My favorite image by Malian photographer Malick Sidibé is a portrait of a family posing on a motorcycle. The father is striking in his white slacks and dark sunglasses, gripping the motorcycle handlebars in supreme confidence. The mother sitting sidesaddle behind him dressed in traditional pagne and matching tunic and headdress, smile beaming. And then their toddler, sitting high in front, wide-eyed and gripping the handlebars just like his father. All on top of that motorcycle, the ultimate symbol of carefree youth and freedom. I also love that you can see the studio – the black and white tiled floor, the heavy cloth backdrop and loose cords – that this family wheeled their motorcycle into for a family portrait. This image was captured by Sidibé in his studio in 1962, just two years after Malian independence. It’s a simple portrait, but it says a lot about Mali in the 1960s – the youthful freedom and energy of the post-colonial era and that distinctive mix of tradition and modernity.
Malick Sidibé, who died on April 14 at the age of 80, was one of the most important artistic voices to emerge from post-colonial Mali and Africa. Mr. Sidibé spent most of his career in relative international obscurity until his photographs were exhibited across Europe and the U.S. in the 1990s, but he was always a well-known and well-loved figure in Mali. His small studio in Bamako was a place where Malians would come to get their picture taken, and Sidibé’s art hung from Malian walls long before the western world took notice. Sidibé’s studio images capture the beauty and complexity of Malian culture, as Malians, young and old, would pay a small fee to show off their finest clothes, or a new hairdo, or a prized possession, like a motorcycle. Sidibé also loved to take his camera to parties and to the beach to capture the motion and energy of Malian youth.
The images Sidibé captured, and that captured the attention and curiosity of audiences outside of Africa, were unlike the traditional imagery the western world had so long associated with the African continent. Sidibé’s pictures didn’t showcase poverty or war or suffering. Sidibé captured the joy and fun of everyday life and the glory of Malian youth. In a 2008 documentary, Dolce Vita Africana, Mr. Sidibé stated, “For me, photography is all about youth. It’s about a happy world full of joy, not some kid crying on a street corner or a sick person.” Documentary photography in the United States and Europe in the 20th century had been dominated by the outsider’s perspective, and Africa especially had been, and still too often is, the victim of reductionism and exoticism. Malick Sidibé, along with other artists across Africa, helped give authentic artistic voice to the everyday world of Africa and it’s many peoples and cultures. Sidibé’s photographs tell the story of Mali from a Malian’s perspective.
Before I lived in Mali, the only images of Africa I’d been exposed to were those from news stories of war and suffering, or National Geographic photo spreads. Living in Mali for two years broadened my perspectives and taught me the power of media in shaping the way we see and act within the world, often in the most harmful ways. I didn’t come across the images of Malick Sidibé until after I moved to New York from Mali. The photographs of Mr. Sidibé take me back to those nights out in Bamako, dancing to Amadou & Mariam, and to my village in Kayes, chewing kola nuts and drinking tea. It’s the Mali I try to describe to people in the U.S., but it’s difficult to communicate because they’re not the images of Africa most of us have been trained to expect.
Malick Sidibé is a tremendous inspiration for our programming at The LAMP, especially in our documentary and photography programs. We want to empower our students to document their own communities and their own experiences otherwise someone else will do it for them. Currently our students at EPIC North in Queens are exploring photography and their smart phones as tools for talking back to traditional media narratives and they’re creating their own positive photographic representations. At New Settlement in the Bronx, our students are collaborating on a short documentary exploring how media define our standards of beauty and how that influences the self-esteem of young people. For young people struggling to shape their own images against the constant flow of often harmful and stereotypical media images, Malick Sidibé’s photographs continue to provide inspiration and, most of all, joy.