Should you find yourself in central London with half an hour or more to spend, there is currently a terrific exhibition – admission free – at Somerset House. It’s devoted to the photography of the late Malick Sidibé, who died earlier this year aged 80 or thereabouts. Sidibé, who as a boy in the late 1930s had worked the land and herded animals in his village of Soloba, was lucky enough to be awarded, by the village chief, a scholarship to a white school. (Mali was then still French Sudan.) There he developed an interest and considerable talent in drawing, which later led to his getting a job in Bamako as assistant to the French photographer Gérard Guillat. In the mid-50s Sidibé bought his own camera – a Brownie Flash – and in 1958 set up his own studio. Just a few years later he had established himself as the leading documentary photographer in Mali, which had just attained independence; travelling by bike to nightclubs, parties and other gatherings, he specialised in capturing his compatriots in their leisure hours.
Though Sidibé abandoned documentary photography after the 70s, he did maintain, until his death, a small studio where he would shoot portraits. International recognition had come late, in the 1990s, when Sidibé – along with the older portrait photographer Seydou Keïta – caught the attention of the Western art market. In 2003 he won the Hasselblad Award, and in 2007 he was the first African – and the first photographer – to be awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale.
Curated by André Magnin and Philippe Boutté (and accompanied by a soundtrack of African music assembled by Rita Ray), the Somerset House exhibition consists of 45 pictures – all black and white – mostly taken in the 60s and 70s. Walking into the first room (‘Nightlife in Bamako’), you might at first be forgiven for initially thinking that all Sidibé was up to was simply to get sharply dressed revellers in clubs to stand or dance before his camera. The pictures are at once evocative documents of various celebrations and vivid portraits of people both pleased and proud to be
singled out by the photographer. They’re sympathetic, touching and witty, and Sidibé’s titles for them catch the wry, affectionate tone. (One boy caught leaning dramatically backwards on the dance floor is given the moniker ‘Regardez-moi!‘). But you may ask whether they’re art.
Most certainly they are; one need only step into the next room (‘Beside the Niger River’) to see that Sidibé not only had a great knack for getting his subjects to relax before the camera (there is a particularly touching portrait of young love entitled ‘Les amoureuses à la plage‘); he also had a great sense of composition. The pleasure of escaping the summer heat is marvellously evoked in ‘Pendant les grandes chaleurs‘, which shows a group of girls up to their necks in the river – the camera, crucially, is at the same level, just above the water’s surface. ‘Still more impressive is Thé à la plage‘, featuring,
in the foreground, a large bottle; in the middle ground, the torso, arm and legs of a squatting male; and then, smaller in the background, sunbathers, swimmers and the river itself. Clearly, Sidibé knew exactly where to position his camera for the most interesting compositional effect.
In the third and final room (‘The Studio’), we get samples of his portrait photography. Again there are examples of more self-consciously ‘artistic’ compositions – ‘Vue de dos‘ shows a woman from behind, without even a glimpse of her face, which is hidden behind her upper arm – but there are also pictures of people looking more conventionally straight to camera. Even there, however, Sidibé’s placing of patterned fabrics and use of costumes and props can make for surprising visual juxtapositions, as in ‘A moi seul‘, where a man’s loud check suit stands in contrast to the striped backdrop and the tiles on the studio floor. (This photo, and some other studio portraits, reminded me of the superb film Waiting for Happiness, by the great Malian writer-director Abderrahmane Sissako; that movie also features scenes in a photographer’s studio, and makes witty play with costumes and decor.)
Sidibé’s photographs not only provide a lovely record of the confidence, curiosity and energy of Malians engaging with independence, pop culture (one subject even displays his favourite albums, one of which is by the British blues band Free!), fashion, flirtation and physical exercise of various kinds; they are also extremely fine photographs in their own right as beautifully composed images. For me, at least, the Somerset House exhibition was a revelation and a joy.
‘Malick Sidibé: The Eye of Modern Mali’ continues at Somerset House until 15 January 2017. All photos are (c) Malick Sidibé, courtesy Galerie MAGNIN-A, Paris, and Somerset House.