Monday, 13 February 2012

Malick Sidibe

Desert Island Discs, the venerable institution of radio whereby the guest, the "survivor" chooses 8 records from all that they have known to sustain them as an island castaway. In a photographic equivalent one of my choices would be "Christmas Eve 1963" by Malick Sidibe. The joy that emanates from this image works at every level for me. Two young people dancing in perfect harmony. From their ankles, that inflect synchronously, their standing legs bringing their bodies arching towards each other, their supplicant arms fending nothing but the temptation of the mind. Their heads meeting to complete the mirror image. The rhythm flows from the photograph to the viewer, her dress, his suit, the unselfconscious joy in their smiles. If you've danced with someone you love and desire - this is how it feels. They appear to see only each other, we see only these two young lovers seeing only themselves.

"The Hasselblad Award 2003 Malick Sidibe" published by Hasselblad/Steidl is a celebration of Sidibe's work.  Mali had gained Independence in 1960, and from political dependence on a colonial power was turned into a one party totalitarian socialist state which had significant ramifications on all parts of society. This government went the same way as many totalitarian states, it installed control into every aspect of the peoples lives and the introversion of this vision starved the people of hope for the future that had been theirs when Independence had been declared. The military then led a coup against what it felt was a failed society and economy in 1968. It is the portrait photography of the post military coup period that has fascinated me for some time. The "Christmas Eve 1963" photograph emanates from before this time and these photographs from the "party" series are full of joy and hope and reflect the optimism of the time or the pure escapism that a good party can engender.

There aren't many available photographs to link to illustrate his work. There is a fascinating video on Youtube which gives a good impression of his portraiture work (great soundtrack also) and the environment that he set his studio in - it is still the same today. The effect of colonialisation on Sidibe's work is demonstrated by the artefacts and props that his sitters bring and wear when they have their payed portraits made.
Through the period after Independence the regime frowned upon Western influence, it's decadence, it's dress, it also tried to debunk the country's heritage in the tribal systems of power and culture. The military coup succeeded to lift certain restrictions but also levied others, but the backlash that interests me is how the customers of Sidibe came to dress themselves for their portraits. A mixture of clothing and artefacts that seem, to me, to shine a mirror on the colonialists for the value systems which had drifted into the psyche of the everyday Malian. The dress, for example, had many - and more men then women, adopting western dress rather than traditional, and sometimes a curious mixture of both. A man may wear a long gown but with knee length socks and shoes, or boots with no socks and a traditional gown. Many brought radios, transistor radios or radio/cassette players and the bigger they were the more pleased the sitter appeared to be. Wrist watches were very prominent, sleeves rolled up to emphasize their presence. Cigarettes hanging unlit from mouths, from children as well as adults (and nearly all male). Trilby style hats, bell bottom flared trousers and shirts clearly copied from the appearances of Western pop stars (James Brown, Mick Jagger etc) depicted on the sleeves of imported records.
It is the value systems of the West that these sitters appear to value, leaving the failed socialist totalitarian regime behind, they pose with their conceptions of Western symbology as proof of self worth. These sitters use Sidibe as a commercial photographer, he (Sidibe) has a range of backdrops and, it appears, a selection of floor coverings, that one suspects the sitter chooses and then presents the pose for the photographer to capture for posterity. Sidibe suggests that he only takes two shots as part of the contract and if the customer wants to have two transistor radios in shot, why should Sidibe complain; he doesn't seem to complain when customers want to pose with more traditional symbols of wealth, there are a few photographs with a goat as a prop. Sidibe clearly has access to two wheeled transport, as the same moped appears a few times along with a motorbike (maybe he moved on from one to the other). But these symbols clash with the times of the people, their basic needs weren't met by the number of radios, the possession of unlaced shoes, the accompaniment of a beaten up briefcase. But I suppose escapism isn't the privilege of the West?
The abiding image for me from this period of Sidibe's work is one of a man, about mid thirties in age, wearing what appears to be demins and a traditional looking hat/headress. The poignancy is provided by a large bore rifle held firmly in two hands; around his waist is a bandolier of ammunition and at his (apparently blood-spattered) boots is the head of a boar and three(?) trotters. The "big game hunter", an exemplar of superfluous Western decadence, where the prey is preyed upon for status only. It was the West that brought these implements of destruction to Africa and this customer to Sidibe's studio appears to value this projection of power and status rather than any previous style or design of hunting weapon. It wasn't Sidibe's intention to provide the irony of this to his viewer, it was to provide a service to his paying customer. It is for us to see the pride we have engendered in this subjects eyes as he holds this "big mans gun".


  1. If only we could have talked with the sitters and asked them what was in their minds! Makes me think again about people 'aware' and 'unaware' and the different aspects we might perceive.


  2. Thanks Catherine. I don't think Sidibe didn't want to capture the "air" of his customers, I think he wanted to capture a well exposed shot, in focus and with the clothes and props they brought or chose with them, in order that they paid and recommended him to their friends and family. It was just a business to him. It is our consciousness that ascribes a value to the image. I have written mine, I am sure that there are as many versions of the received truth as there are witnesses to it.
    However I do agree it would be very interesting to listen to the sitters - to understand what it was that inspired them to have their portrait taken in a time so rife with political turmoil and uncertainty. I wonder if the Greek portrait business is booming at the moment? And whether the UK's one will soon??