SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA (review no 137)

For my birthday I asked for – and even better, received – a book of studio photographs by Seydou Keita. His black and white portraits, taken at his studio in the Malian capital of Bamako in the middle of the 20th century, are a compelling mixture of the intimate and the formal, and his reputation is as much that of an artist as a portrait photographer.

The entrancing photos present a mixture of carefully cultivated sophistication and family shots flooded with warmth. Keita was renowned for his innovative use of poses, props and backdrops, and he made available for his clients a selection of clothing, as well as modern accessories – the same large radio appears in several shots.

The young man depicted in the photo above, taken in the late 1950s, displays many symbols of masculine urbanity and sophistication. It’s an aspirational get-up: he wears glasses, a tie and a watch, he has a pen in his top pocket, while the unexpected addition of the rose, held self-consciously and reverentially in front of him, gives him a more dandied appeal. Sidney Littlefield Kasfir has pointed out in his book “Contemporary African Art” that this picture demonstrates a strong link with French, as well as Malian, notions of beauty and status.

The front cover shows one of my favourite pictures. It depicts a tiny, beaming baby dressed in a minimal, patterned garment that displays its chubby legs and arms. The baby is seated on the capacious lap of an enormous and enormously proud father dressed in loose flowing, floor-length robes. The father’s smile is open and proud, while the baby’s laughing expression is one of innocent glee. The composition is faultless and fortuitous, and it combines aesthetic acuity with the same sense of emotional uplift provided by this giggling baby video. Incredibly, out of financial necessity, Keita took just a single shot for each picture.

These pictures provide a record of cosmopolitan Malian life in the decades immediately preceding and following independence from France in 1960. Clearly influenced by the conventions of Western portrait photography, they are at the same time intrinsically African. Long famous in Africa, Keita also gained repute in the West by the 1990s, with exhibitions in Paris and in the USA. I’m so delighted to have this book – I could pore over it for hours.

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