Malick Sidibé: Directing Light

Amy Sall (Sunu Journal), Candace Keller (Michigan State), Drew Thompson (Bard), curator Thato Mogotsi and Cherif Keita, reflect on Malick Sidibé's impact.

By Malick Sidibe.

Legendary Malian photographer Malick Sidibé passed away on  April 14. Immediately following his death, we published a short tribute by the writer and photographer, Teju Cole. As Cole wrote, “… Malick Sidibé made many great pictures of African modernity. They will outlive him, and us. He showed us as we were, between the desire for solitude (Je veux être seule) and the wish to be seen and celebrated (Regardez-moi!), between the contained and the exuberant. All of it is there.” Since then we have reached out to friends and colleagues to reflect on the myriad ways Sidibé directed light in his lifetime – in and outside his camera.

Amy Sall: Malick Sidibé was one of the greatest, pioneering African visionaries to push against Western subjectivity, forging a space for African autonomy and agency to be recognized by the masses. His work shone a beautiful and important light on the robust youth culture, sartorial prowess and rich daily lives in Mali. Whereas Western entities saw Africans as one-dimensional, and developed warped theoretical constructions on who we were, Sidibé fought against such ignorance by simply showing the world who we were, in all of our nuanced glory. We are forever indebted to the Eye of Bamako.

Candace Keller: Malick Sidibé was arguably one of the most influential photographers of our time. Most renowned in international art circles for dynamically composed black and white studio portraits and photographs taken of youth at parties and celebratory events in Bamako, during the 1960s and 1970s, Sidibé’s images have inspired numerous fashion designers, photographers, videographers, and filmmakers around the globe. Accordingly, in the past two decades, Sidibé was commissioned to take fashion photographs for magazines such as Vogue, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Paper, and the New York Times Magazine.

In Mali, Sidibé was the patron saint of photography. For much of his career, he was one of few people in the country who could repair medium format and 35mm film cameras. As a result, Studio Malick became a nexus for photographers. Over time, his studio acquired a large collection of cameras, which he regularly gifted to young men and women aspiring to enter the profession. Later in his career, he facilitated several photographic workshops, training future generations, and as the president of the Groupement National des Photographes Professionels du Mali advocated on behalf of the trade and its practitioners at the National Assembly.

Those who knew him admired his generous, humble spirit, jovial sense of humor, and philanthropic endeavors. For his 21st-century fashion shoots and Vues de dos (Back Views) series, he hired single mothers and orphans from his neighborhood to serve as models, providing them with communal support and a source of income. For decades, as he noticed passersby or was reminded of someone who had recently or long since passed, he would find their portrait in his archives and reprint it for their family – unsolicited – as a memento. As president of his hometown association, he helped provide support for the construction and renovation of schools, roads, and other community resources for his village, Soloba.

Over the past 15 years, as I have studied the history of photographic practice in Mali, spending hours in his studio, darkroom, and home, Malick has remained one of my greatest teachers and an inspiration for what it means to be a good person, neighbor, and friend. Sobekela de don! His legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of those he touched. May he forever rest in peace.

Cherif Keita viewing photo album with Malick Sidibé.
One of the contributors to this article, Cherif Keita, viewing a photo album with Malick Sidibé.

Drew Thompson: Malick Sidibé’s practice flourished outside of the commercial studio, where he initially trained as a photographer. The poses and dress styles of his photographed subjects mirrored the processes of globalization that accompanied the end of French colonial rule in Mali. In fact, his photographs illustrate the material worlds inhabited by his photographed subjects and the forms of appropriation that characterized the presence of diverse technologies like cars, radios, and clocks. Sidibé’s physical movements with the camera blur the boundaries that distinguish social, professional, and political spaces, and as a consequence display the ways in which photography’s practice and acts of looking were fundamental to Malian daily life.

Sidibé humanizes his unidentified subjects through the lenses of fashion, leisure, and romance, and his use of the camera and the prints that resulted prompt a rethinking of popular culture’s role in processes of colonization and decolonization. Furthermore, his pictures were formative to the creation of Recontres de Bamako, the major photography biennial, and the curatorial endeavors of Okwui Enwezor – both of which have transformed the public’s engagement with and study of photographers from the continent of Africa. Sidibé’s photographs represent a distant memory when compared to recent historical events in Mali. In fact, insurgency movements have used the representational contents of and symbolic value embodied by Sidibé’s practice and photographs to challenge political rule and to unsettle state boundaries. What then are captivated viewers to do with such mesmerizing prints and an illustrious professional legacy, especially when the photographer is no longer living and when geopolitical circumstances render the contents of photographic prints as artifacts of the past? Sidibé’s death presents such questions while providing few, if any, answers.

Thato Mogotsi: Upon hearing of the passing of Malick Sidibé ‘The Eye of Bamako’, my initial reaction was one of both sadness and regret. I will never have the opportunity to meet him, to visit him at his world famous studio.

Seeing several artists I knew post portraits on social media, taken in front of one of his recognizable backdrops, or posing with the great man himself, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of narcissistic envy. The visit to Sidibé’s studio, it seemed to me, was considered a kind of art world pilgrimage, one that often coincided with a visit to the long running and ever crucial Recontres de Bamako Biennale.

But then I recalled how seminal Sidibé’s work was for me in my years as a student of photography. It had indeed opened up a whole new way of reading the imaged black body. The weight and density of his extensive archive, gave incredible validity to my understanding of how one might attempt to encapsulate the lived experience of blackness through the language of photography. Sidibé’s work is evidentiary of how, as black artists, there is an innate responsibility we bear — to claim and uphold the visibility of our communities and our imaged self in a world that systemically attempts to diminish or even appropriate it.

We can only hope that future generations will stand to inherit from Sidibe’s legacy, this empowered sense of visual literacy that transcends a cerebral response to photography as a mere technical tool. I remain grateful for the many ways in which his work illuminated my young creative journey, even from afar.

Cherif Keita: Malick Sidibé, the man who lived several lives, has left to join his elder colleague Seydou Keïta, in the land of immortality. What an abundant legacy he has left to posterity.

It was in 2010 that I had the unique opportunity of meeting this father of African Photography. One January afternoon I arrived at his studio in the populous neighborhood of Bagadadji, with 21 American students in tow. Smiles, wide-open arms and loud greetings! It was as if Malick had known each of us in the not too distant past. Truly, we had arrived home, at his studio.

Our conversations over his numerous photo albums were a unique moment for me, the Malian exile, as well as for the young Americans, freshly arrived in Mali, as part of a study trip, with the theme of Malian history and culture. Each photo spoke volumes about a feverish period of my own youth in Bamako, on the eve of the military coup of 1968. My students had finally under their eyes the vibrant social landscape I had tried my best to paint for them in my classes on the other side of the Atlantic.

After spending a good hour traveling through time, Malick told us that it was time to stand in front of his camera. In general, for Malick, it was a matter of simply catching the joyful moment that we were sharing that afternoon. Such was his overall artistic philosophy.

The last time I saw Malick was in June 2015. Not having found him at the studio, I went to his house in Magnambougou, because I had for him a signed copy of a book written by my friend, Professor Tsitsi Jaji, with one of Malick’s photos on the cover. Even though he was ill and weakened by old age, he had not lost his legendary smile. Very quickly, some albums came out, which we had to vigorously dust off before going through them. They are right, those who say that the world has seen only a small fraction of the thousands of photos taken by this tireless photographer.

It is said that when Photography was first introduced in Mali and elsewhere in Africa, people were afraid of it, because in the Bamana language, for instance, it was considered a dangerous act: jà tàa meant to take the soul or the shadow of the person who was being photographed. Going from that to Mali becoming the capital of Photography in Africa, clearly we all owe a debt of gratitude to Malick Sidibé – with his mild manners and disarming smile – for having convinced tens of thousands of people to entrust their souls or shadows to a black hand holding a shiny little box that produced a blinding light. Rest in Peace, Malick, illustrious son of the village of Soloba, in Wassulu.

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