New York

“The Clubs of Bamako”

“The Clubs of Bamako” bore witness to the euphoria and optimism that accompanied the emergence of postcolonial Africa, with thirty black-and-white photographs by Malick Sidibé running along all four walls of the main gallery. In the center of the room were fourteen sculptures—inspired by the photographs and commissioned by Jeffrey Deitch—created by African artists Emile Guebehi, Nicolas Damas, Koffi Kouakou, and Coulibaly Siaka Paul. Between 1962 and 1976, Sidibé took as his subject the nightclubs and dance parties in Bamako, capital of Mali, the West African republic that won independence from France in 1960. His photos document men in thin-lapeled suits with skinny ties, porkpie hats, and Malcolm X frames, women wearing bright sleeveless dresses and Sophia Loren–style sunglasses, and couples in ultrawide bell-bottoms and Afros, all grooving to the music, seemingly unaware of the presence of the camera.

Sidibé’s photographs have been compared to those of his countryman Seydou Keïta, who has created an international stir over the last couple of years with his striking portraits of Malians from the ’50s to the ’70s. But where Keïta’s photos are composed and glossy, displaying subjects who seem to choose how they want to be viewed, Sidibé’s shots appear much more spontaneous, akin to photojournalism. Frequently taken at the end of the evening, his images show exhilarated couples “getting down” or young playboy types caught unawares, drink in hand, midgesture, their eyes half-closed. History, as reflected in changing fashion and music styles—which are precisely the things through which most people perceive time having passed—seems to course through his subjects’ every move. What the pictures, with their dates penciled in at the edges of their mattes, subtly convey is how the enthusiasm that greeted the victory of the “wretched of the earth” became tempered over time, and then, like a flash, disappeared. The photos also demonstrate how, even at its most proudly “African,” postcolonial Africa was drawing on fashions from both Europe and the US (especially from African-American street culture, which itself became indebted to an image of Africa that later flowed back to Africa)—as if the very trappings of Western clothes and moves were a sign of modernity and cool, at a moment when modernity itself was cool.

Guebehi’s sculpture of a grinning boy holding a 45 greeted viewers entering the space. The 45 was, of course, not a gun but a record—although the idea that music could be a powerful weapon against colonial oppression ricocheted around the exhibition. The other sculptures on view (all untitled) exaggerated the precarious poses of the dancers doing the freak, the “Mali twist,” and other sly moves from the ’60s and early ’70s. One work by Coulibaly Siaka Paul portrays a man in Adidas-style running shoes lying on his back, as if in a music-induced trance. All the sculptures were made out of wood (a traditional African sculptural material, of course) and coated with glossy paint, which gave them the slick, lifeless veneer of mannequins—in striking contrast to Sidibé’s images, which pulse with a barely restrained energy. Though they were given center stage, the sculptural interpretations seemed like an afterthought, in every sense of the word. The exhibition was accompanied by celebratory-sounding karkar music by Boubacar Traoré (from the CD that accompanied Sidibé’s book, published by Scalo last fall) which, combined with the images of dancing bodies, created a joyful atmosphere that barely camouflaged something terribly sad: the anxiety of hope.

Nico Israel