Art Interview Interview

Top image: A la plage, 1974 (c) Malick Sidibé. Courtesy Galerie MAGNIN-A, Paris

The late Malian photographer, Malick Sidibé, dedicated his career to chronicling African youth culture since Mali’s independence in 1960. He became known as “the eye of Bamako” for his monochrome images, which captured the revolutionary zeitgeist of the time.

During the 90s Sidibé rose to fame when his work was accidentally discovered through a chance encounter, taking his portraits from the mantle pieces of Malian homes to the walls of New York galleries. Over his career he won several awards and in 2007, he became the first photographer and the first African artist to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale. Sidibé’s photographs have made an important contribution to African history, through them he increased cultural awareness and offered a window into the lives of the inhabitants from the region. He was a pivotal figure in photography and his influence still resonates today. 

Now, 60 years since those halogen days in Bamako, Sidibé’s work is the subject of a major solo exhibition at Somerset House. Here, Claire Catterall, the museum’s Director of Exhibitions talks us through the defining chapters of his career.  

Nazanin Shahnavaz: What are the themes covered in the exhibition?
Claire Catterall: We wanted to give an overview of Malick Sidibé’s work and each room is dedicated to a different chapter of his career. The first room looks at “the dance,” Sidibé made his career by being the first travelling photographer – he used to go to parties with his portable camera and would capture the joyfulness and energy of the scene. Sidibé was very much part of the scene, so his subjects didn’t feel like they were being photographed or looked at.

The second room features his less well-known River Niger photographs, this body of work is very much about the young of Mali going on holiday and having a wonderful time by the river. The images depict young people relaxing and getting away from their parents, getting up to mischief. And the final room is dedicated to his studio, which at the time was this really pivotal space. It was tiny, but he created this amazing atmosphere where people would go there and have their photographs taken with their new purchases and fashion items, their new radios and watches, that sort of thing.

Dansez le Twist, 1965 (c) Malick Sidibé. Courtesy Galerie MAGNIN-A, Paris

“People would go there and have their photographs taken with their new purchases and fashion items, their new radios and watches, that sort of thing.”

NS: Can you tell me a bit about the scene that Sidibé was so fascinated with?
CC: It was the post independence youth scene. In 1960 Mali got its independence and everything opened for them. It went from being quite a closed society to suddenly being exposed to Western pop music, fashion, film, but of course they made it their own and you really see that in Sidibé’s photos. That sense of freedom, expression and excitement that pop music can bring, Sidibé said himself that ‘music freed us.’  

Malick Sidibé, Amis des espagnols, 1968

NS: Why is Sidibé such a significant African artist?
CC: Sidibé was discovered quite late in his career during the 90s, it’s a great story actually, somebody found a wonderful photo in New York that had no author attached and went on a detective hunt to try and find who that photographer was. It turned out to be Seydou Keita, but when they tracked him down he was the once who suggested that they should look at Sidibé’s work. It’s quite extraordinary to think that we wouldn’t have know about these photographs if it hadn’t have been for this accidental discovery. Suddenly he became known and his photographs were produced in large format and displayed in galleries, they became these very eclectic studio format photographs. What’s interesting is that these images were never intended for museums and galleries, they were for the people in the photographs who would take them home and stick them in a frame.

Most importantly, he revealed a hidden side to Mali. It’s a Mali that you don’t really see that often, but actually its authentic at the same time. Sidibé been criticised for not showing the poor and not showing the suffering or the hardship, but his response to has been that the people you see in his photographs are the poor of Mali. They were proud and wanted to express themselves, wanted to dance, wanted to be joyful – just like everyone else – and that’s why he is so important.

A moi seul, 1978 (c) Malick Sidibé. Courtesy Galerie MAGNIN-A, Paris

NS: Why is Sidibé’s influence still so pertinent today?
CC: Well, it’s because his images are so fresh and when a piece of work is important it stands the test of time. The aesthetic and fashion is so fresh, everyone’s style is so cool and it’s all about attitude – it’s amazing how many photographers have been influenced by Sidibé. Also, his work came from the heart, the photos are full of love and the idea of music being such a central theme is something that we can all relate to.

NS: Can you tell us a bit about the soundscape that accompanies the photographs in the exhibition?
CC: The soundscape was put together by DJ, presenter and African music expert Rita Ray. The mix features 60s pop music with strong Malian roots, which recreates the spirit and soul of the nightclubs Sidibé frequented every weekend and the party atmosphere of his own studio.

Malick Sidibé, the ‘Eye of Bamako’ is open daily at Somerset House until 15th January 2017. 

Playlist: Malick Sidibé, the ‘Eye of Bamako’ mix by Rita Ray