New York

Seydou Keïta

Seydou Keïta, “the Bresson of Bamako,” died in 2001, leaving a body of work specific to the postcolonial, urban Mali of the 1950s and ’60s. But Keïta’s story—from his experience as a self-taught photographer catering to a regional clientele, to the nonpareil portraits that constitute his legacy, to the bitter struggle now raging for control of his estate—also frames discussion of his oeuvre as a parable about photography itself.

The prints exhibited recently are posthumous and had not been seen before. But while their exhibition may have been a political move in the estate battle (of which more below), the photographs still speak about their sitters and about the artist who helped them to represent themselves as cosmopolitan individuals held in a matrix of familial, tribal, national, and symbolic relations. As Manthia Diawara has observed, “To go before Keïta’s lens is to pass the test of modernity.” To stand before his pictures now is to take the test again. How do we recognize this quality called “modern”? How do we distinguish it from “traditional”? The same questions apply to related pairings: sophisticated/naive; African/Euro-American; collective/individual; authentic/inauthentic.

The thirty-one untitled prints at Sean Kelly Gallery were produced under the auspices of the Association Seydou Keïta in Mali, which is in conflict with the Geneva-based Pigozzi Collection about who has the rights to Keïta’s negatives. The wrangle inevitably tinges any considered response to the new pictures, which were culled from the Association’s archive. They look like second choices and probably are, since Keïta presumably picked his favorites when in the early ’90s the Pigozzi’s curator, André Magnin, arranged to bring to Europe a group of negatives now at issue in the custody battle. Keïta had fallen out with Pigozzi and Magnin before his death, and even prints produced before 2001 now seem to fall under the dispute’s cloud, which involves disagreement about everything from the scale of the images to the intensity of their contrast. In short, much about the recent prints is controversial. What remains is their core visual information, and it is proof of Keïta’s brilliance that this is enough.

Like all photographic portraiture, Keïta’s images conjure a three-fold reality, comprising the sitter’s manner, the historical moment, and the photographer’s vision. Over the past decade, critics have repeatedly observed in Keïta’s work an opposition between African and Western, old and new. It’s time to move past this either/or reading. Yes, his photographs are tessellated signs in which West African markers of status (scarifications, jewelry, fabrics) interlock with markers of urban chic and buying power (a radio, a watch, a handbag). But it’s the interlocking, not the opposition, that is at stake. Keïta’s work captures the energy of the unique body—the crook of this one’s elbow, the tilt of that one’s chin—and in so doing secures the individual, separate (read: modern) subject in a web of contextual (read: traditional) relations.

This connective mesh is literalized in surface patterning and in the repetition of details. The same watch, the same lacy backdrop, the same foot-on-a-chair pose appear in many of these shots. Partly this reveals Keïta as a businessman, repeating successful formulas. But it also realizes compositionally his understanding that such portraiture is neither innocent of commercialism (gangster movies, fashion magazines), nor separate from European high art (Matisse, the French Symbolists), nor detached from African kinship structures. Why, after all, should such things be disconnected? The fact that global audiences and competing impresarios now figure in the equation shouldn’t surprise us either. Keïta’s art is both intensely local and totally adaptable to displacement. That’s modernity for you.

Frances Richard