Most of the photographs in Jack Shainman’s latest exhibition of Malick Sidibé’s work had two dates. The first, which fell largely in the 1960s or ’70s, represented when Sidibé (1936–2016) originally snapped the photographs. The second, in the aughts (usually 2004), indicated when he had the negatives printed for public display.
The dates hint at the story of his unlikely career. From the late ’50s through the ’80s, Sidibé ran a popular portrait studio in Bamako, Mali, by day and made the rounds of parties, concerts, and dance floors in the young, newly independent capital by night. Studio Malick was a local establishment, but one belonging to a businessman: Sidibé had no pretension to “art.” This changed in the early 1990s, when he was “discovered” by French curator André Magnin, who organized a retrospective of his work at the Fondation Cartier in Paris that was an enormous success. Within a decade, African studio photography became (yet another) established sector in the voracious global art market, and the subject was embraced by academics, mainly those of the postcolonial persuasion. The explosion of interest has made for a mad scramble into commercial archives, with studio hands from across the continent living a second life in the West as artists: Senegal’s Mama Casset, Benin’s Joseph Moïse Agbodjélou, Sidibé’s fellow Malian Seydou Keïta. Commercial studio photos, shot for private consumption, were discovered to possess an auratic value. Thus, the printing and reprinting.
What caught the curators’ and academics’ attention is partly a historical matter. These figures were among the first waves of African photographers to achieve financial stability and autonomy. They shot their compatriots with curiosity and respect, making portraits in complicity with the sitters’ aspirations—a far cry from the ethnographic study. In Sidibé’s and (the slightly older) Keïta’s cases, there was also an appealing element of theatricality. These photographers stocked their studios with clothing and props: bell-bottoms, hats, and jackets their subjects could wear; records, radios, and even scooters with which they could pose.
But while Keïta powerfully portrayed his sitters’ inner life, Sidibé was a social photographer, an artist of appearance and glamour. He had little feeling for interior states because he was less interested in who people really were than in who they could be. And his best photographs, which so eloquently channel human confidence and the will to happiness, become metaphors for a larger historical moment, capturing, according to Malian filmmaker Manthia Diawara, who lived three streets down from Studio Malick, the “euphoria of African independence.”
Few (if any) of the photos at Shainman reached this level. Many were rather dutiful records of public events, such as marriages, or were commissioned group pictures, including one of recently circumcised boys. There were a few shots Sidibé took at his studio and at parties. These generally lacked his signature dynamism, though some were unintentionally interesting. Surprise Party (1974/2008) features two bell-bottomed boys hoisting up a third, whose birthday one assumes it is. The boys on the ground are smiling, but the friend held aloft looks morose, unprepared for the flash. The show also featured a wall of portraits of Chris Ofili, who visited Sidibé’s studio in 2014. It was unclear how this series was any different from a typical celebrity shoot.
A number of photos set in elegant stained-glass frames painted in a rich, celebratory palette, usually with simple patterns of flowers and leaves, were the main draw of the exhibition. (Presumably commissioned for the reprinting, the frames were made, the gallery attendant assured me, by “local craftsmen.”) One of the groupings of photographs focused on babies. Very cute and easy to photograph, you would think. But actually, the photos are quite stilted. The babies look serious and weary—they look like babies trying to be adults. Which is to say that Sidibé, in his touching way, tried to impose a social persona on them. Even the babies.