Ready to Wear
A conversation with Malick Sidibé
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You'd be forgiven for thinking that this is the golden age of African photography. There have been exhibitions and magazines and scholarly monographs doubling as coffee-table keepsakes; in the recent hip-hop film Belly, a book of photos by the Malian portraitist Seydou Keïta takes pride of place in the protagonist's sitting room. The French curator André Magnin has brought African photography to market, and he's made celebrities of Keïta and of Malick Sidibé, another Malian photographer. Their gorgeous black-and-white portraits captivate Afrocentrists and art critics alike.
Sidibé is glad to have found an international audience for his work from the sixties and seventies, but his sudden Western renown seems almost anticlimactic. He's been famous in Mali for decades, and he continues to work out of the same small studio he opened nearly forty years ago.
Malick Sidibé was born around 1935 in Soloba, in the southern part of Mali. In 1952 he moved to Bamako to attend the École des Artisans Soudanais, now the Institut National des Arts, where he studied jewelry making. Upon graduating, Sidibé was hired by a local European photographer to decorate his shop, Photo Service. Gérard Guillat, known affectionately as Gégé le Pellicule--literally, "Gégé Film"--later took Sidibé on as an apprentice. The young Malian bought his first camera in 1956, a 6 x 9 Brownie Flash, and began taking portraits in Guillat's studio. Guillat served the European clientele while Sidibé, along with other apprentices, took care of the Africans.
A few years later, on the eve of independence, Sidibé bought a full set of laboratory equipment from a departing Frenchman; in 1962, he opened Studio Malick at 30th Street, Corner 19, in the neighborhood of Bagadadji. The majority of Sidibé's customers wanted small prints that could be pasted into albums or exchanged with friends. A matte 9 x 13 cm print cost 200 CFA francs, and a glossy print cost 150 francs--about ten times the cost of a soft drink. [End Page 132] [Begin Page 134]
Sidibé is best known for his reportage; in 1957 he began to take pictures of young people at parties, club gatherings, and Sunday outings by the Niger River. (A selection of Sidibé's party photos was featured in Transition 74, alongside Manthia Diawara's "The Song of the Griot.") But Sidibé considers his studio work his greatest artistic achievement. In the studio, the photographer defines the parameters of his subject by manipulating pose, lighting, and composition.
Often the props and poses communicate something essential about the subject. People choose to be photographed with a favored object, like a shepherd's sheep--or a hipster's motorbike. Cigarettes dangle from the mouths of musicians; would-be models slide hands into pockets, slouch or stand tall. Many sitters convey themselves as New Africans, sporting sunglasses, wide-brimmed hats, Mexican sombreros. Studio Malick isn't as busy as it used to be--in Mali, as elsewhere, the advent of color film and automatic processing has all but driven black-and-white studio photographers out of business. Still, the studio remains an important meeting place in the neighborhood, and Sidibé himself can often be found out front, repairing cameras, entertaining friends and visitors. I [End Page 134] met up with him there one languid afternoon while researching "You Look Beautiful Like That," a major exhibition of his studio work to be held at Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum this fall. I was assisted in my endeavors by Baba Maiga, a young Malian photographer.
Michelle Lamunière: I understand that you worked in other media before you started making photographs.
Malick Sidibé: Yes, it's true. For me, setting up a photo shoot isn't so different from drawing a scene: I decide what goes where, I decide how to pose the person in...