Malick Sidibé was a photographer based in Bamako in Mali where starting 1958 he ran a small studio taking portraits for many years. He was recognised by western art curators and dealers in the early 1990s and since then his work capturing local people and culture in black and white images has been exhibited widely in Europe and America. This exhibition at Somerset House focused on pictures taken Mali’s became independent in 1960. These pictures from the 60s and 70s show a culture evolving as Mali throws off the constraints of colonialism. The pictures capture evidence of the population adopting the style and pop music of Europe and the US while retaining an African heritage.
The first group of pictures captures the night life in and around Bamako, these are the pictures that first built Sidibé’s local reputation. Apparently, he used to cycle from party to party with his Kodak Brownie and flash gun. The following day he would process and print his pictures displaying them at his studio for people to admire and buy. These pictures capture the growth of a youth culture in Mali that is obviously derived from that in the in 1960s Europe and USA.
I have chosen two pictures from this section of the exhibition below, the first entitled “Night of 31st December 1969” shows a woman apparently walking up a flight of steps to join a party. It has the very harsh light and shadows from a single flash that picks out the figure but leaves the background in deep shadow. The woman is looking directly at the photographer and has an expression that looks like anticipation. To me this is a very strong portrait that where the subject is really communicating her desire to attend the party.
The second night life picture is typical of many in the exhibition in that it captures dynamic dance moves in a very happy environment but it also contains a simmering sexual tension whichseems typical of the changing cultural norms in the 1960s.
The second series of pictures was called “Beside the Niger River” these represent a move away from the dynamic nightlife pictures to a more laid back vision of the youth relaxing beside the Niger River. Again, you can see the influence of European and American culture way in the way some people are dressed but again there is also a nod to African culture in most of the work.
The first picture I chose from this section shows a group standing on the banks of the Niger, the figure in the centre of the frame is striking a pose which indicates that he is important, perhaps the leader of the group? The younger boy to the right seems to be staring thinking I want to be like that one day while the girl in the background with her arms folded seems to be looking on rather disapprovingly. This picture can tell many stories; perhaps the figure in the centre is staring at another woman or even squaring up to someone out of shot about to start a fight?
The second picture shows a man and woman in swim wear squaring up to each other each holding a rock. To me the figures here give the image a very African quality but the way they appear against a very pale grey background is very reminiscent of the western modernist style of photography.
The final section of the exhibition showed Sidibé’s studio work although Africa had an established tradition of studio photography by the time Sidibé open his studio he is considered to have reinvigorated the genre. He encouraged his subjects to become more animated in front of the camera, to bring their own props or select one of the studios hats and ties if their outfit needed to be accessorised. The small studio just 3 by 4 meters was draped in fabrics to use as backdrops or floor coverings. Sidibé also took great care in posing his subjects so they could project the image they wanted.
The first picture shows a man in what is presumably his new suit, I guess even in Europe or the US such suits were available in the late sixties and early seventies but I cannot imagine a portrait photographer shooting this against the striped background and the highly-patterned carpet. A number of the portraits in the exhibition featured this background and carpet so it must have been a popular setting to pose in front of.
The final picture I have selected is the cool dude below showing off his sharp suit, the pose and the beret all say that this is an important person. In the west you might assume that he was a drug dealer or gangster but I am left wondering if I can make this assumption in this African culture.
I really stumbled on this exhibition by chance but I am pleased that I got the chance to see it. The work is very thought provoking, it captures a very dynamic time of change in a culture that is very different to my own. Many of the pictures tell stories, perhaps some of them I see though my cultural vision and perhaps some are just universal I’ll probably never know.