Malick Sidibe, the Malian photographer who died this year aged 80, made a name for himself with exuberant black and white images celebrating the country’s youth culture in the post-independence era.
He was nicknamed ‘the eye of Bamako’ after the city in Mali where he lived and worked.
Blind in one eye, he opened ‘Studio Malick’ in 1958 and was little known outside his native country until Western curators and art dealers ‘discovered’ his work in the early 1990s.
Exhibited widely throughout Europe and America since, in 2007 he became the first photographer and the first African artist to be awarded a Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement at the Venice Biennale.
He excelled in photographing the exuberant youth culture of Mali following its independence from France in 1960.
His black and white photographs are unique and instantly recognisable. His grinning, dancing and playful subjects are in stark contrast to what one had seen hitherto in 19th and 20 century photographs of Asia and Africa, usually taken by Western photographers, where the subjects stare at the camera in solemn or even grim poses and moods. You rarely see a solemn face in Malick Sidibe’s work. The photographer is always seen with a big smile in his self-portraits, full of a zest for life, and this enthusiasm must have been contagious.
Sidibe and his subjects seem to have not only bonded but blended into one when each picture was made. The viewer too, is drawn into an airy, mid-summer night’s dream mood, even though he or she may be totally unfamiliar with Malian culture and the socio-cultural context of Sidebe’s photographs.
Speaking of the atmosphere at Studio Malick, the modest enterprise he ran in Bamako since 1958, Sidibe said: “It was like a place of make-believe. People would pretend to be riding motorbikes, racing against each other. It was not like that at the other studios.”
"It was like a place of make-believe. People would pretend to be riding motorbikes, racing against each other. It was not like that at the other studios."
That certainly can’t be an exaggeration. His portraits are not like anyone else’s portraits. His subjects don’t seem to be conscious that they are facing a photographer. Rather, the photos seem to be taken by one of the group, a friend. Sidibe must have had a remarkable ability to win the trust of people younger than he was, not an easy thing to do. The secret of his success is trust. He trusts them and they trust him in return.
Blind in one eye from a childhood accident, Sidibe was born to a humble village family in what was then called the French Sudan, perhaps in 1935. He would have been a goatherd but for the fact that he obtained a scholarship given by an urban white school, courtesy of his village chief. There, he was selected for the School of Sudanese Craftsmen in Bamako because of his drawing skills, where he was chosen by French photographer Gerard Guillat to work in his studio. Sidibe became Guillat’s studio assistant and purchased his first camera. Speaking of Guillat, Sidibe said later:
“He didn’t teach me how to take photographs. But I watched him and I understood how to do it. I did the African events, the photos of Africans, and he did the European events – the major balls, official events.”
In 1958, Sidebe opened his own studio in one of the few areas of Bamako to have electricity. Within a few years, Sidibe had established himself as the country’s only travelling documentary photographer, travelling by bicycle to dances, beach parties, night clubs and graduation ceremonies to photograph stylish young men and women.
Young Malians in the cities were happy to embrace rock’n’roll. Sidebe undoubtedly came along at the right time because this electric combination – a sense of freedom following independence, and a vibrant secular and cosmopolitan culture – is now a thing of the past. As Sidebe noted: “Music was the real revolution. Music freed us. Suddenly, young men could get closer to young women, hold them in their hands. Before, it was not allowed. And everyone wanted to be photographed dancing up close.”
In the 1970s, Sidibe returned to studio photography but by then he had created a lasting and unforgettable legacy in exuberant and unique images. His studio was tiny, just three metres by four, but his legacy is huge.