A New Year always brings with it time for reflection; on the year that has passed and the year ahead. Many of us make resolutions that this year will be different, we will try to do better in our lives. We want to strive to become fitter, drop the bad habits, create good patterns and aspire to be better people. Do we really need to set ourselves up for failure like this? We live the life of a holy person for weeks one, two and three of January then feel anguish after we realise that we have just scoffed the best part of a packet of biscuits in front of Keeping Up with the Kardashians while polishing off a nice glass of pinot noir.
This year I have gone for simple: do more of what I love and less of what I don’t. With a blank sheet of paper in front of me I managed to come up with four; travel more, read more, appreciate creative arts, try to exercise. Okay, the last one is on there out of necessity, rather than true passion, but sometimes you have to do what the doctor tells you.
All too often news reaches me of an exhibition that I am interested in and I forget to go, or decide that I am too busy. When I read that Somerset House had an exhibition on that I wanted to see I decided to break that pattern. Resolutions one and three achieved!
African contemporary photography is something really worth appreciating but not always obvious to the uninitiated. If you ask someone to think about African photography often they will think of wildlife images of lions roaring, animals at watering holes, images taken from a helicopter of a herd of zebras running. Try this: type ‘African photography’ into your search engine. Mostly what come up is recently-taken images of ‘tribal’ people; now type in ‘Scandinavian photography’. You won’t see photos of Scandinavians in their national folk dress. Why is this?
When colonisation brought photography to the African continent, as the late, very talented photographer Thabiso Sekgala noted, early photography existed to portray Africans as ‘passive objects of inspection’ by Europeans. We can wonder if this might not still be the case in the way the African photography can be represented at times; wars, wildlife and tribes.
Photography © Thabiso Sekgala. Courtesy the artist & The Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg and Cape Town.
In the early part of the twentieth century, in Africa as in Europe, photography was not easily accessible to the ordinary person. Cameras were the toys of the rich, as the materials and chemicals required to develop the photographs were expensive. The process was complicated and best left to the professionals, which is what people did. They would go to a professional photographic studio and have their formal portrait taken. You can tell a lot about the styles of the day or the message they someone wanted to convey by what they wore, as well as the composition of the scene. One of the earliest African photographers and universally recognised as the father of African photography, Seydou Keita had a studio in Bamako, Mali. He would take photographs of his customers in their finest clothing with a very formal, classical pose and large format.
Photography © Seydou Keïta. Courtesy the artist and website : http://www.seydoukeitaphotographer.com/fr/#4
Following on from Seydou Keita’s formal portraiture, along came Malik Sidibe, who is best-known for capturing the joyous spirit of youth in Bamako in the 1960s. Instead of staying in his studio, he went out and took his camera to where the young people were having fun; swimming in rivers and dancing at parties.
Photography © Malick Sidibé: 1. A la plage, 1974. Photograph: Malick Sidibé/Galerie Magnin-A, Paris // 2. Nuit de Noël (Happy Club), 1963 © Malick Sidibé. Courtesy Galerie MAGNIN-A, Paris // 3. Danseur Meringué, 1964. Photograph: Malick Sidibé/Galerie MAGNIN-A, Paris
In the 1970s he returned to studio portraiture but updated the genre by allowing his subjects to include favourite objects in their scenes, such as their favourite records under their arms. His work came to worldwide attention in the 1990 and he was exhibited widely, winning many international prizes.
Photography © Malick Sidibé: 1. Les jeunes bergers Peulhs (young Peulh shepherds), 1972. Photograph: Malick Sidibé/Galerie Magnin-A, Paris // 2. Deux amies Peulhs. Photograph: Malick Sidibé/Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
The work of both of these photographers is testimony to what African photography is like when it is not just photos of tribespeople, staring into the camera, which serves to remind one of the colonial gaze. The photos by these legendary photographers give the subjects agency to tell their own story.
I went to Somerset House to see this exhibition and it really was worth it. The impact of seeing the images in large format on huge walls with the exhibition soundtrack to accompany you will make you long to have hung out in hip Bamako, Mali forty-plus years ago! Entry is free and the exhibition runs until 26th February 2017.
Exhibition details: https://www.somersethouse.org.uk/whats-on/malick-sidibe
Yours, bringing Africa home.