I first encountered the work of Malick Sidibé after he had he became the first photographer – and the first African artist – to receive the Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement at the Venice Biennale in 2007. In his photographs, made in and around Mali’s capital, Bamako, in the early years of independence in the 1960s and 70s, I found the perfect visualisation of the country’s music that I had known and loved since discovering it in the 1980s.
So when I was in London recently, I hot footed it to the first exhibition of his work in the UK now on at Somerset House. Bringing together 45 original prints, the show captures the exuberance of newly independent Mali in the 1960s and ’70s; through Sidibé’s lens we glimpse scenes of a youthful, joyous Mali of carefree swimming parties on the banks of the Niger, partying and dancing in the city’s thriving clubs, and studio portraits of proud Malians showing off their latest outfit or prized possession. Sidibé images are an expression of a different era, a happier time in a country whose recent history has been beset by trouble and violence.
Malick Sidibé spent a lifetime photographing the lives and culture of the people of Bamako, making beautiful, black-and-white photographs which captured a period of rapid social change and modernisation in Mali, as members of the younger generation began to assert their identity and express themselves through music and the clothes they wore.
Sidibé’s was born into a poor, rural community in the village of Soloba, in the mid-1930s. From early childhood, Sidibé worked herding animals and cultivating the land before being singled out by his village chief and sent on a scholarship to a French colonial school when he was ten. He was the first and only one of his 17 siblings to get an education.
Sidibé’s early education was not in photography but rather drawing. His talent, particularly in charcoals, gained him a place at the Maison des Artisans du Soudanais in the capital, Bamako, from where he graduated in Jewellery and Design.
However, while he was there he was noticed by the French photographer Gérard Guillat, who took him on as his studio assistant after graduation. Sidibé learned his craft through observation; he bought his own camera, and while Guillat covered white, colonial events, Sidibé cycled around Bamako, photographing young Africans at parties on Friday and Saturday nights.
In 1958, Sidibé established his own studio, two years before Mali gained its independence from France in 1960. It’s the candid images he captured in the city’s streets and nightclubs, and the ‘formal’ portraits he took in his studio in the early, optimistic years of independence which form the basis of this exhibition. They are images which convey the energy, jubilance and vibrancy of Mali’s new generation, embracing the new sense of freedom that followed independence. It was a generation which revelled in imported American soul, pop music from other parts of Africa, as well as the latest fashions.
Racine Keita, a photographer born in Bamako believes that Sidibé’s photographs were successful in capturing a profound cultural shift in Mali in the 1960s and 70s:
He was the first photographer to go out of the studio and meet the youth, there’s no group of young people from that time who didn’t have their photo taken by Malick.
Even in the ‘formal’ portraits he took in his studio, Sidibé encouraged his subjects to express themselves creatively, with many of his young clients coming to show off their new clothes, motorbikes or musical instruments. Sidibé himself once remarked:
It was like a place of make-believe. People would pretend to be riding motorbikes, racing against each other. It was not like that at the other studios.
Lassana Diarra, director of a gallery in Bamako commented on the impact of Sidibé’s work on several generations in Mali, particularly in the community where he played a very active role:
People recognise photos of their parents, in which some of them were very young: for example the photos of the young people at the beach, who are adults now.
There were always people outside his studio, talking about everything and nothing. Sidibé would also have to solve all kinds of social and financial problems people were having. It was party atmosphere with Malick as patriarch – everyone called him Uncle.
The exhibition at Somerset House presents 45 original prints from the 1960s and 1970s around three defined themes: ‘Au Fleuve Niger / Beside the Niger River’ (1970s), ‘Tiep à Bamako / Nightlife in Bamako’ (1963-65) and ‘Le Studio / The Studio’ (1961-2000). It’s sobering to think that all of this work was made before Sidibé was recognised outside Mali.
His reputation outside Mali grew gradually in the 1990s, but it wasn’t until 2007 that he gained became the first photographer – and the first African artist – to receive the Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement at the Venice Biennale.
The art academic and former MoMA curator Robert Storr said at the time:
No African artist has done more to enhance photography’s stature in the region, contribute to its history, enrich its image archive or increase our awareness of the textures and transformations of African culture in the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st than Malick Sidibé.
All of the photographs in the exhibition are in black-and-white – Sidibé’s preferred medium throughout his career. Presented in this exhibition in enlarged sizes, his photographs were usually reproduced in small-format for his clients – intended to be kept as souvenirs or sent as postcards.
Malick Sidibé came to be known as ‘the eye of Bamako’ (thus giving this exhibition its title) in recognition of his success in capturing the city’s people and culture so vibrantly in his black and white images.
On his bicycle, Sidibé went to graduation celebrations, dances, beach parties and the capital’s many nightclubs to shoot Bamako’s often stylishly dressed youths at play. He frequently worked through the night printing the photographs so that a selection would be hanging on the walls for perusal when his subjects arrived a day later to choose their favourite.
Some of his best-known images were taken in this period, including Nuit de Noël, Happy Club, 1963, in which a young smartly dressed couple dance (she barefoot) with their heads touching at an outdoor party. The picture seems to preserve as if in amber the energy and the confidence of the time.
Claire Catterall, the exhibition’s curator, says of this photograph:
This is perhaps Sidibé’s most famous photograph, and people have commented on the intimacy of the boy and girl, their heads almost touching, as an indication of how times had changed in post-colonial Mali. What is less widely known is that the couple in the picture are in fact brother and sister, and it was taken in their home – the boy learning how to dance. It speaks of a society that is just waking up to a new exciting age of social and cultural freedom, but still holding on to traditional family values and decorum. It is a moment of innocence and tenderness, as well as joy.
The energy of the music and dance moves of the time was often reflected in his titles: Dansez le Twist (1965) captures a group of young people gyrating wildly to the latest western dance craze at a house party, while Regardez-moi (1962) centres on a young man showing off his dance moves to his fellow revellers. Both were shot as if from the midst of the action and, in their joyousness and spontaneity, suggest the newfound confidence of the young in a country shaking off the restrictions of colonialism and also Sidibé’s gift for immersing himself in the action while remaining an almost invisible presence. In an interview with Lens Culture, Sidibé said:
I have to tell you, music liberated African youth from the taboo of being with a woman. They were able to get close to each other, which is why I was always invited to these parties. I had to go in order to record these moments, when a young man could dance with a young woman close up. We were not used to it.
They liked seeing themselves dancing with a woman, even if she wasn’t their girlfriend. They could tell their friends that they had got her, that she was theirs now… It was a very powerful moment for young Malian men to see themselves dancing with a girl. That didn’t exist before.
Claire Catterall, the exhibition’s curator, again:
Sidibé used to go to Bamako’s dances armed with his flash camera – the country’s first and only travelling photographer – to capture the local youth at Bamako’s house parties and dances. He would let the flash off on his arrival to let everyone know he was there, and he said he could feel the temperature rise as he did so. Sidibé was their contemporary, so was able to move amongst them, dancing with them, becoming an almost invisible presence. And he understood what it was all about – the music, the movement, the gaiety and delight. Sidibé wanted to show the mad ambience of the times, the revolution, the fact that everything had changed. This photograph, particularly, captures that moment.
And was there ever anyone more cool than this guy?
(Yé-yé was a style of pop music that emerged in France in the early 1960s. The term was derived from the English ‘yeah! yeah!’, popularised by British groups such as The Beatles. Yé-yé was a mostly European phenomenon and usually featured young female singers – most notably Françoise Hardy, whose ‘Tous les garçons et les filles’ drove me wild as a young teenager. This photo suggests that young Malians simply adopted the term as a synonym for cool.
Music – both local and imported – was central to the new mood of self-expression among young Malians, and Sidibé images often seem to pulse with the rhythms and vitality of the of the sounds of the time. Sidibé later recalled:
Music was the real revolution. 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.
In the interview with Lens Culture, Sidibé spoke of his working practice at this time:
At night, from midnight to 4 am or 6 am, I went from one party to another. I could go to four different parties. If there were only two, it was like having a rest. But if there were four, you couldn’t miss any. If you were given four invitations, you had to go. You couldn’t miss them.
I’d leave one place, I’d take 36 shots here, 36 shots there, and then 36 somewhere else, until the morning. Sometimes I would come back to parties where there had been a lot of people.
Afterwards, I had to develop the photos and print them out. Sometimes, right up to 6 in the morning, I would be at the enlarger. For the 6 x 6 films there was a contact printer, but the 24 x 36 had to be enlarged. So you had about 300 or 400 photos to print out. You could work in the morning, but, by Tuesday, the photos had to be ready for display. The proofs were pinned up outside my studio. Lots of people would come and point themselves out. “Look at me there! I danced with so-and-so! Can you see me there?”
Even if they didn’t buy the photo, they would show it to their friends. That was enough for them. They had danced with a certain girl, and that was enough. I wasn’t happy, though. I wanted them to buy these photos!
Claire Catterall, the exhibition’s curator, says of this photo:
What I love most about this image is the expression on these three young men’s faces – so focused and serious, staring straight down the lens of the camera. Everything they want to tell you about themselves is there – the fantastic new boombox, the flashy watches, the man bag tucked under one arm, the hats just so. I also love the mix of styles – the traditional African dress accessorised with all the latest fashion items and gizmos.
Beside the Niger
As young people partied on the banks of the River Niger, and in the clubs and bars popping up across the city, Malick took photos of those carefree and spontaneous moments of freedom and merriment. He would then rush back to the studio on his Vespa to develop the pictures.
Claire Catterall, the exhibition’s curator, says of this photo:
I love this picture for the contrasts of style and everyday life, of enjoying a relaxing day by the river but being conscious of creating a staged dramatic effect for the camera. The mismatched underwear, sarongs and tatty straw hat juxtaposed with the cool sunglasses and skin-tight white shirt and flared trousers; the passionate embrace of the couple in the foreground with the more languorous pose of the couple behind them.
The exhibition ends with a more recent work, ‘Three Malian Girlfriends’, from 1999:
At the time of his death aged 80, in April 2016, Time magazine described Sidibé as ‘one of the most influential photographers of his time’, quoting John Mason, professor of African History at the University of Virginia:
For many people who know something about photography – Africans and non-Africans alike – Malick Sidibé’s work was the very embodiment of African photography. In part this is because of the profound humanistic spirit of his images and the spark and originality of his vision. Though many westerners may have been first drawn in by the idea that Sidibé’s work was exotic or ‘unsettling’, in some ways, they would soon find just the opposite to be true. Ultimately … Sidibé’s photographs confirm our shared humanity.
Sidibé’s images portray a generation who were living urban lifestyles for the first time, after generations of their ancestors had tended the land, as he had as a child. They reveal the first generation whose lives were free from colonial rule and who expressed their new-found freedom and identity with spirit and a carefree abandon. Making my way around this exhibition I was moved by the sense that Sidibé’s images seem to come from a happier time. But any sadness that came with this thought was swept away by the spirit of humanity and the sheer exuberance of the life documented in Sidibé’s photographs. He will surely be remembered as one of the most significant African artists of the 20th century.
Adding to the ambiance of the show, as you stroll through the exhibition you are accompanied by a soundtrack recreating the spirit and soul of Bamako’s nightclubs in the 1960s and 70s. Curated by DJ, presenter and African music expert Rita Ray, the soundtrack features an eclectic mix of music which would have accompanied Sidibé’s photoshoots. Here are a few examples.
Boubacar Traore, Mali Twist 1963
Etoile de Dakar, Mane Kouma Xol
Ernesto Djedje, Zibote
Miriam Makeba, Malouyame
Many Dibango, Soul Makossa
Fela Kuti, Egbe Mi O
Les Ambassadeurs, featuring Salif Keita, Seidou Bahkili
Rail Band du Hotel de Bamako, Rail Band
- A tribute to Malick Sidibé by Claude Grunitzky (True Africa)
- Why Everyone In Mali Wanted To Pose For The Late, Great Sidibe (NPR)
- Malick Sidibé obituary (Guardian)
- Malick Sidibé, 1936-2016 – in pictures (Guardian)
- Interview with Malick Sidibé (Lens Culture)
- Malick Sidibé: ‘There wasn’t a youth trend he didn’t photograph‘ (Guardian)