Malick Sidibé, I would argue, is art history’s ultimate event photographer. His subjects’ raucous joy beams out, beyond the picture plane and past the glass. It is exceptionally rare to find a photographer who can capture the free-flowing energy and glorious celebration as he has throughout his career, with apparent ease. Malick Sidibé’s pictures have rhythm.
His current exhibition, LOVE POWER PEACE, on view at Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea, is likely a nod from the gallery to James Brown’s live performance-turned-raw-cut-album of the same name. Sidibé’s photographs and Brown’s soulful funk and excited cadence project the same energy.
Left raw and unpolished, the live audio of Brown’s 1971 concert at the Olympia in Paris (released in its intended form in 2014) brims with an authentic, albeit imperfect, sound that encapsulates the crowd’s emphatic energy. Parisians, tourists, and transplants went wild, the crowd teeming with energy and a genuine love for the music. The recording captures a slice of French nightlife, fans reveling in electrified sexuality and plain old good music.
Sidibé’s images picture another side of the Francophone Afrodiaspora in Bamako, Mali. Like the charged crowd at a James Brown concert, Sidibé captures Malian youth lapping up a taste of postcolonial West Africa, forming a new youth culture, creating their own adolescent worlds. The late Sidibé’s snapshots are shrines to the hopeful time. His work is an exaltation to a newly independent nation and the luminous citizens it birthed after Mali achieved its independence in 1960.
Malick Sidibé: LOVE POWER PEACE features rarely seen photographs — some not widely circulated digitally, and others that have never been exhibited publicly. The exhibition immediately greets viewers with photos of young Malians eagerly interacting with a global Black diaspora, citizens of a nation recently independent of French colonization, through the burgeoning music industry in this region of the continent, proudly bearing records and immersing themselves in the nightclub scene.
Rather than focusing on Sidibé’s widely circulated and well-known maximalist studio portraits — which fill the frame with vibrant patterning despite their monochromatic tone — the exhibition’s standouts are his nightlife images. These candid shots of Mali after-hours are the most impressive works in the gallery. His portrayals of bell-bottomed youths are lively and sleek enough to make any New York club kid green.
Sidibé was one of the first photographers to provide the outside world with insight into West African culture as the continent began the process of decolonization. His portrayals of Malian fashion and nightlife make a political statement about a burgeoning culture finding its footing, which, according to Sidibé, brought a newfound dynamism to the nation.
In the face of a largely underrepresented and underappreciated history of African portraiture, Sidibé’s work is one of the best pieces of evidence that firsthand cultural experience and insight can lend an otherwise out-of-reach authenticity to cultural photographs. He treats his subjects with tenderness and respect, but also playfulness. The actors in these images — as that is what they are, really — are free and giving in charm and body language, posing with uninhibited glory. Even in these candid images, the subjects are explicitly aware of the camera. And they love it. They project excitement, pride, and a bit of well-deserved cockiness. Their joy is palpable.
Sidibé’s best-known works — hyper-patterned studio photographs typical of West African artists of the time — are mostly absent in the exhibition. The only example in this style is more recent than the circa-1970s images abound in the exhibition and those which the artist is best known for. In it, the model wears rubber-soled sneakers and has a more formal demeanor than some of Sidibé’s past models. The portraits feel out of place. Their solemnity and apparent date contrast with the lively nightlife shots on the other side of the gallery, presenting what feels like a very different Mali — one that has already come down from its postcolonial high.
This initially off-putting decision becomes clearer upon realizing that these 2014 photographs portray contemporary British Nigerian artist Chris Ofili, posing with Sidibé himself in one frame. They represent two generations of West African artistry, Ofili continuing Sidibé’s project of thoughtful representation, amplifying the firsthand perspectives of West African artists by broadening global representation of their discounted legacy.
The strength of Sidibé’s work comes from his ability to show Malian people how they wanted to be shown — with grace, excitement, and an eager embrace of cultural innovation.
Malick Sidibé: LOVE POWER PEACE continues at Jack Shainman Gallery (524 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 10.