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Claiming the Camera

The images of colonialism, seared into the history of photography like memories of an unresolved crime, are indelible. The subject is the native body, plucked from the wilds of a conquered homeland and penned in the airless box of a white photographer’s studio. Whether male or female, the figure is presented in a provocative combination of exotic finery and bare flesh; the face is stone blank or else veiled in suspicion, occasionally fear. Stripped of context, language and personal gesture, these subjects appear less as individuals than like trapped animals; it‘s not difficult to imagine how the people for whom the images were intended (curious Westerners) might have come to see them that way.

“You Look Beautiful Like That: The Portrait Photographs of Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe” includes a number of these images -- post cards produced in West Africa around the turn of the last century -- offering a comparison to the postcolonial work that makes up the bulk of the show. In one of the more unsettling pictures, taken by Francois-Edmond Fortier around 1905, two “jeunes femmes arabes” in traditional but conveniently scanty attire pose together on a thatched cot, one sitting upright, the other leaning against her in an unabashedly alluring posture that is clearly not natural or spontaneous. But for the utterly baffled expressions they convey in the direction of their photographer, one might easily presume they were prostitutes.

The picture is a poignant reminder of the damage potentially wrought by the Eurocentric conventions of early photography on those who defined themselves in non-European terms. As curator Michelle Lamuniere is careful to point out in her catalog essay, however, the relationship wasn’t entirely clear-cut: While photography did enter West Africa with the Westerner, “Its reception and production in Africa was structured by African cultural values.” There were African as well as European portraitists from the beginning (albeit all from an elite social class), and it is difficult to tell their work apart. Produced largely for colonial residents and the tourist trade, the early portraits are filled with divergent emblems of cultural identity jostling uncomfortably under one dominant vision. An African man in traditional dress, for example, poses with an umbrella, a pipe and a Western hat; a “young native girl” in a boldly patterned wrap and headdress sits with a vase of flowers and a backdrop painted to resemble a French parlor.

Much had changed by the time Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe entered the scene in the mid--20th century. Portrait photography had crept inland from the coastal cities and become far more accessible to average Africans. More important, colonialist rule was in decline (often violently) across Africa, with Mali gaining its independence from France in 1960. The exhibition does not address this event directly -- in focusing purely on commercial portrait photography, it depicts a world visibly removed from politics -- but rather illustrates the widespread sense of personal freedom that accompanied it. Keita‘s and Sidibe’s images are still cluttered with fragments of Western culture, but now put to the service of personal expression rather than imperialistic ideology.

The difference between the turn-of-the-century photographs and these -- which date from the late 1940s through the 1970s -- is simply astounding. The atmosphere of mistrust that dominates the earlier pictures, leaving the subjects guarded and expressionless, is absent here. Rather, the subjects are open and frank in their confrontation with the camera, their expressions ranging from noble to playful, intelligent to haughty, silly to serene. One feels, looking at these images, not that one is encountering a series of types -- prisoners of a particular notion of racial and cultural identity -- but rather gazing across the wide, beautiful spectrum of human nature.

While much of the potency of the work is clearly tied up in the spirit of the times -- which was marked by political liberation, the loosening of conservative traditions, the development of a youth culture and the importation of popular culture from the West -- the considerable talents of Keita and Sidibe themselves must not be underestimated.

Keita, who began photographing professionally in the 1940s and died just last year, had a sound, forthright and somewhat somber style that revealed in his sitters a stirring sense of nobility and a profound depth of character. The individuals are anonymous but unforgettable; their eyes seem to contain epics. One of the most gripping images in the show -- indeed, one of the most enthralling photographs I‘ve seen in a long time -- is a portrait of a soldier in spotless military attire, several medals pinned to his chest and a hat cocked with mathematical precision to the right. He poses squarely against an African print backdrop that alludes to the complexity of his allegiance to the French government. (The picture dates to 1957, three years before independence.) His shoulders fill the frame and his visage is monumental, calling to mind Homer’s Odysseus, Melville‘s Ishmael or Conrad’s Marlow -- men who‘ve traveled to the edges of the Earth and back, who’ve witnessed the depths of human violence and come into greatness only by way of moral defeat. His face is neither young nor old, kind nor cruel, extraordinary nor simple; his gaze is ruthlessly direct, yet distant; his eyes are calm, but there‘s pain buried in his brow. There is something beautifully ordinary about him -- he is someone’s brother, uncle, husband or son, propped up in a frame on a mantel somewhere -- yet he seems more than the sum total of a single life‘s experience.

Sidibe is a generation younger than Keita, and his images have a looser and more playful tone. If Keita’s compositions approach the timeless and monumental, Sidibe‘s are spontaneous, energetic and often very funny. His sitters are largely young and flamboyant, intoxicated with fashion and eager to experiment with image and identity. One man poses with his favorite sheep; another, a tailor, stands alongside a white gown of his own creation. A young couple straddle a sleek-looking motorcycle with their toddler son propped up between the handlebars; a hunter stands proudly over the severed head and paws of a hyena. In one of the most charming, four young men in hip-hugging bell-bottoms, saucer-shaped glasses and audacious print shirts -- one of them wearing an enormous sombrero-like hat -- pose, like rock stars for an album cover. The title of the exhibition -- “You Look Beautiful Like That” (a favorite phrase in Bambara, the most common language spoken in Sidibe and Keita’s home of Bamako) -- seems particularly apt here.

Given the rich, diverse and thoroughly personal nature of Keita‘s and Sidibe’s work, it would be a mistake to read these images solely in relation to colonialism -- to assume that they exist simply to correct the wrongs of a previous era, exposing what was previously hidden and releasing what was previously imprisoned. They do these things, but they also exude a value all their own that transcends foreign imposition and deserves -- indeed, demands -- to be confronted on its own terms.

Seeing these pictures now, however, one can‘t help but feel remorse for all that’s been squandered, both artistically and personally, by the unjust conventions of Western representation -- and all that continues to be squandered today through conventions we‘re unable to fully recognize. One of the simplest but most poignant photographs by Keita features a snappily dressed man holding a camera by a strap in his right hand. He doesn’t use the camera but simply claims it as Sidibe‘s hunter claims his rifle, his muscles taut, his stance determined and defensive.

It is a good image to keep in mind as we drift into a new era of global relations in which colonialism assumes a variety of less obvious forms.

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