PRINT February 1998


With exhibitions at the Cartier Foundation in Paris and San Francisco MoMA, gallery shows in LA and New York, and the publication of an unusually successful collection of studio portraits, SEYDOU KEÏTA seemed to go overnight from an obscure photographer whose negatives languished in a Bamako, Mali, darkroom to an art-world phenomenon. In the following pages, Manthia Diawara looks beyond the succès fou to examine the historical context of these images and to ask what makes them so compelling.

WHEN AN EXHIBITION OF Seydou Keïta’s photographs opened recently in SoHo, I was intrigued by the statement made by a West African colleague of mine: This is exactly like it was in those days. That yellow convertible, the first Cadillac in Mali, everyone remembers as belonging to Sylla, the antique dealer in Bamako. And this one, with the long tribal scars from his sideburns to his chin, must have been a Mossi soldier. The one over there’s a grande dame with her fancy scarf, her gold rings alongside the strands of her cornrowed hair, her tattooed lower lip, and her gold choker necklace with a large pendant.

To say that Seydou Keïta’s portraits tell the truth about the people in Bamako, the capital city of the former French Sudan (now Mali) in the ’40s and ’50s, is in fact to say that his camera made them into Bamakois. To get at this truth, which so excited my West African friend in SoHo, one must examine the relationship between Keïta’s work and the myth of Bamako—to ask what was being acted out by his subjects, what they hoped to achieve by posing for his camera. Finally, there is the question as to what we see in these pictures today that so stubbornly grabs hold of our attention.

Keïta’s Bamako is the Bamako at the birth of modernity in West Africa. Each one of his portraits reveals an aspect of that moment, its mythology and attendant psychology. In his attempt to create great Bamakois “types” with his camera, Keita participated in shaping the new image of the city, which emerged in 1946 (with the first meeting of the francophone Congrès de Bamako) as an important French colonial center. His studio was located not far from the train station, which served to link the city and Dakar, in turn bringing it closer to Paris, and was near another great agent of modernization, the large market of Bamako (le Marché Rose), a trading center that was the envy of every other West African city. There, commerce and consumption brought together villagers of various ethnic groups and redefined them as Bamakois. Other key sources of the modern experience, the central prison and the Soudan Cine movie theater, were landmark sites in Bamako-Coura (the new Bamako), Keïta’s neighborhood. The proximity of his studio to the Soudan Cine explains the impact the cinematic, black-and-white mise-en-scène would have on his style. The tough-guy looks and gangsterlike demeanor found in his photos seem straight out of a B-movie still.

Having a portrait taken by Keïta signified one’s cosmopolitanism. It registered the fact that the sitter lived in Bamako, had seen the train station, the big market, and the central prison, and went to the movies: in short, it signified that the sitter was modern. If such urbanity was one of the enduring markers of Bamako identity, another concerned the beauty of the city’s women: “À Bamako les femmes sont belles,” in the words of the popular song. For women, Keïta’s camera was a guarantee of beauty, fulfilling the truth of their being Bamakoise. His portraits were said to make any woman beautiful: give her a straight and aquiline nose, emphasize her jewelry and makeup, and capture a sense of her modernity through the attention paid to her high-heel shoes and handbag.

In contrast to other Bamako photographers (e.g., Sakaly in the neighborhood of Medina-Coura, and Malick Sidibé in Bagadadji), Keïta remained seriously committed to the genre of studio photography. He rigorously maintained a mise-en-scène that dictated the camera position and angle in relation to the subject. The decor often included such props as chairs, flowers, wristwatches, pens, radios, and a curtain in the background. The subjects, desirous of becoming Bamakois, stood, sat, or reclined for him like models in front of a painter. They always came out idealized, always already belonging to the past like objects of nostalgia, and stamped as the photographer’s products.

The painterly quality of Keïta’s portraits derives from the way the subjects arc absorbed by the environment of his studio. Take, for example, his portrait of two women sitting on the grass in front of his curtain backdrop with its signature arabesque patterns. The two women one wears a black dress with large white dots, the other a flower-print number—fit comfortably in this artificial landscape. They sit shoulder to shoulder as if Siamese twins, their headscarves falling in the back like foliage and revealing gold ornaments in their hair. The two mimic each other’s every movement, with their loose dresses spread out to cover their knees and feet. Each rests an arm on a knee, with an equal number of gold bracelets on their bared wrists as well as a single band on their respective ring fingers. Somehow the grass surrounding the women conveys the passage of nature into the portrait, which the arabesque background and colorful dresses do nothing to negate. In fact, looking at the image, one gets the feeling of being in front of an Impressionist tableau, in which civilization imitates nature.

Yet there is an atmosphere of excess in the portrait that derives not just from the gold ornaments and the uncanny sense that one woman is a duplicate of the other. Crucially, it is the artifice of the backdrop that prevents nature from taking over completely. The curtain reduces the depth of field by flattening the picture, and helps the artist to control the mise-en-scène and frame the space. It signifies Seydou Keïta’s presence and defines the women as Bamakoises enjoying a picnic. Here, as elsewhere, the curtain allows Keïta to create a sense of domesticated space, a studio effect.

No set of portraits show off the mythical beauty of the Bamakoises to better effect than those that feature a woman in a reclining pose on the bed in the studio. In one, the familiar arabesque backdrop takes on the appearance of living-room wallpaper rather than photographer’s prop. The bed is covered with a checkered black-and-white blanket. Wearing a loose flowered gown, the woman reclines with a white pillowcase under her arm, which forms an angle at the elbow to support the head. Her scarf is slightly tilted to the side to reveal her hair and earrings. The small incisions on her forehead and cheeks simultaneously register as tribal marks and beauty signs. On her neck, several strands of glass beads make her look even more desirable. What is remarkable about the portrait is not just the decor, which reveals the photographer’s eye for striking arrangements (the marriage of checkered blanket, flowered dress, and arabesque curtain). Even more arresting is the way it suggests a mistress waiting for a lover.

In fact, the portrait is as important for what it doesn’t show as for what it does. Of the woman herself, we only see the face down to the neck, the forearm under the chin, the hand resting limply on the waist, and parts of the feet. The rest of the body is covered by the loose dress and the scarf. Faced with such details as the luxurious blanket, the white pillow, the dress, the beads, and the curtain, we become convinced that we are looking at an important, beautiful woman, a Bamakoise who is not just anybody. This portrait is Seydou Keïta’s Olympia.

It’s interesting that the reclining pose on a bed was among the most popular for women who wanted their picture taken. The pose, which immediately registers for us as an expression of contemporary leisure, indicates the subject’s social status. Traditionally, this kind of portrait is associated with an unmarried woman who invites a suitor to her home, usually in the evening. The woman is sometimes pictured making tea, leaving the suitor to admire her elegance and manners. In some images in the genre, he may join her in bed. Unlike other Keïta portraits of young ladies, though, in which the figure typically occupies the foreground, reclining on the front side of the bed, almost on its edge, and dominates everything else in the shot, Keïta’s Olympia reclines sideways on the bed, her head turned slightly toward the back, her knees obscured by the loose dress toward the front. The camera divides the space equally between an unoccupied part of the bed in the foreground, the woman in the middle ground, and the curtain in the back. It is this economy of space that is absent in similar portraits, which, for all their verisimilitude, seem cramped and deficient in the photographer’s trademark control over the composition.

By the time Keïta turned to his neutral, gray backdrops in the mid ’50s, he had already photographed his masterpieces. Though the gray background of the later studio portraits signaled his commitment to realism in photographing the Bamakois, this turn in the work entailed a loss in the compositional harmony derived from the use of the patterned backdrops. But where the products of Keïta’s painterly eye generally succeed as photography, particularly in the case of the earlier compositions, the subjects of the portraits, regardless of their backdrop, send us looking for stories and explanations beyond the history of the medium.

For example, one of my favorite Keïta portraits features two sisters, their arms wrapped around each other, shot against the arabesque backdrop. The girls both wear patterned dresses with ruffled shoulders. The older sister’s scarf, tied under her chin, covers the back of her head down to her left ear. In the front, one can make out her hair, which is still growing in after the shaving required of young girls in the Soninke ethnic group. Now feeling old enough to have her hair braided with gold ornament, she may have covered her head to conceal her girlish hairstyle, revealing only her right ear full of gold earrings to signify her maturity (in contrast to her sister, who has only a single such adornment). The younger girl’s hair is shaved in the style of her ethnic group, leaving only two large swaths on her uncovered head.

The seriousness with which these two Soninke girls look at the camera speaks volumes about the role Keïta’s camera played in giving shape to modernity at the time of its birth in Bamako. On one level, the two sisters represent ethnic influences and traditional aesthetics that are not yet assimilated to modern life in the city. The way they hold each other emphasizes a complex relationship of identification. The little girl wants to be seen in the same way as her older sister, that is, a Bamakoise whose hairstyle does not identify her as a villager. The older sibling, on the other hand, leans her head against her sister’s as if to offer her the Bamakoise hairdo. Both girls seem to be hiding something that Keïta’s camera captures so well.

On another level, the little girl’s clumsiness in front of the camera defines the awkwardness of Bamako modernity. As the modern institutions democratize the city’s social relations, they also impose a savoir-faire that distinguishes Bamakois from villagers, an imposition that seems to extend to everyone in a generalized anxiety about how he or she is seen. To go before Keïta’s lens is to pass the test of modernity, to be transformed as an urbane subject even if one has no power in the market or at the train station.

Insofar as photography offers a mirror of familiar images, stereotypes involving our own effigy, what do Seydou Keïta’s portraits of Bamakois tell us today? I ask this question not only because of the excitement the portraits aroused in my West African colleague, but also because the SoHo show was very successful with sophisticated New Yorkers. The portraits give us back our individuality. In fact, I get the same feeling looking at Keïta’s portraits that I get watching Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times. Even though Keïta’s subjects look like us, they are not us. They are our history, the history of modernity. In this sense, the portraits have the uncanny sense of representing us and not-us.

Take, for example, the man in white holding a flower in his left hand. He is wearing glasses, a necktie, a wristwatch, and, in the embroidered handkerchief pocket of the jacket, a pen—tokens of his urbanity and masculinity. He looks like a perfect Bamakois. However, the way he holds the flower in front of his face constitutes a punctum in the portrait, a moment in which we recognize the not-us. The flower accentuates his femininity, drawing attention to his angelic face and long, thin fingers. It also calls to mind the nineteenth-century Romantic poetry of Alphonse Lamartine, Victor Hugo, and Stéphane Mallarmé, which was taught at that time in the schools of Bamako. In fact, the man with the flower reminds me of certain Bamako schoolteachers in the ’50s who memorized Mallarmé’s poetry, dressed in his dandied style, and even took themselves for him.

Elsewhere, the not-us appears to comic effect. In one portrait, three identically dressed girls are pictured with a remarkable quantity of gold rings attached to their braids and long strands of glass beads around their necks. Everything seems normal until one examines the girl on the right. Rather than simply rest an arm on the middle girl’s shoulder as does the one on the left, she has a hand on the breast of the girl in the center and the other around her waist. This unusual detail interrupts our reading of the beauty of these three Bamakoises. We say to ourselves that the hands of the girl on the right arc in the wrong place. She has not yet learned to pose in a cool and collected style—a modern style—in front of the camera. But we can empathize from a distance with this girl (who isn’t afraid of the camera?), knowing that the photograph can also catch us unaware, or unprepared, or uninhibited, and reveal the truth about us.

Keïta is caught with his own hand in the wrong place in a portrait he took of himself and a Moorish family. The portrait shows the family in the foreground: the patriarch dressed in a white gown, with his two wives sitting on either side. The wife on the left, who seems older, holds a baby in front of her. Behind the family crouches the photographer, wearing an open shirt and a felt hat and leaning over the patriarch and his younger wife on the right, with one arm on her shoulder, and the other on the shoulder of the patriarch.

This is a strange, complex portrait in many ways. In terms of composition, there’s really only room in the photo for three people. When one focuses on the polygamous patriarch and his wives, it seems that Keïta’s presence is what spoils the composition, that he should have never been in the picture. But when one focuses on the triangle formed by Keïta, the patriarch, and his younger wife, the wife on the left and her baby become invisible. It is interesting to note that the figure of the father is what both imagined compositions have in common. He is also the only one in the portrait not looking at the camera. This fact alone renders him more mysterious, and subject to a different interpretation depending on which composition we choose to privilege. When we look at him sitting between his two wives, who appear considerably younger than he, we put the institution of polygamy on trial. However, if we look at him at the same time with his younger wife and Keïta, it is the youth and urbanity of the photographer that we oppose to the age of the patriarch on the one hand and relate to the beauty of the wife on the other. The portrait could stand for Keïta’s photography as a whole: the relation between the two readings could stand for the two functions of his work—a decorative one that accentuates the beauty of Bamakoises and a mythological one wrapped up with modernity in West Africa. It is these dual functions—and their revelation as photographic constructions—that continue to draw us to Keïta’s work.

Manthia Diawara is professor of comparative literature and film and New York University.