When Malick Sidibé, a Malian photographer, turned up at parties, he would let off a flash to announce his arrival. The atmosphere would heat up as guests showed off for the camera. Young women in bright mini-dresses did the twist. Hipsters in tight flares and floral shirts danced with them indelicately. It was the swinging Sixties after all, and everyone wanted to be snapped by Bamako’s coolest photographer.
Originally destined to become a goatherd, Sidibé, who was born in 1936 and died this April, was the first member of his family to go to school. There he showed a talent for drawing and ended up at the Institut des Arts in Bamako. He took a job as the assistant to a French photographer, Gerard Guillat-Guignard. “I watched him and understood how to take photographs,” Sidibé said. “I did the African events, the photos of Africans, and he did the European events – the major balls and official events.”
Now Sidibé’s photos are on display at London’s Somerset House in the first major retrospective of his work to be held in Britain. They are a joyful reminder of the energy that flowed through Mali in the two decades after it gained independence from France in 1960.
Sidibé’s portable Kodak Brownie and flash let him take photos of young people having a good time on a Saturday night. This set him apart from established photographers like Seydoux Keïta, who took carefully posed studio portraits of the Malian elite.
Sidibé would finish work in the early hours, then go back to develop the rolls of films, one for each party. On Sunday he would go to the river Niger and photograph people flirting, drinking and hanging out. At the beginning of the week, they would gather in his studio to pore over the pictures, gleefully spotting themselves and their friends. Some of them would come back for studio portraits, which were a popular way to celebrate a new purchase – a belt, a hat, a radio.
Music was key in Sixties Mali, with James Brown as much of an icon as he was in the discos of New York. The exhibition tries to capture this with a soundtrack that echoes, somewhat tinnily, through the halls of Somerset House. But Sidibé’s photos are so alive they don’t need enhancing.
“Dansez le Twist” (1965)
Sidibé recorded the moment when rock’n’roll hit Mali. “Music liberated African youth from the taboo of being with a woman,” he said in 2008. Young people were “able to get close to each other…I had to go in order to record these moments…We were not used to it.” This photo shares a title with a record from 1961 by Johnny Hallyday, a French pop singer. Notice the concentration on the woman’s face, the jaunty bend of her dance partner’s legs, the admiration of the onlookers and the hands clapping enthusiastically on the side of the frame.
“Les jeunes bergers peulhs” (1972)
These young friends – the title says they are shepherds – are showing off their favourite toy. They would have saved up to get their picture taken: the high price of film meant that every shot was precious.
“Pendant les grandes chaleurs” (1974)
After a hard night’s partying, what better way to cool down than a dip in the river Niger? This photo is a reminder of when land was lush, before desertification crept over the landlocked country.
“Les trois agents du FBI”(1976)
Three wannabe private detectives are playing it cool, in a scene that shows the pervasiveness of American culture. Malick Sididé pokes affectionate fun at his subjects with the title.
“Dernier au revoir des jeunes au pique-nique” (1972)
Sidibé once said, “When you look at my photos, you are seeing a photo that seems to move before your eyes. Those are the sort of poses I gave them. Not poses that were inert or lifeless. No. People who have life need to be positioned that way.” Women used to apply perfume before he took their photographs. They knew that if they felt good, they’d look good. This was Sidibé’s philosophy too, both in and out of the studio.
“A mon seul” (1978)
In this self-portrait, “The Eye of Bamako” doesn’t look quite as comfortable in front of the camera as his subjects. His awkwardness allowed him to empathise with his more apprehensive clients. When a little girl was nervous, Sidibé let her take a photo of him first to put her at ease. This was an artist who respected his subjects as well as commanding his medium.
Malick Sidibé, The Eye of Modern Mali Somerset House until January 15th, 2017