Critics’ Picks

Malick Sidibé, Danseur Méringué, 1964, silver gelatin print, 20 7/8 x 14".

Malick Sidibé, Danseur Méringué, 1964, silver gelatin print, 20 7/8 x 14".

New York

Malick Sidibé

Jack Shainman Gallery
524 West 24th Street
March 28–April 26, 2014

Malick Sidibé’s current exhibition of photographs offers a glimpse into the dynamic youth culture that emerged in Bamako during Mali’s post-Independence era. Though trained as a studio photographer, Sidibé was lured into the city’s streets and dance clubs, where his clients wanted to be seen participating in Bamako’s thriving nightlife. There, Malian youths forged a uniquely diasporic aesthetic, finding inspiration in American Black Power icons and musicians, including James Brown and Angela Davis. As his subjects began to imitate the styles and gestures found in magazines and album covers, Sidibé, in turn, closely emulated those sources in his compositions. “He was internalizing the history of photography without knowing it,” filmmaker and art historian Manthia Diawara asserts—this was instrumental towards the creation of a 1960s “Bamakois” visual culture.

Sidibé’s images capture the vibrancy of this moment in visual, sonic, and tactile registers. You can almost hear the sound track emanating from his nightclub snapshots, in which flirtatious young couples dance and twist in unison. In several images, albums by Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, and Jimmy Smith are held up like trophies for the camera. The records are even lugged to the beach; one photograph captures boys in swimsuits displaying a set of 7" singles.

The real gem in the exhibition is a series of rare color Polaroids and vintage prints (Sidibé’s photographs typically circulate in the form of enlarged reprints from an archive of negatives). Some of these are mounted in wooden frames that have been colorfully hand-painted, complementing the richly patterned textiles worn by Sidibé’s sitters. In one yellowing print from 1970, a teenage girl models a minidress sewn from a patchwork of wax fabrics. While its composition is consistent with traditional studio portraiture in West Africa, the subject’s provocative outfit and subtle confidence express the sense of freedom felt by many who came of age in a newly independent Mali.