September 24 Revised Malick Sidibe paper

October 2nd, 2007

Jennifer Davis

September 24, 2007


“You Look Beautiful Like That” : Malick Sidibé and the 2007 Venice Biennale

Malick Sidibé was born in Soloba, French Sudan (present – day Mali) in 1936.  As one of seventeen children born to a peasant family, Sidibé had slim chances of a formal education beyond the farm.  Fortunately for Sidibé, his father decided Malick would go to a “white school”[1] at Yanfolila; a village located more than 40 kilometers from his home in Soloba.  Once at school, one of Malick’s teachers noticed his gift of drawing and encouraged him to further his education in Bamako, Mali’s capital, after graduation.  Once in Bamako in 1952, Sidibé went to study at the House of the Sudanese Artists, present day National Institute of Arts.  When asked by scholar André Magnin in a 2003 interview what is was that has made Malick Sidibé a great photographer, Sidibé replied “I think that it is my father’s love.”[2]  Sidibé clearly demonstrates his passion for capturing the love surrounding him with his photographs of Malian youths in the clubs of Bamako, Mali and the surrounding areas.  One knows that passion is important to Sidibé because when asked by André Magnin what is lacking in contemporary African artist’s work, the artist replies: “There is [no] passion.”[3]  Without a dedication to the country and subject matter, contemporary art loses focus and the viewer cannot feel the connection between the artist and subject as strongly as one can when the artist becomes is a part of the culture such as in Sidibé’s photographs where he is in the middle of the dance floor of  Malian parties and celebrations.  

Sidibé trained as a jewelry maker at the House of the Sudanese Artists and finished his schooling in 1955.  Photographer Gérard Guillat came to the school looking for an assistant to design the sets for his portrait studio and noticed Sidibé’s skill for design and drawing.    Guillat eventually took Sidibé on as an apprentice and the budding photographer went on to document the post – colonial youth of West Africa in and around Bamako.  His first reportage was in 1957 and Sidibé discovered he much preferred the movement and vibrancy of Malians at play to the rigidity of upper – class Europeans who frequented Guillat’s studio.   

Malick met Seydou Keïta, one of the original leading studio portrait artists in Bamako in Bougouni, a city outside of Timbuktu in North Eastern Mali.  Keïta served as a mentor to Sidibé, but eventually viewed him as a colleague.  The two photographers both served as studio portrait artists, but Sidibé’s interest in movement and the dynamics of the Malian youth in the 1960s led him, and his camera, outdoors where he developed a style alongside that of the newly independent Malians.  In an interview with André Magnin, Seydou Keïta enlightens the reader to Malian traditions of speech when he says “In Bamako, we say ‘i ka nyé tan” which in English means ‘you look well’, but in fact it means ‘you look beautiful like that’….”[4]  This simple, yet powerful phrase mirrors the essence of Sidibé’s photographs where the subjects are forever memorialized as joyful parts of the Malian culture in the 1950s and 60s.  Malick Sidibé comments on the aspirations of his work and that he “enjoyed catching their [the Malian youth’s] vitality and joie de vivre.”[5]  This vibrancy reads so easily in his photographs where his subjects always look beautiful, though sometimes in different meanings of the word; that is to say, formal beauty of friends dancing innocently together, and the more subjective beauty of friendship which emanates in shots of companions at the river Niger.

Sidibé comments on the direction of his photography and that of Seydou Keïta’s by noting that:

Since the 1960s, and in some cases since the 1940s, we have simply            concentrated on recording our own African reality without giving a thought

to the possibility of the photos being seen outside of Africa….pictures offer           instant communication because their message is direct.[6]

What is interesting to note here is Sidibé’s bristling at the idea of catering to Western wants and demands in his work.  While the artist claims “I knew nothing whatsoever of foreign photography.  We had no source of information, there were no magazines or books like that here.  What we knew of Europe we knew from the cinema,”[7]  his photographs tell a different story.  Throughout his oeuvre, young dancers pose with records of the 60s like James Brown and a complex dynamic shines through.  For though the artist denies a connection to the West in his photographic style, his work undeniably draws from the 1960s and 1970s American and European cultures with works like Young Man with Bell Bottoms, Bag and Watch, 1977 (fig 2).  In the studio portrait, a tall, thin, young man in all black stands in sharp contrast to a vertically striped backdrop.  He challenges the viewer with his eye contact which, coupled with the level of the photograph, puts the observer below him. His angled contra posto pose and raised left hand in the symbol of black power clearly demonstrate the influence of the West and the Black Power movement of the 1960s.  In an essay connecting James Brown and his impact on Malick Sidibé, scholar and friend of the artist Manthia Diawara comments on the inculcation of the West into Sidibé’s work when he states:

By following the youth of Bamako, who were wearing flowered shirts made by famous designers – because they saw their idols wearing them in magazine photos – Sidibé was getting his eye trained by great photographers.  And by following the copy of the copy, he was internalizing the history of photography without knowing it.[8]  So though Sidibé refutes a direct stylistic connection to the West, it is understood through his work that he was a student of the West and learned from its photographers and the social and political movements of the time period. 

Director of the Hasselblad Center Gunilla Krane writes in the foreword to a monograph on the artist and his portrait photographs that “Malick Sidibé’s photographs have to be seen in relation to African culture and its traditions, and to the changes that took place in Africa during the 1950s and 60s, when western culture was coming in and beginning to influence African society.”[9]  The problem with which the viewer is presented is that of how to view the photographs.  Do we focus on what the artist sees in his work – a representation of African culture – or do we focus on the Western influences and traces of the culture found in the works? 

 In an interview with André Magnin, the curator asks Sidibé why African art is different and if one can speak of “African photography.”  Sidibé replies that “Art from Africa is admired because it has life, it has truth, it has purity.”[10]  The artist also feels that “the people of Mali will rediscover themselves in [his] photographs.”[11]  Certainly in his own work, Sidibé and others can find this life, truth and purity.  The stark quality of his portraits reveals the desire of the sitters to portray their status in society and allow the viewer to hone in on their essence without the distraction of loud accessories and backdrops.  However the artist is not as quick to say he can find these same qualities in the works of contemporary African artists.  This demonstrates how Sidibé’s work and life speak to contradictions.  One of Sidibé’s colleagues, Malian photographer Seydou Keïta states in an interview with André Magnin that has “never met any foreign photographers, nor seen their photos.  No information ever reached us [in the 1960s.]  French or American books were very rare.”[12]  Sidibé makes a similar statement refuting the influence of the West.  Another example of his living contradiction comes from scholar Simon Njami who notes that “Malick Sidibé disproves the commonly held view in the West that African photography is confined to portrait and studio work,”[13] when it is clear a large portion of his oeuvre is relegated to the studio.

Integral to the study of Malick Sidibé and his style is the influence of the West and Europe on his subjects and himself, though the artist may deny a connection.  There appear to be contradictory statements concerning the West and its influence on Sidibé’s photography.  When asked about Africa’s present – day young photographers, Sidibé responds, essentially, that he is not impressed with what is being produced and he wishes they would stay true to their heritage and Africa.[14]  This response begs the question of what heritage is to a generation who grew up in a time of revolution and in a post – colonial era. 

Sidibé’s photographs are evidence that “[the youth of 1960s Mali] were mimicking the culture of the colonizer, which shut the door to authentic self – actualization.”[15]  Western influences including music and magazines were omni – present and embraced by a generation bucking a socialist and constrictive government led by post – colonial African leaders who were intent on bringing back traditional African values to a generation born and raised in a colonized and Western influenced culture. 

Scholar and friend of Malick Sidibé, Manthia Diawar notes that “In Sidibé’s photographs, one can see the turbulence of youth and the generational conflict that characterized the 1960s.”[16]  In post – colonial Africa, “the aim was to break free from traditional stereotypes…that emphasised the reduced and domesticated status.”[17]  This aversion to the past and tradition, and a simultaneous skepticism of modernity is reflected in both Sidibé’s portrait photography and his into – the – street work where he associated directly with the Malian youths.  The youth viewed studio portraiture as an elitist practice reserved for a bourgeoisie that could not relate to their lifestyles.  They wanted to be photographed in action, like their Western idols who were captured in album and magazine covers.  The limitation of studio portraiture where the subjects were generally photographed in a more formal than casual arrangement bristled with the ideals of the Malian youth. Colonialism encouraged this genre of photography because the practice was fueled by the desire of visiting Europeans and the elite Bamakois to be documented with their symbols of wealth and status.  Malick bucked tradition by following the youth to their parties and gatherings at the Niger river in order to demonstrate to himself and others the vitality existing in the sub – culture of Mali, one of life and laughter that the government and its regulations could not squelch. 

            The period in which Sidibé began to photograph the fresh spirit of the Malian youth is characterized by a time of individualism and great exposure to Western influences like the radio and the cinema.  It was also “a time in which African states were questioning the legitimacy of colonialism and demanding independence.”[18]  This questioning of authority and continuing embracement of the power of family and friends resonates in Sidibé’s photographs which capture Malians at their most joyous occasions and moments.

 Sidibé’s photographs come to life for the viewer because he captures intimate moments among friends which everyone can relate to.  For example, in Christmas Eve, 1963 (fig 1), one of Sidibé’s most well – known works, the viewer can sense the intimacy between the dancers because of the expression on their faces and the way their bodies fill the composition naturally because of the way there are closely dancing.  What sets apart Sidibé’s photographs is the rapport he built with his subjects.  He speaks of the Christmas Eve picture more than 40 years after it was taken with a tender familiarity reserved for conversations about close loved ones when it was a commissioned job rather than a family gathering (for Sidibé).  Sidibé recalls the portrait as a capturing of

…a moment of innocence.  I knew that they (the subjects) were brother and           sister.  It was at their home, the boy was learning to dance.  They were looking at             each other; it is an instant full of intimacy and it emits and infinite tenderness.[19]

This attention to detail resonates with the viewer as we recall our own experiences learning from a close family member or friend and the joy shared at cultivating a pastime together. 

            In 1962, Sidibé stepped away from the documentation of the rock n’ roll scene, perhaps due in part to the growing distance in age between himself and his subjects and a difficulty in relating to his subjects as well as the time grew nearer to the revolution of 1968 and youths around the world became restless and dissatisfied with the governments of their countries and world politics.  He opened a studio in Bamako, Mali and began to focus on studio portraiture, like his predecessors Gerard Guillat and Seydou Keïta, as well as the repair of cameras. 

            André Magnin, a leading scholar on contemporary African art, stumbled upon Malick Sidibé in the early 1990s as he sought out Seydou Keïta, another Malian photographer who exhibited in Susan Vogel’s 1991 exhibit: Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art which Magnin had seen.[20]  Magnin wanted to know more about Keïta’s work which led him to Bamako, Mali, Keïta’s hometown.  A taxi driver directed Magnin to Sidibé’s studio, the only photographer he knew in the city, who then led the curator to Keïta.  Magnin began to show and advertise the work of these two artists, among many other contemporary African artists, which catapulted their careers into the international art scene in the early 1990s. 

            Simon Njami criticizes the development of the city in Africa and its affect on the culture.  But Sidibé captures the essence of Malian youth in spite of their living “[in a] world where the future has no value and only the present counts.”[21]  This pessimistic statement reminds the viewers of Sidibé’s work of the realities and oppositions present in post – colonial Africa where the desire to move beyond the grasp of the colonizer is strong, though how to do it is unclear. 


[1] Malick Sidibé, Malick Sidibé: Photographs, Hasselbland, Göttingen, Germany: Steidl ; Göteborg, Sweden: Hasselblad Center, 2004, 75.

[2] Malick Sidibé, hasselbland, 75

[3] Flash Afrique! : Photography from West Africa.  Edited by Gerald Matt, and Thomas Miessgang.  Göttingen : Steidl ; London: Thames & Hudson, 2002, 96. 

[4] Flash Afrique, 68.

[5] Flash Afrique, 96.

[6] Flash Afrique, 95.

[7] André Magnin, African Art Now : Masterpieces from the Jean Pigozzi Collection, London ; New York : Merrell ; Houston, 2005, 184.

[8] Hasselbland, 20.

[9] Hasselblad, 6.

[10] Hasselbland, 76.

[11] Hasselbland, 76.

[12] Flash Afrique, 68.

[13] Flash Afrique,, 94.

[14] Flash Afrique, 96

[15] Malick Sidibé, hasselbalnd 11

[16] Malick Sidibé, hasselbalnd, 9.

[17] Flash Afrique, 21.

[18] Flash Afrique, 21.

[19] Malick Sidibé, hasselbland, 77

[20] African Art Now, 45.

[21] Flash Afrique, 28.





Fig. 1.  Malick Sidibé, “Christmas Eve,” 1963, (


Fig. 2.  Malick Sidibé, “Young Man with Bell Bottoms, Bag and Watch,” 1977, ( 


Comments are closed.