I was a journalist, but that wasn’t all. I was a journalist with a long-held admiration for Karim’s father. The reason I knew about Mali was largely because of his father, and because I knew about Mali, I also knew about Senegal, and there I had spent more than a decade of my life living. Senegal was the spinning top around which everything else in my life was balanced, and in part I owed that to Malick.
When I was at university in London, Malick Sidibe and another Malian portrait photographer, Seydou Keita, had an exhibition, and Sidibe came to speak about the collection. The exhibition had this amazing name: ‘You look beautiful like that’. The title came from a Bambara saying, but it also perfectly described the photographers’ ethic. Looking beautiful was the entire aim of their work, but it wasn’t shallow beauty. In their moment of history, beauty was political. It meant taking a people who had been, up until then, presented by the white man as savages, and showing them on their own terms, in their own style.
And what style! Gone were the photo postcards that inspired Picasso’s nudes, of young girls with glossy breasts, braided hair, intricately tattooed stomachs and beads twisted around every limb. Here instead were photos of a young man in a sailor’s outfit, a studded belt hung low around his waist, dark glasses, a wry smile, a pot of fake flowers at his feet, posing, proud and elegant. Or a trio of young friends, wide creased flares, loud shirts with wide collars, denim jacket and cigarette hanging out of the mouth, afros, cameras slung around their necks. Or a lady lying on a day-bed, a grand embroidered boubou, a matching headpiece, her shoes laid out demurely beneath the bed, a slight smile, inviting.
There were people posing with their children on the handlebars of a motorbike; there were whole families poised with the family sheep. There was a group of friends in sombreros; there is one, quite simply, sitting with his back to the lens, his wide-brimmed hat so vivid that you feel you can reach out and touch it. These were the photos that showed the world that the free people of west Africa were as modern as you. That they know more about looking lovely than you ever will. And that they, they know how to have fun with it.
From Rose Skelton’s story about her chance encounter with the son and the studio of a West African photography legend: Malick Sidibé
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