Malick Sidibé

Malick Sidibé, a photographer from Mali, has worked as a portraitist since 1962, when he opened a studio in the city of Bamako. The works in this show dare from the ’60s and ’70s, offering an interesting commentary on the consumption of Western, mostly American, popular culture.

Throughout these decades, Sidibé documented the lifestyles of the young people of his city. The photographs show them engaged in leisure activities: dancing, listening to music, playing sports, vacationing along the banks of the Niger. The amicable nature of the relationship between the artist and his subjects (who commissioned the portraits) is evident in Sidibé’s photographs: his subjects often pose freely, without any need for the photographer to direct them. This reciprocal relationship is one of the primary reasons these photographs are of such interest.

They also hold our attention because they depict a society that is foreign to the Western viewer, thereby raising the oft-posed question of what it means to represent another culture. On one level, these photographs are reassuring because they depict familiar things. The clothing these young people wear and the poses they strike dancing come directly our of Western youth culture: the dances are the cha-cha and the twist, the music is Afro-Cuban and rock, the clothes range from the flowing skirts of the ’60s to the flowered shirts and bell-bottom pants of the ’70s. In an image from 1963, a young go-go boy poses, in perfect imitation of one of the kitschier aspects of Western culture. Exercising becomes spectacle in Hercule Africain (African Hercules, 1970), and the naked breasts of girls on a coed vacation in a photo from 1976 seem to be more a sign of the progressive freedom of dress and sexuality in our own culture than of any “African-ness,” which, if present at all, is limited to hairstyles. Thus the adoption of these behavioral stereotypes reassures the Western observer, who can experience these already old-fashioned images as exotic “finds,” as part and parcel of the latest cultural fashion, namely multiculturalism.

One question remains: In propagating our own models of mass culture, how much of what was “theirs” have we dismissed, removed, or destroyed? Twenty years later Sidibé responded, when he, along with friends and relatives, appeared at his Paris opening in traditional African dress.

Giorgio Verzotti

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.