On Friday April 15, one of Africa’s renowned photo figures, Malick Sidibé, passed on quietly in his home country, Mali. He was aged 80. The late icon and mentor with outstanding record in documenting his country’s cultural heritage was a veteran pace setter to numerous young acts on the African continent. His faculty was peculiar for he dwelt on the rare field of practice that married the black and white photo images with modern forms of the art. Known globally as ‘Father of African Photography’, he produced some of the most outstanding images of the post-independent Mali. Learning about his death last week, AGOZINO AGOZINO, probes the background of the eminent photographer and outstanding studio master.
Even with his very little education and humble background, Malian photographer, Malick Sidibé, who passed on last week became one of the few globally respected stars of modern photography in contemporary Africa. He encapsulated the qualities of a quintessential studio master, mentor and a humble celebrity.
Away from the formalities of conventional portrait photography, away from the clichés of colonialism imagery, Sidibé’s pictures of Mali’s youth conveyed the high-spirited feeling of a country that has just gained its independence. Over the years, his black-and-white pictures have influenced many of his contemporaries in Africa and beyond. Almost 60 years after he first opened a photography studio in Bamako, Sidibé died last week of complications arising from diabetes.
Born to a peasant family in what was then French Sudan in 1936, he left his shepherding duties at the age of 10, to study at a colonial school at which he was one of the very few non-white students. His artistic talent was quickly noticed and he won a place at École des Artisans Soudanais in Bamako in 1952. The course of his career changed when he was approached by society photographer, Gérard Guillat, who asked him to become his apprentice.
While working at the studio, Sidibé cycled to nightclubs in Bamako in the evenings, photographing party-goers with his first camera, a Brownie flash. He became known as “the Eye of Bamako,” famous for his documentary-style photography that offered a rare glimpse into African youth culture, from concerts to nightclubs to sports events. With the coming of Malian independence in 1960, those images took on a deeper layer of meaning.
“We were entering a new era, and people wanted to dance,” Sidibé once said. “Music freed us. Suddenly, young men could get close to young women, hold them in their hands. Before, it was not allowed. And everyone wanted to be photographed dancing up close.”
His incommensurable work, spanning six decades, currently showing at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, gained the international recognition it deserved in 2003 when he received the prestigious Hasselblad Award and, four years later, when La Biennale di Venezia awarded him the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement Award. He was the first photographer to have received this distinction.
Tributes have been pouring in for the deceased who contributed tremendously to the growth of African photography “For many people who know something about photography, Africans and non-Africans alike, Sidibé’s work was the very embodiment of African photography. In part, this is because of the profound humanistic spirit of his images and the spark and originality of his vision,” says John Edwin Mason, a writer and professor of African History at the University of Virginia. Though many westerners may have been fired drawn in by the idea that Sidibé’s work was exotic or “unsettling,” in some ways, Mason says, they would soon find just the opposite to be true.
“He reminded me so much of my own father which is why I think I spent time with him,” says Jehad Nga, a photographer who became friends with Sidibé after they met in 2011. “We sat once and went through one of his books, which is a chronicle of Mali’s history. Like every book he shared with me, it took hours to get through it. At every page, he would stop and light up while telling the story behind the frame. Frame by frame, he recalled who and where. He would pore over it as if seeing it for the first time.”
Up until his last days, Sidibé lived and worked in the same one-room studio, welcoming any and all visitors and surrounded by his family and neighbours.
Sidibé, survived by three wives and 17 children, will be buried in his natal village, Soloba.
“It’s a great loss for Mali. He was part of our cultural heritage,” said Mali’s culture minister, N’Diaye Ramatoulaye Diallo.