On 6 October 2016 Somerset House and 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in conjunction with the Paris-based MAGNIN-A gallery opened the first, major solo UK exhibition of the recently deceased Malian photographer Malick Sidibé.
“Malick Sidibe: The Eye of Modern Mali”, running until 26 February 2017, is an intimate and joyful look into the exhilarating youth culture and the nightlife of a newly independent Mali against the backdrop of profound social and political upheaval taking place across the African continent.
Known as the “Eye of Bamako”, Malick Sidibé captured the pulse of post-colonial Mali with his camera. His focus on youth reveals the photographer’s intent to depict the country’s unique brand of modernism that while influenced by Western culture, remained true to its cultural heritage. As the press release states,
With the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll, cutting-edge fashions, and independence in 1960, his images capture the essence of joie de vivre – the energy and exuberance of young, newly independent Africans, experiencing an era of significant social and cultural change.
Malick Sidibé (b. 1935 or 1936, d. 2016) was born in the town of Soloba in what was then French Sudan. Sidibé remained unknown to the art world until the 1990s, after which time there was no shortage of exhibitions: most notably his first solo exhibition in 1995 at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris and the joint exhibition with Seydou Keita entitled “i ka nyì tan. Seydou Keïta e Malick Sidibé fotografi a Bamako” organised by the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna di Roma in 2001. Sidibé was honoured twice, in 2002 and 2011, by French Order of Arts and Letters, and was the first African artist to win the Golden Lion at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007.
Sidibé’s photographs serve as a richly layered archive documenting his country’s social milieu immediately following its independence from France from 1960. Recognised globally for his signature portraits, this exhibition includes Sidibé’s original prints, depicting Mali’s youth in the midst of a rapidly changing socio-political scenario. Curated by André Magnin and Philippe Boutté, Founder and Director respectively of MAGNIN-A Gallery in Paris, “Malick Sidibé: The Eye of Modern Mali” comprises 45 original prints taken by the photographer during the 1960s and 1970s, and is organised around three themes: “Tiep à Bamako (Nightlife in Bamako)”, “Au Fleuve Niger (Beside the Niger River)” and “Le Studio (The Studio)”.
The three sections of the exhibition walk the viewer through Sidibé’s Mali, from the 1960s to 2001. The first section, “Tiep à Bamako (Nightlife in Bamako)” focuses on Bamako’s party scene. Curator André Magnin reflecting on Sidibé’s night life works in an April 2016 interview with RFI, states:
C’est celle que tout le monde connaît. C’est-à-dire Nuit de Noël (Happy Club) de 1963, lorsque Malick est dans une soirée à Bamako. En fin de semaine, tous les gens organisent des surprise-parties. Ils s’invitent et rivalisent avec leurs disques, les 45 tours des musiques occidentales et afro-cubaines, ils dansent le twist, le hula hoop, le rock, le slow… Et sur la photo, Malick Sidibé surprend deux jeunes qui dansent – l’un à côté de l’autre – le frère apprend à sa sœur à danser le twist. C’est une photo d’une beauté, d’une tendresse infinie qui est sans doute un des chefs d’œuvre de Malick Sidibé.
(It is the one that everyone knows. That is, ‘Nuit de Noël (Happy Club)’ of 1963, when Malick is at a party in Bamako. At the end of the week, everyone organised surprise parties. They invited each other and competed with their records, the singles of Western and Afro-Cuban music, they danced the twist, hula hoop, rock, slow… And in the picture, Malick Sidibé surprises two young people who dance – one next to the other – the brother teaches his sister to dance the twist. It is a photo of beauty, an infinite tenderness that is undoubtedly one of Sidibé’s masterpieces.)
The second section, Au Fleuve Niger (Beside the Niger River) builds upon the spirit of camaraderie and relaxation in the previous, but this time the subjects are alongside the banks of the Niger river. Here couples kiss and embrace, friends pretend to fight and the viewer is impressed by the coolitude of a group of young men posing in their swim attire. Sidibé was ever attendant to the freedom displayed by young people, particularly in contrast to more conservative mores that abounded previous to independence. In a February 2010 interview with The Guardian, Sidibé stated:
We were entering a new era, and people wanted to dance. Music freed us. Suddenly, young men could get close to young women, hold them in their hands. Before, it was not allowed. And everyone wanted to be photographed dancing up close. They had to see it!
Sidibé is perhaps best known for his studio images and it is in the third section of the exhibition Le Studio (The Studio) that these iconic images are displayed. Sidibé opened his studio in 1962 after spending four years working for Gérard Guillat, Bamako’s leading society photographer.
Sidibé’s studio was where he worked but it was also a communal place. Speaking of his studio, Sidibé reminisced:
The studio was like no other. It was… relaxed. I did formal family shots, too, but often it was like a party. People would drop by, stay, eat. I slept in the developing room. They’d pose on their Vespas, show off their new hats and trousers and jewels and sunglasses. Looking beautiful was everything. Everyone had to have the latest Paris style. We had never really worn socks, and suddenly people were so proud of theirs, straight from Saint Germain des Près! [It was] a fantastic period. Unique.
Negarra A. Kudumu
- Algerian artist Mohamed Bourouissa’s “Horseday” at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam – December 2016 – “Horseday” continues in the vein of his previous projects where he composes photographic images of the daily lives of his subject
- 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair London gains momentum each year – round-up – October 2016 – for the fourth year in a row, contemporary African art takes over Somerset House during Frieze London
- Malian artist Abdolulaye Konaté: “Symphonie En Couleur” at Blain|Southern, London – in pictures – September 2016 – “Symphonie En Coleur” presents the work of one of the most well-known West African artists working today, Abdoulaye Konaté
- 5 highlights from the 2015 Bamako Encounters, Africa Biennale of Photography – November 2015 – after a four-year hiatus, Bamako Encounters, African Biennale of Photography is back and stronger than ever
- ‘In and Out of the Studio: Photographic Portraits from West Africa’ – in pictures – September 2015 – “In and Out of the Studio: Photographic Portraits from West Africa” shows the remarkable breadth and evolution of photography in West Africa
Subscribe to Art Radar for more on African photography