Visiting the Mali Twist exhibit at the Fondation Cartier creates a sort of counterpoint to my experience of the Irving Penn show at the Grand Palais. Another photographer who often posed his subject against a blank studio backdrop, Malick Sidibé (1935-2016) was one of the greatest photographers of the west African nation of Mali — oh, wait, one of the greatest photographers of this era. His retrospective fills the high, light-washed walls of the Fondation Cartier for Contemporary Art in Paris 14e. Sidibé’s brilliance at composition rivals Irving Penn’s, certainly. In many ways his skill at evoking his subject’s spirit through picturing his subject’s body surpasses Penn’s, I would argue. Unlike Penn, Sidibé also enjoyed capturing his subjects in situ, in the dance clubs of Bamako in the post-colonial 1960s, and along the Niger riverbank in the post-coup 1970s. In fact, his work shifted largely to his small, cluttered, popular studio after the shutdown of the clubs following the military coup of 1968.
Sidibé studied jewelry making in a school for art and design in what turned out to be the waning years of the French colonial regime. After school he fell into the job of designing sets for a Bamako photography studio and ended up apprenticing himself to the photographer, Gerard Guillat-Guignard. He took his first photographs in his native village, Soloba,
with a Brownie camera. Between 1960 and 1962 he set up his own studio back in Bamako. At the same time he began capturing the burgeoning youth culture of that southern Mali capital city, wide open to Western influences: the Beatles, James Brown, low-slung automobiles, bell bottoms, and dance, dance, dance. Sidibé reflected later that Mali youth loved the twist and other rock and roll dances because they could laugh, and touch each other, unlike in traditional dance.
By the mid-1960s Sidibé had established an exhausting routine that apparently brought him great joy: laboring in the studio, then going out to the clubs at 10 or 11 at night and sometimes not returning until early morning. He then made prints of the photos he’d shot, post them outside the studio or the relevant clubs, and the kids would come by and find themselves in the shots. Sometimes they would buy the photos but more often not, apparently. Their money went toward the blouses and dresses, dress shirts and bell bottoms, that they wore to the clubs.
One of his earliest club photos, of a brother and sister dancing, was deemed by Time magazine one of the 100 most influential photographs in history.
His studio work differs sharply from that of, say, Irving Penn, because it was casual, fast, and above all, client centered — or, let me qualify that: his clients were most often his subjects, though he did corporate work and other contracted jobs as well. Sidibé created a community center of sorts at his studio, and he became by all accounts a community icon in post-colonial Bamako. He had costumes that people could choose to wear, or they could bring their own. One of his friends remarked later that clients would carefully put on perfume hoping that the scent would be exuded from the photographs. But however casual, the photos were often beautiful, technically perfect, aesthetically arresting, emotionally rich. Many of the prints in the Mali Twist show at the Fondation Cartier were made in the last few years, from old negatives. Perhaps that accounts in part for their tonal brilliance. But there is no mistaking the life in the subjects’ eyes: their pride, humor, self-possession.
The other dimension that stands out and gives us so much is the profusion of popular culture artifacts in the photographs: not only the youthful clothing of the 1960s, but also the records, the bikes, the radios and jukeboxes, the things that excited the Mali kids in that enchanted decade.
There are no nudes in this collection. This can largely be attributed to the Muslim culture of that time and place — an Islamic society that in Bamako in that period was tolerant and latitudinarian, but still dictated modesty, particularly of course for women. At the same time, the girls and women in these photographs wear western clothing, do elaborate dance moves, and flirt with the camera.
And it was complicated, as we say now. Years later, Sidibé commented that the girls who swam at the river with the boys were putting themselves outside society, and would not be considered marriageable. In fact, the only breasts in this collection are on a few of the girls at the river, facing the camera defiantly side by side with the boys.To continue with that theme, the Fondation Cartier exhibition includes a looped showing of a remarkable documentary of Sidibé shot a few years before his death, centered on a 2011 reunion of one of the Bamako clubs of the 1960s as well as on Sidibé’s mature career. According to accepted Mali family practices, Sidibé had four wives. He states in the film that monogamy is difficult — sustaining desire over forty years is a strain. With four wives, however, he asserts, the women compete to keep the man happy.
His remarks in this video are offered against a visual backdrop of four photo sessions conducted serially in the Sidibé family compound. The wives at the center of each family portrait do not, one hazards, look happy. Malick Sidibé, on the other hand, looks very happy. When the wives are not having their photos taken, they are preparing food. For the club reunion, Sidibé reminds his aging friends to bring their prettiest wives.
Thus in this extensive, beautifully hung, interactive show, we are spirited into a post-colonial African society infatuated with Western youth culture, using its rhythms and trappings as a rebellion against both the Socialist and the military regimes, as Sidibé says — one which in more recent years, still quashed by the unrelenting forces of world capitalism, has moved to a repressive and pseudo (not real) traditionalism.
For this Western, non-Muslim, feminist commentator, it is complicated.