‘For me photography is all about youth.’ Malick Sidibé
Somerset House is a rabbit warren of attractions with at least two cafes, several art shops, and a number of exhibition spaces. In the terrace rooms in the South Wing (i.e. overlooking the Thames, next to Waterloo Bridge) are three rooms currently devoted to African photographer Malick Sidibé (1936-2016).
Sidibé was born in Mali. During the 1950s, using a lightweight Kodak camera, he cycled the countryside around the capital Bamako taking photos of weddings and other family occasions, establishing himself as the country’s only travelling photographer.
As the country was winning its independence from France in 1960, Sidibé set up a studio in Bamako and began making scores of studies of Malians, which capture the youthful enthusiasm, creativity and cool of the young nation. The exhibition brings together 45 high quality prints into three rooms arranged by theme:
Tiep à Bamako / Nightlife in Bamako
Contrast of the formal 1960s black and white suits with the exuberance of party
Au Fleuve Niger / Beside the Niger River
- Combat des amis avec pierres 1976
- Picnic at the chaussee, 1972
- Les Retrouvailles au bord du fleuve Niger, 1974
- On the rocks at the chaussee, 1976
Le Studio / The Studio
Why do they work?
- Black and white is always better than colour.
- It makes the images crisp and well-defined. All the photos are clear and well lit, he’s not interested in shadows, grey or mystery. Everything stands out in clarity.
- They’re all of people, there are no landscapes or objects. And young people. Young, vibrant, energetic people, dancing or goofing by the river or pulling poses in the studio. This spirit of youth and energy comes over infectiously. They’re happy pictures.
- There are several levels of the ‘exotic’, or of distance, going on in the photos:
- The 1960s photos capture that faraway decade when people jived and twisted while wearing narrow-lapelled black and white suits.
- They’re all African i.e. black, in both respects a remote culture from the 100% white visitors to the gallery.
- Style. The 60s dancers could be white, the lads and lassies by the river could at a pinch be white – but the studio shots could only be African, in the super-confident brashness of their clothes and poses, the clashing styles and big shades and surreal accessories, the stripes and checks and leopard skin patterns of the wild pants and jackets. Much emphasised when he used a strong striped background, to give the sitters even more visual energy.
These explosions and clashes of geometric designs have something in common with the Op Art of the 1960s, for example the work of Bridget Riley. Except that it is real, walking, talking, singing, dancing art, created by the incredible disparate taste and confidence of Sidibé’s sitters and captured again and again in these wonderful photos.
Playing on a loop are 31 tracks by African artists selected by DJ Rita Ray, including Miriam Makebe, Boubacar Traoré, Youssou N’Dour, Ali Farka Touré. It isn’t in the show, but my favourite Boubacar track is Adieu Pierrette.
This is a video prepared for a different exhibition, but which is very informative.
And here’s a full length documentary about Sidibé by Cosima Spender.
- Malick Sidibé: the Eye of Modern Mali continues at Somerset House until 27 February 2017
- Guardian obituary
- Guardian obituary in pictures
- Malick Sidibé Wikipedia article
- Blog post about Malick by Georgina Goodman