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The dancing spirit of Mali: Malick Sidibé

Now showing at Somerset House

Malick Sidibé: The eye of modern Mali, is on at Somerset House until the 15th of January 2017. The exhibition displays Sidibé’s work from the 60s and 70s, rigorously in his signature black and white image.

What a treat it is to see through the eyes of Malick Sidibé. The photographer captures a unique historical moment: Mali’s newfound freedom from colonization and seemingly contradictory excitement in the embrace of western fashion and music. Hippie flared pants, huge round glasses, flowery suits and high-waisted jeans dominate the looks of his subjects. There is a definite pride in the possession of records and a palpable veneration of black-American music icons such as James Brown. In Sidibé’s own words: “Music freed us. Suddenly, young men could get close to young women, hold them in their hands. Before, it was not allowed. And everyone wanted to be photographed dancing up close.” The electric atmosphere of the time is beautifully communicated in Sidibé’s work.

SideStory Malick Sidibe Photography

Entering the exhibition space one is instantly hit with a sense of giddy joy. Laughter, movement, dance and a feeling of excitement permeate the images in this first phase of the exhibition. The funky beats of the wondrous DJ Rita Ray heighten the sensory experience and deepen the sense of celebration. This section, titled “Nightlife in Bamako/Tiep a’ Bamako” shows Malick’s subjects enjoying nightlife in the city of Bamako. The photographer’s possession of a light Kodak Brownie with flash capability made him a favorite for shooting nightlife occasions in the capital. Sidibé captures the rush of energy sweeping through the streets following Mali’s newly gained independence.

The energy of the nightlife flows naturally into a more relaxed series of portraits showing local youths enjoying themselves “Beside the River Niger/Au Fleuve Niger.” Sidibé brilliantly alternated large group shots with portraits of couples and friends. In doing so, he played with the shifting dynamics of group and intimate interactions, narrating stories within stories through his lens.

SideStory Malick Sidibe Photography

Sidibé moved swiftly between street shots and structured portraiture. The final part of the exhibition “The Studio/Le Studio” displays his Bamako studio shots. Again, we find the surprising and fun presence of what must have been statement pieces of the time: a large cowboy hat, a sassy beret and teens holding a stereo as their most prized possession. This is the only part of the exhibition to include a few outlier shots from the 2000s. Whether by coincidence or not, it is interesting to note a heavier focus on traditional Malian style and beauty standards in the later shots, as if the excitement of the hippie dream had been dispelled. Overall, an unmissable journey into the work of the Malian photographer.

SideStory Malick Sidibe Photography

Somerset House is the first UK arts space to welcome and curate a solo exposition of the work of Malick Sidibé. The photographer enjoyed recognition late in life: in 2003 he was awarded  The Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography. MoMA Curator Robert Storr has acutely noted how no one else has so “[increased] awareness of the textures and transformations of African culture” as Sidibé.

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All images are © Malick Sidibé, courtesy Galerie MAGNIN-A, Paris