Museums

Picturing Public and Private in Mali

by Faheem Haider on February 13, 2014

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Installation view, ‘Malick Sidibé: Chemises’ at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

POUGHKEEPSIE, New York — Malian photographer Malick Sidibé’s career-run of work, Malick Sidibé: Chemises, now on view at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, is an intimate and inviting affair. Sidibé was born in 1936 and started photographing the street life of Bamako, Mali’s capital, in the 1950s. Two wall installations, arranged salon-style, bookend the show; in between you’re invited to pace around a mostly light-hearted and sometimes revealing account of post-independence life in Mali.

At first run, you’re given photos seemingly in series, studio and street work. As you go along it soon becomes apparent that Sidibé gradually brought his outside work in: his street photography practice thoroughly informed his commercial studio-based portraiture work. Shots of people having fun in each others’ company, mugging, and preening in their best fake-action moves before the camera in the 50s seem to have been replicated and made more allegorical in studio portraits from the 60s. What’s more, you see that sitters were invited to create their own identities in environments made to fit their proposed fictive stories, as if they needed to carry some picture documentation to repurpose their lives into some alternative account.

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Detail of hand-painted frames, ‘Malick Sidibé: Chemises’ at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College

So, you’re shown a shot of a woman pointing to her watch, her body arched suggestively, another of a young couple on a scooter, as if they were en route to some out-of-city destination. In another photo three men stand together in one mise en scène, looking or at least posing rough; two of the men are bare-chested, they’re giving off the fiction that the man in the middle needs to be held back from a fight going down just out-of-shot. The single best picture — and I bet you’ll agree — is one of a woman, bare-chested like a prize-fighter, standing with her weight on her right leg, her left foot tippy-toed and perfectly balanced for a pivot that would have done Muhammad Ali proud.

So, the richest bit of the work is really the stuff that comes from another life (not mine, not yours) and another world: the nightlife pictures, the way Malians in the 60s actually dressed and conducted themselves in pairs, alone. In fact, I submit that the best series of those pictures actually live authentically in the contact prints that show up almost uninvited on the walls and on slightly distant vitrines. The other work that rings mostly true, close to life, is the work shown in handmade, hand-painted frames. However, that we know that the pictures so enframed are recent prints of photos shot decades ago and enlarged so as to “work” as art in a gallery context,  and that the painted frames go a long way to support them as “art-commodity things” and not photographs of knowable people set inside painted frames set on some assiduously dusted mantle deflates some of the aura of that intimate practice.

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Detail of contact print, ‘Malick Sidibé: Chemises’ at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College

But I think I know these pictures. I grew up in Bangladesh, in the shade of a similar tradition. My father, and his friends, born in colonial British India in the early 1940s, lived warmly in that shade; they spent their 1960s in much the way Sidibé’s untitled subjects spent theirs: on bikes with friends, on scooters with future partners. Studio photos and street photos were then things that documented only the most cherry-picked moments designed to picture the best in them, of them. Those pictures, like Sidibé’s, are black and white, intently material and thoroughly anchored in their time.  And anyhow, you couldn’t manufacture that life again: try finding a roll of black and white film, try finding a middle-class, middle America commercial studio set up now. In fact, even if you turn to the Sears Portrait Studio you can’t deny that those hokey ill-articulated pictures fail to ring true for most of us today.  After all, you’ve got your 40-megapixel smart phone to do all that and much more.

Even if Sidibé’s work doesn’t read contemporary, he has inspired new takes on his invitation to subjects and sitters to display their fictive imaginaries. A two-fer show last year at the Dorsky Museum of Art in New Paltz featured Sidibé’s work and that of other contemporary Malian photographers alongside Hudson Valley based photographer and book artist François Deschamps. Like Sidibé, Deschamps invited his Malian sitters to choose not only their objets d’affaires but also the digital backgrounds that would get superimposed on the picture. He shot his photos using commercially available inexpensive cameras and made sure that soon after each sitter got the photo enclosed in an envelop. The work was immediate and delivered fast — no wonder Deschamps called that work “Photo-Rapide.” It was Photoshop come to life. It had a pulse; it could be felt. And it owed its ancestry to Sidibé’s studio practice a world and a lifetime away.

Malick Sidibé: Chemises continues at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College (124 Raymond Ave, Poughkeepsie, New York) through March 30.

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