Malick Sidibé’s black-and-white photographs from the 1960s and 1970s are an inseparable part of the new, independent identity of post-colonial Mali. Thousands of black men and women, mostly young, collaborated with him in constructing wholly new representations of the African man and woman. The new body—urban, fashionable and exuding energy—shattered the old colonial representations that identified the natives with rusticity, traditionalism, tribalism and primitivism. Sidibé’s photographs may focus on Mali, which gained independence in 1960, but they also reflect the culture of the young that flourished throughout Africa during the generation of independence and led to a new definition of identity.
From the late 1950s, Sidibé was the (only) faithful recorder of the new urban nightlife in Bamako. He attended all parties and all nightclubs and documented, with his Brownie Flash camera, the long nights that often ended by the river at dawn, and the music, dance and fashion scene that developed as a fascinating combination of western and Cuban influences. Sidibé’s young people are photographed in parties in private homes and in clubs, playing and dancing (rumba, rock and roll, twist), congregating in groups in swimming suits on the beach or in picnics. At the same time, he also took studio portraits against a background of (rarely changed) fabrics and black-and-white tiles, alongside props such as a motorbike, a record player or a fan—which became no less iconic than the people he photographed over the years. His photographs accumulate into a body of work of rare power, scope and historical importance.
Sidibé was born in a small village in Mali to a farming family, and was the first of his family to attend school and gain official education. His drawing talent was noticed when he was a child, and in the early 1950s he arrived in Bamako with a scholarship to study at the Maison des artisans du Soudan (Bamako was part of the Colony of French Sudan), where he became acquainted with photography. In 1955 he began working as an apprentice for French photographer Gérard Guillat-Guignard, who hired him to paint the backgrounds for the photographs. Later he was allowed to photograph the studio’s African clients; European clients refused to have their portrait taken by a black photographer. In 1956 Sidibé bought his first camera, and a year later opened his own studio in Bamako, where he worked until his death. In 2007 he won the Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale—the first African, and the first photographer, awarded this honor.
1935, Soloba, Mali
Lived and worked in Bamako, Mali, died in 2016