Malick Sidibé (born 1936) is a photographer from the West African country of Mali―he is celebrated internationally for his portraits and candid photographs from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s that bear witness to the social, cultural, and political transformation of Mali as the country emerged from colonization in 1960. A current traveling exhibition entitled, Malick Sidibé: Chemises, honors his work and opens at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College on January 24, and will be on view until March 30. The exhibition includes fifty-three recent enlargements of Sidibé’s studio portraits and fifty small vintage prints displayed in hand-painted frames. A focal point of the show is the numerous small prints of party scenes mounted on colored office folders, the chemises of the exhibition’s title.
Mali, easily identifiable on the map by its butterfly shape, 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 land 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.
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. Those colonial photographers set up studios, employed locals in the usual way, and trained them to be assistants; some of those assistants went on to establish their own photographic studios catering to their own communities. 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 photo-portraiture was unknown outside of Mali until French curator Andre Magnin happened across them in the 1990s. Many Malian photgraphers, like Seydou Keïta (1922 – 2001), were self-taught and others, like Sidibé, the subject of this exhibition, 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 here the props included 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.
As a young photographer in 1960s Bamako, Sidibé and his peers had two things to celebrate and to document, the end of colonialism and the rise of 1960s youth culture. Bamako’s young people, despite their seeming remoteness from Carnaby Street, were as caught up in the exuberance of that decade as their London and New York counterparts, and Sidibé was well placed to be the one to document this brave new world. Unlike Bamako’s other portrait photographers, whose works were studio-bound, Sidibé’s photographs are also on the streets, at the beach, and at parties and 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 and other unconventional angles.
At the weekends, in addition to the usual baptisms and weddings, Sidibé would go to four or five parties or club events per night to take photographs, one 36 shot film at each event, and then return to his studio in the early hours to process and print the film so his clients could come by and place orders the next morning. Sometimes he would have three or four hundred negatives to process. Because the 35mm contact sheets were often too small to view, Sidibé would glue small proof prints to colored office folders, the chemises of the title, and lay them out in front of his studio for his clients’ perusal. He grouped each of the chemises by club or event and numbered the individual proofs to facilitate orders. “Sidibés clients frequently purchased photographs of themselves and their friends as souvenirs of the previous night’s festivities,” explains Mary-Kay Lombino, the Emily Hargroves ’57 and Richard B. Fisher Curator and Assistant Director for Strategic Planning at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. “Among his best customers were young men who bought his photographs as gifts for their dates, hoping it might become a precious memento.”One of the most fortuitous things about Sidibé is his habit of carefully archiving his work, a working method he learned from his first photographer employer and mentor, Gérard Guillat. In addition to painting backdrops, he was also charged with filing negatives. When he opened his own studio, he continued that practice so even his earliest images have survived, many of which have been reprinted in recent years and are now available for us to enjoy at The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar.
The exhibition opening night activities begin with a lecture by art historian Michelle Lamunière (Vassar class of 1988), who will deliver a talk, “‘You Look Beautiful Like That’: Photography and Self-Definition in the Portraits of Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibé.” Lamunière has published extensively on portrait photography in West Africa. This will be followed by a screening of Dolce Vita Africana, a documentary on Sidibé’s life and work, on Sunday afternoon, January 26.
Last year Roll Magazine did a feature on SUNY New Paltz Professor and Photographer François Deschamps’ Fulbright fellowship in Mali and the subsequent exhibition at the Dorsky Museum that featured the Bamako Photographers, Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keita, and others. That article can be found HERE
Featured Image: Surprise Party, 1964, printed 2008 — Gelatin silver print Purchase, Advisory Council for Photography, 2011.21.2 © Malick Sidibé
The exhibition was organized by diChroma Photography in collaboration with the DePaul Museum of Art, and supported at Vassar by the Friends of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center Exhibition Fund.
The exhibition runs from January 24 – March 30. Opening event: Friday January 24, 2014 — 5:30pm Lecture, Taylor Room 102 with Michelle Lamunière.
For additional information: http://fllac.vassar.edu/
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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. 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.