Malick Sidibé @ Somerset House

‘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

Le Studio / The Studio

Why do they work?

  1. Black and white is always better than colour.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. There are several levels of the ‘exotic’, or of distance, going on in the photos:
    1. The 1960s photos capture that faraway decade when people jived and twisted while wearing narrow-lapelled black and white suits.
    2. They’re all African i.e. black, in both respects a remote culture from the 100% white visitors to the gallery.
    3. 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.

African tracks

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.

Related links

Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s @ the Barbican

To the Barbican to see the ‘Everything Was Moving’ exhibition.

Instead of uplifting shots of the swinging 60s we’ve all heard about, this show focuses on 12 photographers from around the world whose pics show in pitiless detail the exploitation, fear and the violence of our world 50 years ago.

I chatted to another visitor who described it as ‘hard core’. Only visit if you’re feeling pretty tough-minded. The exhibition continues until 13 January 2013.

The ground floor is dominated by black and white photos of racism in apartheid South Africa and the American deep South.

1. Ernest Cole (1940-90) was a black South African who managed to evade the apartheid laws to get trained as a photographer and take wideranging photos of the black experience. Forced into exile in 1967 he published his photos in a harrowing book, House of Bondage, and died in poverty.

Ernest Cole (1940 – 1990) Handcuffed blacks were arrested for being in white area illegally. From House of Bondage Period: 1960-1966 © The Ernest Cole Family Trust Courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation, Gothenburg, Sweden

2. David Goldblatt (b.1930) a white South African who has investigated his strange country through photographs for fifty years. His candid pics of the white community all too often reveal the brutality and crudeness of the Afrikaans ruling class.

Black and white photo of four white young women on stage at a beauty pageant

David Goldblatt. Saturday morning at the Hypermarket: Semi-final of the Miss Lovely Legs Competition. 1979-1980. Courtesy of the photographer and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg. © Copyright 2012 David Goldblatt

3. Bruce Davidson (b.1933) an American and member of the famous Magnum company. In 1961 he joined the Freedom Riders making a terrifying journey by bus from Montgomery, Alabama, to Jackson Mississippi, the start of a 4-year project to document the Civil Rights movement and portrayed in his book, Time of Change

Black and white photo of a black woman and a white woman eating in a 1960s American diner

Bruce Davidson (b. 1933) Black Americans, New York City. From the series ‘New York (Life)’ From New York, 1961-65 © Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos

4. William Eggleston (b.1939) another white American, born in Memphis and so who grew up in the troubled South. He puzzled critics with his lack of references to the social turmoil of the Civil Rights movement all around him, preferring to take oblique and elliptical images, as part of his “war on the obvious”. I liked his photos. They capture for me that sense of alienation and gritty oddness which I like in the independent American movies of the early 70s.

Photos by William Eggleston on Google Images

5. Graciela Iturbide (b.1942) Mexican and the only woman in the exhibition, Graciela identified strongly with the native peoples of Mexico who she photographed against the backdrop of the vast desert, and with the urban poor whose grim but often surreal lives she documented.

Black and white photo of a Mexican woman wearing a bizarre hat made of lizards

Graciela Iturbide. Our Lady of the Iguanas, Juchitan 1979 © Graciela Iturbide

6. Boris Mikhailov (b.1938) lived and worked in Kharkov at the height of Soviet domination of the Ukraine. So repressive was the regime that Mikhailov lost his job as an engineer when the KGB found photos of his naked wife at their flat. The exhibition shows disturbing multi-image compositions from a series called ‘Yesterday’s Sandwich/Superimpositions’, deformed images of a society deformed by repression and fear and crushing poverty, often dwelling on the naked human image which was so feared and banned by the authorities.

Colour photo of a couple in a field superimposed over faces in a crowd

Boris Mikhailov. Yesterday’s Sandwich / Superimpositions, Late 1960s – late 1970s. Courtesy Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin © Boris Mikhailov, DACS 2012

7. Shomei Tomatsu (b.1930) the godfather of Japanese photography, Shomei became obsessed with America’s military occupation of Japan following the Second World War and was drawn to the army bases on Okinawa in the 1960s, where the B52s took off to bomb Vietnam. That said, tut there are plenty of quirky b&w photos of Japanese street scenes, too.

Black and white photo of a Japanese woman's head leaning over a table, her face hidden by her long black hair, as she shouts or screams

Shomei Tomatsu. Coca-cola, Tokyo, 1969 © Shomei Tomatsu Courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery and Nagoya City Art Museum

8. Larry Burrows (1926-71) a white American, apparently the finest photographer to cover the Vietnam war, he died when a helicopter he was travelling in was shot down over Laos.

Colour photo of an exhuasted looking American soldier wrapped in a brown blanket

Larry Burrows. Khe Sanh, April 1968 © 2002 Larry Burrows Collection

9. Li Zhensheng (b.1940) took photos for a regional newspaper during China’s disastrous Cultural revolution, 1966-76. After completing his official assignments he always took a few extra ‘arty’ pics, experimenting with point of view, especially of the vast rallies of the time. At immense risk he buried these negative negatives under the floorboards to be discovered later by his family, thus creating the only complete visual record of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Three black and white photos overlapping to give a panoramic view of an enormous political rally in China

Li Zhensheng. Several hundred thousand Red Guards attend a “Learning and Applying Mao Zedong Thought” rally in Red Guard Square (formerly People’s Stadium), Harbin, Heilongjiang province, 13 September 1966 © Li Zhensheng. Courtesy Contact Press Images

10. Malick Sidibe (b.1935) took photos in his studio of the unofficial youth culture which flourished underground in Mali under the severe dictatorship of Moussa Traore, who ruled until 1992. Wearing a miniskirt could get you sent to a re-education camp, so Sidibe’s pics of kids determined to have a good time to the music of the Beatles, Stones and James Brown are all the more edgy and exuberant. And bizarre.

Black and white photo of a hip young black man wearing big sunglasses in a photographer's studio

Malick Sidibé. A Yé-yé posing,1963 © Malick Sidibé. Courtesy Fifty One Fine Art Photography, Antwerp

11. Raghubir Singh (1942-99) used colour as a deliberate counter to the monochromatic angst of fashionable American photographers like Diane Arbus. He’s quoted as saying: “The fundamental condition of the West is one of guilt linked to death – from which black is inseparable. The fundamental condition of India, however, is the cycle of rebirth, in which colour is a deep inner source.” Hmm. Discuss. His images are certainly highly coloured and scrappily composed, busy, ad hoc, chaotic, like teeming India herself. Included on the Google Images page I link to is a famous image of a red car, shot from the side, probably his most famous image but uncharacteristically composed, as the others show.

Colour photo of a bright red car, from the side, with a poor Indian man squatting against it

Raghubir Singh (1942-1999) Pilgrim and Ambassador, Prayag, Uttar Pradesh, 1977 © 2012 Succession Raghubir Singh

12. Sigmar Polke (1941-2010), a German. Travelling the hippy route to Afghanistan Sigmar stopped to photograph a brutal village sport, a fight between two dogs and a bear. Polke deliberately spoilt the photos in the development stage, letting the colours run to create a visionary sequence, frayed images of chaotic conflict which seemed to foreshadow the ruinous invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet army in 1979.  Later in his career Polke became a painter specialising in collage and superimposition.

Damaged sepia photo of a dog and a bear fighting in front of a small crowd of Afghan peasants

Sigmar Polke (1941-2010) Der Bärenkampf (The Bear Fight), 1974 Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart © The Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne, DACS 2012

The above sequence, listing these fascinating and inspiring photographers, makes the show seem much more varied and sparky than it actually is. The impact of image after image after image of the poverty, violence and exploitation undergone by blacks in South Africa or 1960s America, have a battering affect on the soul, which is compounded by the atrocities of Maoist China and the explicit images of war and despair in Vietnam.

If you go, expect to be upset and distressed by what you see.


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