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Paris pays tribute to Mali photo icon Malick Sidibé

By Alison Hird

Ne dalen do dia fangala (I believe in the power of images) Malick Sidibé would say in his native Bambara. The renowned photographer, often known as The Eye of Bamako, was most famous for capturing Malian youth culture in the 60s and 70s. A year after his death, the Cartier Foundation in Paris pays him tribute in Mali Twist: the largest-ever retrospective of his work.

Teenage boys in psychedelic bell bottoms look moody with guitars, young men and women relax and have fun on the beach, others strike a pose holding James Brown albums... the 250 black and white photos on show tell the story of a happy and carefree youth in Bamako in the 60s and 70s.

Regardez-moi ! (Look at me!), Collection Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain. © Malick Sidibé

As people jived, danced the twist and the chachacha, grooved to the Rolling Stones and Johnny Hallyday at surprise parties across the capital, roving photographer Malick Sidibé would turn up and capture the energy and beauty of the young generation.

"At the time of independence, young people set up clubs in each neighbourhood in Bamako," says curator André Magnin. "There was “The Beatles”, “The Hendrix”, “The St Germain des Près”... around 120 of them. They competed with each other for the best dancers, the smartest outfits, the grooviest music."

"There was a feeling of great freedom and hope in the air at the time," he continues. "Malick was about seven years older [than most of the youngsters], he already had a family. But he loved this generation and did everything he could to make them look good in his photos. So people always hoped he’d turn up at the surprise parties. He couldn’t go to them all, but he had a bike, which meant he could get to at least five or six parties on a Friday night. He would announce his arrival by setting off a flash gun. When he liked the music, and saw young people dancing, cavorting, striking the most incredible poses… click!... he took the picture."

Nuit de Noël, 1963. Collection Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris. © Malick Sidibé

Sidibé’s art was grounded in the youth culture of Bamako and he captured it with tenderness.One of the most renowned photos is Nuit de Noël (Happy Club), taken at the end of Ramadan in April 1963. It shows a brother teaching his sister to dance the twist, their heads touching in fraternal communion, a smile of contentment on their faces.

While Sidibé’ was famous in Bamako, it wasn’t until 1995 that he gained notoreity outside the African continent when Magnin - who’d got to know him by chance three years earlier in Bamako - mounted an exhibition of his work at the Fondation Cartier.

He went on to win some of photography’s most prestigious awards including the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the Venice Biennale in 2007. He was the first artist from Africa to win that honour.

Malick Sidibé, 1973. Courtesy of Malick Sidibé family. Malick Sidibé

The Mali Twist exhibit shows many of Sidibé’s studio portraits too, taken in the modest Studio Malick in the Bagadadji district of Bamako.

His technique was somewhat different from that of his fellow Malian photographer Seydou Keita, but Magnin says there was nothing casual about Sidibé's photos.

"Keita had a very poised technique and decided everything in advance. Malick didn’t, he gave the youngsters a lot of freedom. I saw him working in his studio many times: he’d talked to you, smile, tell you stories, and managed to get the pose he was looking for."

On some portraits people pose with album covers, cassette players or occassionally a moped if they were lucky enough to possess one. The youngsters brought what they needed to make themselves look cool.

"Mostly they just came and got dressed up," says Magnin. "If they did have a cassette player they showed it off. They’d put it on their shoulders or at their feet, smoke a cigarette, and show just how modern they were."

In the exhibition catalogue Manthia Diawara, a Malian professor of film studies in NY and who grew up in the Bagadadji district, describes how being photographed by Sidibé became a near rite of passage for him and his peers. "He made us look like the rock n’roll idols and movie stars we wanted to be," he says.

"A la plage" (On the beach) (1974). Courtesy Agnès b gallery. Malick Sidibé

But the pictures also capture a relatively fleeting moment in Mali's recent history. After the socialist ruler Modibo Keita was overthrown by a military coup in 1968, the atmosphere changed and there were fewer surprise parties.

"In 1978/79 he stopped reporting," says Magnin. "For political and economic reasons there just wasn’t the same enthusiasm. He concentrated on his studio work. Everyone was into colour photography, but he didn’t work in colour and wasn’t interested. By the time I met him, in 1992, he was more or less only taking photos for passports and spent most of his time repairing cameras."

Combat des amis avec pierres au bord du Niger, 1976. Taken at Egrets' Rock, one of Sidibé's "rare posed photos" © Malick Sidibé

The exhibit also shows a documentary film Dolce Vita Africana: a portrait of Sidibé by Anglo-Italian filmmaker Cosima Spender.

We see Sidibé in his run down studio in 2007 as a steady stream of his old mates drop in. They laugh and reminisce about the past. Spender says the film helps contextualise the photographs both in the life of Malick Sidibé and the story of the history of Mali.

"Actually Mali in the 60s was almost more open-minded and carefree than when I made the film [in 2007/08] and certainly more carefree than now since Al-Qaeda has a few strongholds there. In the 60s you had topless girls swimming and dressing in a very Western manner."

In one scene, Fernand, a welder and old mate of Sidibé's from their time at the Las Vegas club, shows photos of those 60s soirées to a group of young car mechanics. They're shocked to see women wearing skimpy clothing. "Your era was different from ours," one of them comments disapprovingly.

Spender says she wanted to show "the change in society and how open it was in the early 60s. I wasn't making a judgment, just collecting observations".

Malick Sidibé : « Une soirée à la chaussée », 1976. Malick Sidibé / Courtesy Galerie MAGNIN-A, Paris.

While times have clearly changed in Bamako, Spender says Sidibé kept his optimism through to the end.

"He was a great character who always looked for the postive message. And as he says in the film 'you can see sadness on every street corner but that's not what life's about. We have to celebrate life'."

Malick Sidibé, 2006, in Plouha, on the coast of Brittany, where he was invited to portraits of local people ANDRE DURAND / AFP

The fact is Sidibé had done better than many of his fellow photographers, not least because he took pains to archive all his work.

"For him life had worked out," says Spender. "Most street photographers were not good about keeping and storing their negatives. He said himself he was lucky, he'd catalogued all his negatives and was very proud of that. And he'd kept them in relatively good condition. So there was a pool of images that André Magnin could glean through to get wonderful images of a byegone era."

"Malick had 400,000 negatives," says Magnin. "Each time we met I discovered a few more and brought back about 10,000 that Malik had entrusted me with. We went through them carefully and selected [30] studio photos that we hadn't already exhibited in 1995, to show them here."

Mali Twist runs at the Fondation Cartier in Paris through to 25 February.

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