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"You Look Beautiful Like That: The Portrait Photographs of Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé"
2001-09-01 until 2001-12-16
Fogg Art Museum, Harvard
Cambridge, MA, USA

During the decades before and after Malis independence from France in 1960, Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe operated highly regarded commercial photography studios in the capital city of Bamako. They were among the most interesting and active photographers in the city, catering to a burgeoning middle class, making tens of thousands of portraits for members of their communities. Since the early 1990s, their work has attracted interest internationally for its formal qualities as well as its engaging subjects.

You Look Beautiful Like That—the title is a favorite phrase in Bambara, the language most frequently spoken in Bamako—has been organized by Michelle Lamunière, curatorial intern in the Department of Photographs at the Fogg Art Museum. The exhibition includes 72 black-and-white images. Fourteen of them, postcards and photographs from the early part of the 20th century, show the portrait conventions used by early European and African photographers in West Africa and provide a context for the development of Keïta’s and Sidibé’s work. Another fourteen are postcard-size prints by Sidibé. These show the original format of the studio portraits, which sitters distributed among family and friends. The bulk of the exhibition consists of modern enlargements made from the photographers’ original negatives by Philippe Salaün in Paris.

Commercial portrait photography first came to Mali in the 1930s, as it did to much of the French West African interior. Keïta (born c. 1921) was one of the first African photographers to work in Bamako, beginning in the 1940s. Although clearly connected to long-established conventions of studio portraiture, his mesmerizing portraits convey a unique expressive style that both confirms his clients’ status within the community and reflects their desire to be seen as cosmopolitan. Sidibé (born c. 1935) adapted that expressive style for a new generation. As portrait conventions and societal roles became more flexible in the 1960s and 1970s, the subjects of his photographs took a more active, often theatrical, role in constructing their self-images. Although the names and professions of many of the sitters have been lost, their identities, aspirations, and fantasies are communicated through clothing, accessories, props, and poses.

Sidibé and Keïta have both spoken about the long lines of people who used to wait in front of their studios on Saturdays and around Muslim holidays when, as Sidibé described it, People saved up and bought brand new clothes for the festival. They made the most of it and had themselves photographed in their new clothes. At times the crowds around the studios were so thick that customers couldn’t get through. Africans love photography, Sidibé said. It is the very emblem of the self. People want to preserve themselves, their faces … the person knows that he can look in the mirror and see his own face … what a discovery! So the camera functions like a mirror in a way; it proves one’s existence, or at least a part of one’s existence, and leaves you with a permanent trace.

Describing her experience as curator, Lamunière said, I’m grateful to the Harvard University Art Museums for giving me the opportunity to study such incredible material and for sending me to Mali to do research and to meet with the photographers. The resulting exhibition explores Keïta’s and Sidibé’s remarkable work with an emphasis on its place in the history of portrait photography in West Africa, and particularly the use of portraits by African photographers and subjects as a site of self-definition. You Look Beautiful Like That demonstrates the work’s rootedness in the history and society of Mali while acknowledging the necessarily different form and context in which the images are viewed on the walls of a museum.

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