Malick Sidibé: Studio Malick
DePaul Art Museum, Chicago
Studio Malick, at the DePaul Art Museum, showcases the work of Malian photographer Malick Sidibé who began taking pictures in the 1960s, coinciding with Mali’s independence from France. In contrast to the many photographs of the sixties and seventies that documented social unrest across the world — think Malcolm Brown or Eddie Adams– Sidibé did not document a country riddled with violence or protest. Instead, he captured the consequential joy felt in postcolonial Mali through photographs of nightlife in Bamako, the capital. The exhibition consists of contact sheets taken during his many visits to nightclubs and parties, as well as Sidibé’s more formal studio portraiture.After studying jewelry design, Sidibé apprenticed with photographer Gérard Guillat for three years before founding his own studio, Studio Malick, in 1962. Sidibé’s interest in jewelry smithing seems apparent in many of his photographs — his subjects are often dressed in their finest clothes and accessories, including jewelry, purses, and hats while also occasionally incorporating props such as Vespas and motorcycles. Sidibé’s subjects exude sex appeal and hipness from their stylish outfits to their assertive possess. His photographs taken at parties capture a similar ambience, although the snapshots are constructed more informally. While Bamako’s youths danced to the new sounds of rock and roll Sidibé spent his nights travelling to multiple parties a night.
From Sidibe’s “Chemises”
In an interview with John Henleyof The Guardian in 2010, Sidibé reflected on the burgeoning nightlife in Bamako: “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. They had to see it!”Sidibé’s Chemises, which translates to shirt or sleeve in French, is a collection of contact sheets made while photographing social gatherings. Because his 35mm contacts were too small for many of his customers to view their photographs with great detail, he created small prints and adhered them to office folders. Couples dancing and groups posing together make up many of the photographs, but there are also shots of male youth awkwardly standing around or caught in the midst of attempting to flirt with the fairer sex. Although often remember the Chemises images for their liveliness and style, it is these almost graceless photos that struck me the most for their inclusive nature — not everyone could look cool all the time. These folders are displayed on the east wall of the gallery in frames as well as in two vitrines located in the gallery’s center. The folders used to house the small images, now faded from wear and exposure to light, appear in dusty and worn shades of orange, blue and tan. This provides a subtle pop of color to Sidibé’s black and white images while also suggesting that these were once used for their accessibility.
“The Pretend Sailor” (1967)
Many have drawn comparisons between Sidibé’s portraits and those of fellow Milian photographer Seydou Keïta, who is most known for his portraits of Malians in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. Keïta postures his figures in more classical poses — for example, it is not uncommon to see a woman in traditional garments reclining in a chaise lounge mimicking Manet’s Olympia. His subjects appear more demure and lack the rebellious nature of Sidibé’s youth. Sidibé’s The Pretend Sailor (1967) casts a young man in mostly white against a black background with a checkerboard floor. The man, who has a contrasting black hat, belt, socks, and shoes stands with one leg forward and a sly pop of his hip. With his sleeves rolled three quarters up, he is pulling the pocket of his pants with his thumb. Cropped to show some surroundings — there is a chair visible as well as studio walls — he looks as if he just stepped out of Barkley Hendrick’s painting. Many of Sidibé’s portraits harness a similar defiant gaze — his subjects, like many people photographed on the streets for contemporary style blogs know they look good and want to be seen. This pretend sailor however, captures a changing time when people could adopt Western clothes and transform themselves into whoever they wished to be.
Although many of Sidibé’s iconic images were taken almost fifty years ago, it hasn’t been until recently that he has achieved acclaim. Since 2000, he has been the recipient of the Hasselblad Award, the International Center of Photography Award for Lifetime Achievement, as well as the Venice Biennale Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. Studio Malick, although a small sampling of Sidibé’s oeuvre, captures the excitement of a generation who were free to deviate from social norms through a mixing of traditional and Western clothes and music. As they shook their hips to new grooves and dances like the Twist, they were able to shed their colonized past on the dance floor.