“In Africa, when an old man dies, a library burns,” says one of the many handwritten signs stored in the Maison des Esclaves on Gorée Island, off Dakar. Although this strong image refers to the oral tradition of African culture, it also seems appropriate to talk about Malick Sidibé. This extraordinary storyteller was born in 1936 in the village of Soloba, Mali, but moved at a very young age to the capital, Bamako, where he died April 14. The only difference was that even though he left quietly and discreetly, as was his nature, his photographic archive will continue to tell us about 50 years of history, again and again.
Certainly in the early ‘90s, when André Magnin discovered him, after crossing the threshold of his study located in the Bagadadji district (where the Malick Studio opened in 1962) he never imagined he would become a star, consecrated at the Venice Art Biennale with the golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in 2007 and honored by numerous awards, including the Hasselblad award (2003) and the World Press Photo 2010.
“In 1991, at the New York Center of African Arts, I saw ‘Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art,’ an exhibition devoted to primitive African to contemporary art,” Magnin said. “There were five old photographs whose caption said ‘Anonymous/Bamako/Mali/’50s. I spoke to Pigozzi and told him that if the author was still alive, I’d find him. I bought a plane ticket to Mali, booked a modest hotel and hired a driver. I told him I wanted to meet the photographers of the city. He took me to Malick Sidibé, who was the only photographer who was still working in his studio. I showed him copies of the pictures I had seen in New York and he immediately recognized that they had been shot by Seydou Keïta and introduced me to him.
“In 1994, I organized his first exhibition — ‘Seydou Keita: 1949 à 1962’ — at the Cartier Foundation in Paris; in order to do this, Keïta opened his archives and I watched, one by one, all his images. Only then I learned that Malick Sidibé also had an incredible archive. This time it was Keïta who introduced me to Malick again, and he showed me all his work. The first exhibition we did together — ‘Malick Sidibé. Bamako, 1962-1976’ — was in 1995, again at the Cartier Foundation.”
Success, however, never undermined Sidibé’s integrity: “My life has changed a lot, especially because now I can help many people in need,” said the photographer at a solo exhibition organized in 2010 at the Maramotti Collection in Reggio Emilia. “I buy tractors and motor pumps for the people of my village, Soloba. I dig wells. I have asked for the construction of schools and motherhood assistance centers. I give money to anyone who asks for it. My parents raised me with the idea of giving. Giving is a pleasure of the soul.”
Sidibé started as a photographer in 1955 as an apprentice of the Frenchman Gérard Guillat-Guignard (the so called Gegé the pellicule), from whom he also learned the techniques of printing: While favoring black and white prints, much stronger in a harsh climate like that of Western Africa, Malick also photographed in color, especially since the ’90s. When he became an entrepreneur himself, a few years later, he had the intuition and passion to study the mechanisms of cameras. He became the expert whom all the other photographers consulted (even the older and more famous Keïta) to put their cameras in his hands: He knew how to solve any problem.
Lined up on the shelves of Malick Studio there are still many cameras that, like the rest of the numerous boxes containing the negatives (many very dusty), bear witness to an era that seems eons away from our digital present. It must be said then that, in the neighborhood, Malick Studio has always been not only the reference photography studio (with its black and white checkered floor of the small room reserved for poses), but also where to go for afternoon small talk, between advice and jokes by the photographer, always sarcastic with himself and with others. In short, a piece of history in history. Telling the present was an ambition unbeknownst to himself for Sidibé, who never betrayed the innocent look with which he crossed paths with the subjects he continued photographing over time.
The story we read in his photographs is made up of people. Ordinary people, especially the many young people who, like him, took part in the birth of a free country that in 1960 freed itself from France. “One of the good things of French colonization, particularly in Mali, it is that since the ‘50s young people could defend themselves, thanks to Western music,” Sidibé said. “They could dance in an embrace, which is impossible in traditional dance. At first the girls, when they went to parties, hid Western clothes under the traditional dress, otherwise their parents would have kept them in the house. Actually, there were those who put sleeping pills in the father’s water, so he would go to sleep and the girl could come back home late. Mothers, however, were accomplices: If the front door was locked, they found a way for the daughters to come in.”
Youth, elegance, music, exuberance, vitality: these are the qualities Sidibé captured and which make us love his photographs, yesterday, today and forever.