Mr. Sidibé, born in 1936 in Bamako Mali, earned a diploma in jewelry making and then worked in a photography studio of a French colonial. In 1956 he bought his first camera, a Brownie Flash, and in 1957 became a full-time photographer under apprentice with leading society photographer Gérard Guillat , learning his trade at colonial balls and banquets, finally opening Studio Malick in 1962. In a video interview accompanying the show, Mr. Sidibé, who still lives in Bamako, Mali, describes how people came to his studio partly because it had electricity, which was a luxury there at that time. What Mr. Sidibé is really known for, however, is his candid photographs of young people taken at parties from the 1960s to the early 1970s. Mali gained independence from France in 1960, and there was a flowering of music and culture. (Bamako has remained an international music center, although recent conflicts have upset that somewhat.) Taking advantage of the lighter 35-millimeter camera, Mr. Sidibé photographed people, attending surprise parties, celebrations for new babies or graduation parties at social clubs called “grins.”
What Sidibé offered, and his peers at the time, such as Seydou Keita also of Mali, Mama Casset of Senegal and Joseph Moise Agbodjelou of Benin, was a space where people were afforded agency over their image, rather than being subject to a western lens that projected an exoticism or poverty upon them. The resulting pictures were “Africans for Africans”. These photographs are ripostes to the anthropological images of ‘‘natives’’ made by Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Those photographs, in which the subjects had no say in how they were seen, did much to shape the Western world’s idea of Africans. Something changed when Africans began to take photographs of one another: You can see it in the way they look at the camera, in the poses, the attitude. The difference between the images taken by colonialists or white adventurers and those made for the sitter’s personal use is especially striking in photographs of women. In the former, women are being looked at against their will, captive to a controlling gaze. In the latter, they look at themselves as in a mirror, an activity that always involves seriousness, levity and an element of wonder.
Malick’s photographs offered a glimpse into the dynamic youth culture that emerged in Bamako during Mali’s post-Independence era. Though trained as a studio photographer, Malick was lured into the city’s streets and dance clubs, where his clients wanted to be seen participating in Bamako’s thriving nightlife. There, Malian youths forged a uniquely diasporic aesthetic, finding inspiration in American Black Power icons and musicians, including James Brown and Angela Davis. “I was lucky enough at that time to be the intellectual young photographer with a small camera who could move around. The early photographers like Seydou Keïta worked with plate cameras and were not able to get out and use a flash. So I was much in demand by the local youth. Everywhere … in town, everywhere! Whenever there was a dance, I was invited … At night, from midnight to four A.M. or six A.M., I went from one party to another.”
From the work of Malick reportage photographs were first known, taken in surprise parties organized by young people fond of music and freedom as the country prepared for independence. These series begin around 1957 and will continue until early 1970. Thereafter, it was studio portraiture which constituted the bulk of Malick’s work. From 1994, the work of Malick Sidibé’s started getting noticed and promptly, major exhibitions were held – the first took place at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, and thereafter in galleries and museums in Europe, the USA and Japan. In 2003 Malick won the Hasselblad Photography Award becoming the first indigenous African promoted to the rank of “the greatest photographers of our time.”
His photos have been prized on the international art market for years and adorn the walls of leading photo galleries across the world, but 76-year-old Malick Sidibe still resides in a one-room home in Mali, attended to by his wives and children. A national hero, his contribution to his country’s historical record has, for many, crafted the image of Mali, and Africa at large.
Olivia Singer, Another Magazine
Martha Schwendener, Ny Times Magazine
Teju Cole , Ny Times Magazine
Allison Young, Artforum
Jehad Nga, Time Lightbox
Dan Piepenbring, The Paris Review