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363 11. Visual Griots: Identity, Aesthetics, and the Social Roles of Portrait Photographers in Mali C A N D A C E M . K E L L E R Throughout history, griots (oral historians, musicians, and poets) have held an important social and political position among communities in the West African region of present-day Mali. Admired and appreciated for their creativity and artistic acumen, their expertise rests in part on their ability to embellish upon the positive characteristics of their patrons. Through their verbal orchestrations they often construct idealized identities for these individuals, popularize them in the public sphere, and preserve them over time in the form of reputation and historical account. In the most ideal sense, then, griots are simultaneously guardians of personal and communal histories and co-authors of an individual’s public persona and reputation.1 Professional photographer Malick Sidibé, along with many of his colleagues working in Mali during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, likens the societal position and artistic profession of photographers to those of griots.2 However , “visual griot” is a Western term. In 2003, Sidibé explained that he first considered it in the early 1990s when three journalists, an “American, Egyptian, and Frenchman,” asked if he thought of himself as a griot. Upon much reflection he decided that he did, but for reasons different from those the journalists held. According to Sidibé, the unnamed reporters considered him a griot because of the sociohistorical, or documentary, value of his work. This aspect pertains to Candace M. Keller 364 Sidibé’s conception of “visual griot” as well. However, he and his colleagues consider themselves to be visual griots foremost because, like their oral counterparts, they primarily embellish and create idealized identities for their patrons.3 Thus, like griots, these photographers function as artists as well as personal and social historians, retaining archives of images that document political, social, and personal changes and events. As visual griots they are also creators and preservers of individual and collective identities. Stressing this point in 2003, Sidibé stated, “A photographer must be like a griot. They must have the ability to make a flattering picture—to make things better than they are in actuality. [Photographers] make the individual more perfect. . . . They improve on reality to praise and respect the client.”4 For these photographers it is the aspect of identity creation that is most important in their work, and as such it is made central within this analysis. To best illustrate the role photographers have had in constructing and enhancing the identities of their clients in photographs, this essay focuses solely on the genre of portraiture—both in and beyond the studio. In so doing it concentrates on the creative inventions and productions of world-renowned artists Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, who worked in the capital city of Bamako—the center of photographic production and cultural change in Mali—during much of the twentieth century. In this analysis portrait photography is recognized as a medium in which identities , values, and trends are created and preserved. Of particular concern are the kind of identities and relationships people sought to compose and capture on film, and how photographers were able to invent strategies that express and communicate those in visual images. To understand these, this investigation considers Malian portrait photography in terms of local theories of social action embodied in the complementary concepts of fadenya and badenya.5 Derived from the most commonly spoken Malian language, Bamanankan, fadenya and badenya encompass critical notions of personhood, identity, agency, and community.6 In this theoretical system, the intrinsic relationship between individual and societal values, concepts of social organization, cultural fluctuation and stability, and aesthetic preference is articulated. Thus, applying the concepts of fadenya and badenya to a study of portrait photography in Mali enables this analysis to address specific sociocultural conditions and ideological beliefs that inform the artistic practices of photographers. It also allows an understanding of Visual Griots 365 the intimate relationship between aesthetic ideals, societal values, and social theories as embodied in fadenya and badenya. Finally, it facilitates an appreciation of the social significance that portrait photography and the artistic contributions of individual photographers, such as Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, have had within the visual, cultural dialogue of Mali. Fadenya and Badenya: Social Theory and Cultural Logic As with all theories and philosophical concepts, badenya and fadenya encompass a complex web of meanings that can be understood in a variety of ways, depending upon the...


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