painted sign and rubber stamps, but he also went out into the community to find subjects for his project. The title Photo-Rapide comes from the fact that he carried with him a digital printer not much bigger than an iPhone so that, when he found a subject, he could immediately give them a copy of the photograph. He noted that many people, possibly sensitive to exploitation by tourists, were wary of having their photograph taken, so he was very careful to ensure that this was a quid-pro-quo. However, Deschamps didn’t just give them a print, he also carried with him cardboard frames he had made on which were printed a variety of designs and patterns all connected to Mali. The designs include traditional fabric designs, nuts and bolts, herds of goats, fish, vegetables, and images of local currency. One design is a repeat of photographs from the ubiquitous Bamako motor-cycle traffic jam.
Deschamps would offer the subject a choice of frame in much the same way a studio photographer would offer a choice of backdrops. Then he would take a photo of the subject holding the newly framed photograph. This second photograph, in addition to its own intrinsic value, must have acted as an aide-mémoiré for the specific frame the subject had chosen when the photographer came to creating his own copy for the project.
The photographs in the show illustrate these three stages in the project. They are a selection of the original unadorned portraits, photographs of the subjects holding their framed prints, and photographs that include the frames, all blown up to 24″ x 35”. Before I realized the input of the subjects, I was put in mind of the great Dutch portrait painters who included various items from the sitters’ lives and professions in the paintings to further explain the sitter for posterity. In Deschamps’ works I had assumed that he had chosen the frame to illustrate something of his subject. However, the man with the frame of goats is neither a farmer nor a goatherd as I had imagined and, as he is wearing a leopard-print shirt, it isn’t a stretch to conclude that he chose the goat design for the comic juxtaposition of the predatory symbolism of his shirt pattern and the goats on which the leopard would prey. Likewise the woman who chose the design made up of currency notes and coins may have liked being framed in money, or she may have liked the echo that is created with her headdress which has decorative gold coins sewn into it.
The other elements of the exhibition are made with the help of the Bamako “old-school” commercial artist Jo Koné. One of Mr. Koné’s stocks-in-trade are hand-painted figure cut-outs made from thin plywood that are used in stores to display wares, necklaces, scarves etc. Deschamps asked Koné if he could reproduce some figures from his photographs on plywood, as he did for the stores, and Koné agreed. The likenesses are remarkable especially considering the artist uses car paints in only the primary colors and green, and stubby brushes. It is still more cost-effective in Mali to employ a commercial artist to do backdrops and signs than it is to use photographic methods. It was a nice touch to bring the exhibition full circle and have the photographs be a source material for a Malian art form.
Deschamps also commissioned Koné to paint some backdrops for his scale models of Malian photo studios — these backdrops form the backgrounds for the sixth part of the exhibition, the on-site “instant portrait” studio. The studio is set up with a green screen and Deschamps or his assistant, SUNY New Paltz photography major Casey Robertson, will invite visitors to the exhibition to be photographed on specific days throughout the exhibition period (details at the end of the page). Just as in a Malian photo studio, the subjects can choose a backdrop from a selection and they can also choose from a variety of fabrics with which to adorn themselves, if they wish. The backdrop will be added on the computer and, just as on the streets of Bamako, the portrait photograph will be printed up immediately and stamped with the Photo-Rapide logo. A second print will be saved and added to an ever growing display on the wall of the studio section of the gallery. This part of the project is called “Malimerica.” Following is my instant portrait―I choose the airport backdrop because I like the idea of going places; I chose the fabric because it matched my hair.
Before I left the museum, I took one last tour around the Malian photographers in the North Gallery. It is particularly poignant to consider these images in the context of their time in history and in the light of the current situation in Mali. Although, at this point, the trouble in Mali is not happening in the capital, Deschamps expressed concern for his friends in Bamako including his students at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers Multimédia Balla Fasseké Kouyaté where he taught as part of his fellowship. Some of those students became his assistants in this project and also subjects for his photographs. One such is Souleymane Bathieno, the subject of the next photograph. Souleymane also helped scan and print Tijani Sitou’s photographs for this show.
For anyone interested in finding Mali on the African map, look for the country shaped like a butterfly in flight.
Banner image: François Deschamps, Bina Kone, 2011, 24 x 35,” pigment print, courtesy of the artist.
Gallery hours are Wednesday – Sunday, 11 am – 5 pm.
*Opening Reception is February 2, 5 – 7 pm, snow-date is February 9, 5 – 7pm.
Visitors to the exhibition are invited to sit for their own instant portraits during the Feb. 2 opening and on the following dates:
Feb. 16, from 2 – 5 p.m.
March 16, from 2 – 5 p.m.
A related exhibition of photographs and books by Deschamps, Studio Mali, will be on view at Fovea Exhibitions, 143 Main Street, Beacon, N.Y., from Jan. 26 – April 7, 2013, with an opening reception on Saturday, Jan. 26, from 5 – 9 p.m. For more information call 845 – 202-3443.
*Also on display in the museum’s Sara Bedrick Gallery from Jan. 23 – June 23, 2013 is: The Dorsky Collects: Recent Acquisitions 2008 – 2012, curated by Wayne Lempka. This exhibition will also be celebrated at the Feb. 2nd public reception.
Claire Lambe is an Irish born painter whose works have been exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic; she is a graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and holds an MFA in painting from the City University of New York. In addition to her art-making, she is also the company manager and designer for The Woodstock Players Theater Company —as the company designer she is responsible for everything from the website to the set design. In June 2013 she will direct her first production for the company: Rex & Rex by Carey Harrison. Writing credits include contributing author to Teen Life in Europe (part of the Teen Life Around The World series), and articles and reviews for this publication. Claire Lambe Art Journal