The Malian photographer Malick Sidibé died on Friday in Bamako, Mali. Studio Malick still brimmed with clients, photographed by Sidibé’s son as the elder looked on and hosted his visitors. Sidibe’s subjects included Mali’s most renowned artists, singers, Bamakois, and international personages. Increasingly, artists and devotees from all over the globe showed up, drawn to Sidibé’s photographs, which they’d first glimpsed in galleries in Europe and the US, or learned about because of his numerous prizes (Hasselblad 2003, Lion d’Or 2007).
Affectionate remembrances bubbled up over the weekend as thousands of artists, photographers, filmmakers, dancers, couturiers, and creatives across Africa and around the globe mourned the death of Sidibé, across social media and online blogs and journals. Many of those paying tribute first came to the city for the Bamako Rencontres, the photography biennial that began in 1994, and paid a visit to Sidibé’s studio. Stepping in from under the bright sky, they met a formidable wall of 35mm and medium-format cameras. Many artists remembered Sidibé’s gentle demeanor, smiling as he raised a hand, choreographing his shots in step with his glamorous sitters. Others recalled his soft touch that brought out the best for a portrait, his subtle politesse and quiet charm, and his studio as a haven from the art world’s heavy dealing and promotion.
Malick Sidibé was born in 1935 in Solaba, Mali, and he opened his studio in the cosmopolitan center of Bamako in 1958. Working both in and out of his studio — as was the way of many photographers from the 1960s — Sidibé was at once a documentarian, portraitist, technician, and teacher, weaving together his talents with the wide-ranging demands of his clients. Not only did Sidibé rove the city, photographing its parties, streets, and public events, he sweet-talked those who couldn’t even afford a photo — poor folks, new arrivals to the city, boxers, students.
For American and European audiences, Sidibé’s most resonant work revolved around the senses of celebration: attending the parties around and after Mali’s independence in 1960, tunes pulsing, revelers in sharp dress and the good times coming. Shooting two or even four soirees a night, Sidibé spent the ’50s and ’60s snapping people as they flowed with the music, danced to the twist, the yéyé kids. People wanted to keep memories of the high times, and dropped by his studio constantly. Todays’ viewers see in Sidibe’s subjects a restoration of cool, an indescribable tonic in their low-key beauty.
In the pantheon of Senegalese and Malian photographers, we know well of the early modernist Mama Casset, Sidibé, and, later, Seydou Keïta, but the constellation of photographers in west Africa is profoundly more expansive and much older than these few formidable men. Sidibé worked contemporaneously with many great men and women photographers in Bamako and Niamey, Dakar and Saint-Louis, Accra, Abidjan, and Lagos. That he became known and written of outside of the continent as a symbol of African photography does justice neither to him nor to the photographers who created hundreds of thousands of portraits in deep collaboration with their sitters. While very few west African photographers’ lives and works have been documented since the earliest studios opened in the 1850s, a small but vital core of research, films, publications, and archives exists, despite not being afforded the resources and support of their contemporaries abroad. The western art world still acknowledges Africa’s photographers only inasmuch as the interests of a few collectors, gallerists, and museums are served, and those interests hinge on scarcity and a great discovery story. Sidibé’s work, which absorbed countless questions of art-making and authorship and the boundaries of photographic media, is part of a far larger story.
His work, then, is most fully celebrated and appreciated alongside the stillness of J.D. Ojeikere’s portraits, Oumar Ly’s monumental studies, J. Bruce-Vanderpuije’s light-sculpted formal photographs. Sidibé’s distinct genius was in capturing the perfect gesture and moment. In fact, his images overflow their moment, and that, for me, is the most captivating element of them.
“I loved the music and the atmosphere, but above all I loved the dancers,” he once said. “The moments when young people dance and play as though the stars belong to them — that’s what I loved the most.” In a sky of brilliant photographers, Sidibé’s star just winked.