Malick Sidibé, one of the most important African photographers ever, whose black-and-white photographs of Malian youth depict a country’s values changing in response to political independence, died yesterday, of causes that, as of this writing, are still unclear. He was 80.
Sidibé’s contributions to African art, and to the field of photography in general, are difficult to overstate. His images of Malian youths partying, dancing, and posing for the camera are essential pictures of a country disassembling and reassembling its cultural identity. Mali had achieved independence from Sudan in 1960, causing Malians to reconsider who they were by importing foreign music and other forms of culture.
In 1962 Sidibé began taking photographs late at night (or very early in the morning, depending on how you look at it) in nightclubs in Bamako, the country’s capital. His dynamic compositions find young men and women swaying and shimmying, bending back and throwing their hands up in the air. The pictures have an on-the-fly aesthetic because, as Sidibé said in a recent interview, he would shoot 300 to 400 photographs in a given night, using his Brownie Flash camera. He became locally famous for these photographs, and was even nicknamed the “Eye of Bamako.”
He also described the importance of music in these pictures, saying, “I have to tell you, music liberated African youth from the taboo of being with a woman. They were able to get close to each other, which is why I was always invited to these parties. I had to go in order to record these moments, when a young man could dance with a young woman close up. We were not used to it.”
In addition to these documentary photographs, Sidibé did staged portraiture. (Sidibé is often compared to Seydou Keïta, who also photographed young Malians during the ’60s.) In 1958 he opened Studio Malick in Bamako, where Malians could pose for the camera. The photographs that resulted are by turns awkward and exhilarating—they show young Malians in transition, with clothes and props that are part traditional, part outrageously new. Spanning several decades, the portraits Sidibé took capture a changing Africa, complete with references to the Black Power movement and rock & roll. In one, a woman wearing a floral-patterned dress and headscarf also wears hip sunglasses; in another, a man wearing long traditional dress sits for the camera with a boom box perched on his lap. All of the photographs have a staginess about them—their patterned backdrops are obvious and usually framed such that viewers can see their edges, highlighting these poses as being fundamentally like performances for the camera.
Sidibé was born in the village of Soloba in the mid-’30s, in what was then French Sudan. (An exact year for Sidibé’s birth is hard to determine, since the photographer himself has given several different years, although 1935 and 1936 are most commonly cited.) After going through school at a young age, Sidibé studied with the French photographer Gérard Guillat-Guignard. He bought his first camera in 1956 and decided to become a photographer himself shortly thereafter.
In later years, Sidibé achieved international acclaim. In 2007 he became the first African—and the first photographer—to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, and in 2003 he won the Hasselblad Award. He is represented in New York by Jack Shainman Gallery, which currently has a show of his recent pictures on view in Chelsea.
“Malick’s passing brings great sadness and his absence from the art world will surely be felt widely,” Shainman said in a statement. “Personally, he was a humble, kind man with a warm heart and I am honored to have worked with him.”
After the mid-’70s Sidibé’s photographs grew stylistically and conceptually more ambitious. On view in the Jack Shainman show are works from his “Vues de dos” series, a group of black-and-white photographs of women lying on patterned blankets and facing away from the camera. The series refers to colonial photography, in which the opposite was the case—African women were posed like odalisques and sometimes created erotically charged gazes with the viewer. Sidibé believed these works were too risqué, and refused to show them in Mali.
All of Sidibé’s photography can be interpreted as being about identity and how people change in response to outside factors. As the Malian scholar and art historian Manthia Diawara has pointed out, they’re also remarkably prescient today, in a time when young people around the world are beginning to refashion their identities in protest or opposition to older, more conservative values. In an essay on Sidibé’s photographs, Diawara wrote, “What Sidibé’s photographs achieve is to teach us to be more tolerant of today’s youth, to understand that their action is not devoid of politics, and to see in them the triumph of the diaspora.”