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PRINT March 2002

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Seydou Keïta

SEYDOU KEÏTA WAS SEVENTY-EIGHT years old and long retired when he died last November. His future as an artist lay in his past as the photographer from Bamako, Mali, who managed to portray his subjects with all their dignity, dreams, and fantasies. Thanks to his signature studio technique, his use of props, and his facility with makeup, his work always ensured that his sitters became true Bamakois: bourgeois noblemen and -women, civil servants invested with the authority of the colonial administration. It was only at the end of his career that the world discovered Keita’s images justes and celebrated his artistic genius everywhere—everywhere, that is, except Africa itself. He often complained to me about the lack of respect his photography received in Mali; it was in Europe and the United States that his art was appreciated.

Keïta liked to relate the story of his discovery. In 1977 he was working on his motorbike in his former darkroom, which had been transformed into a repair shop. Three Frenchmen came to the door and asked to see the photographer Seydou Keïta. “I am he,” Keïta replied as he sat on the floor in dirty clothes, his hands covered in oil from the engine. “No, no! Not you,” they said. “We’re looking for a photographer, not a mechanic.”

Keïta answered them defiantly: “If you don’t believe me, look in those boxes in the corner, and you will see my negatives.” The three men looked inside a box, and each took a roll. According to Keïta, they could not believe their eyes. They asked him to trust them with the contents of the box, which they were going to take to the French cultural center in the city in order to examine the negatives carefully. Two of the men took off for France the next day with the negatives. Only the third, an officer at the Centre Culturel Français, remained in Bamako to reassure Keïta.

Three months later the officer received a letter from the two men inviting Keïta to a show of his work in Rouen. That exhibition led to others, and by the ’90s Keïta’s work was being shown throughout the world. His photographs were featured at the Fondation Cartier (Paris, 1994), the Ginza Art Space (Tokyo, 1994), the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (New York, 1996), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1997), and the Fundació Joan Miró (Barcelona, 1998). In 1997, André Magnin’s monograph Seydou Keïta (Scalo) further popularized the photographer’s work.

“After [the Rouen] trip, I was invited everywhere,” Keiïta told me. “It’s the Europeans who know the value of my work. Here, they have no respect for photography.” He frequently saw his prints torn apart and discarded in his subjects’ yards. “I’d say to them, ‘How can you tear up your pictures like this?’ and they’d reply that they would come [to the studio] and take another one. I’d say to them, ‘But don’t you know that it is never the same? Plus, you are older now. Don’t you know that a photograph is a souvenir, a work of art, and a document?’”

While much is known about repression in the former Soviet Bloc, we are less aware of the fate of artists in socialist African countries like Ghana, Guinea, and Mali in the ’60s. According to Keïta, after Mali gained its independence, the party ordered him to shut down his studio and work for the state: “What else could I do?” he asked me. “They said that we were now free and everyone had to work for the state to build our country. So I became a photographer for the government.” Keïta’s official photographs include portraits of Modibo Keïta, the first president of Mali, with ministers and foreign dignitaries. They lack the extraordinary ornamental quality and dalliance with artifice so characteristic of Keïta’s studio photography.

Keïta remained bitter about the experience and convinced that Big Brother was still watching him. His situation helps explain his nostalgia for the colonial period, when he was free to work for himself. The brutal manner in which the state singled out his studio for closing might also have reinforced his belief that Europeans respected his art more than Africans did.

Keïta was a traditionalist; he spoke of his regrets concerning the proliferation of color photography at the expense of black-and-white work. “Now there are so-called photographers who don’t even know how to print their own pictures. They send them to the lab to be developed. For me,” he continued, “the darkroom is an integral part of photography. When I take pictures until late at night, go in the darkroom to work until the wee hours of the morning, then wash the prints in the basin, pull them out, and see the first images taking shape, it is like giving birth to a baby.”

When I last saw Keïta, I was visiting him with cinematographer Arthur Jaffe and photographer Jules Allen. I asked to see the Super-8 films he had shot of his family. He had a batch of twenty or so keys in his hands and was going to one closet door after another, opening drawers that contained still more keys. But when we finally came to the safe that contained the films, he couldn’t find the right key. He called his son, who told him that his other son knew where the key was hidden. We were disappointed that we weren’t able to see the films. But I was more concerned about Keïta, who looked exhausted by the search. I told him that I would be back. He said, “Insh’allah, if I am still alive.” What impressed me most was the man’s dignity and patience during the time we were together. Though he was simple, he was always elegant in dress and in the manner in which he spoke. Both as a photographer and as a man, he got my respect.

Manthia Diawara is director of the Africana studies program and the Institute of African American Affairs at New York University.