The conventional wisdom is that many dealers like to bring out their flashiest material for art fairs—mirrors and neon often figure prominently—but such is not the case with the Galerie Nathalie Obadia, which has a tight, concise presentation at the Armory Show in New York of black-and-white photographs by the late Malian artist Seydou Keïta, whose portraits of his everyday countrymen have made him one of the most important African artists ever.
Keïta remains lesser-known in the United States than he is in Europe, where the gallery, which has spaces in Paris and Brussels, is based. It’s been 11 years since Keïta had a U.S. solo exhibition—the most recent was at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland, in 2007—and almost 20 years since his last New York show, at Gagosian Gallery in 1998. So the booth comes as a treat for Keïta enthusiasts and photography fans alike.
The works on view at the booth, all made in Keïta’s studio, feature men, women, and children who are posed against vibrant backgrounds, their sitters’ clothes and demeanors juxtaposed with the chaotic patterning behind them. In one, a boy wearing a striped T-shirt stands in front of a hanging rug, holding a bicycle. In another, a woman reclines on a low couch, her floral-print dress clashing with a checkered fabric beneath her.
Most of the works were taken during the 1940s and ’50s, but they feel timely, especially as a new crop of black American figurative painters, from Michelle Obama portraitist Amy Sherald to the painter Mickalene Thomas, have begun to look to Keïta’s photographs for inspiration. “He’s the one who really invented this superimposition of prints,” Charlotte Ketabi, the gallery’s associate director, said. There’s been a lot of interest in the work in Europe, she said, and now she hoped to bring the works to an American audience. “We’ve shown them in Paris, we’ve shown them in Brussels, and now we really wanted to bring them to the U.S.