Master Photographer Malick Sidibé Dead at 80
It was announced yesterday by the family of Malick Sidibé that the brilliant Malian photographer has died after a long illness. It’s a huge loss for the global art community. Sidibé’s work straddles multiple worlds at once, forging a seamless union between a gorgeous, glamorous aesthetic and a subtly wielded but powerful politic. His groundbreaking black and white photographic work in the 1960s captured African youth culture that was in deep conversation with notions and definitions of European cool while being utterly unique in the ways it manifested new African style and vision. The nightlife images and portraits he snapped broadened (if not hijacked) the definition of cool as the black bodies within them moved with élan from colonial subject to self-ownership and determination.
What he was capturing was the liberating power of the music that was shifting everything in West African culture at the time. Speaking to LensCulture in 2008, the master noted, “I have to tell you, music liberated African youth from the taboo of being with a woman. They were able to get close to each other, which is why I was always invited to these parties. I had to go in order to record these moments, when a young man could dance with a young woman close up. We were not used to it. It was a very powerful moment for young Malian men to see themselves dancing with a girl. That didn’t exist before.”
His camera remained prolific throughout the 1970s and beyond, and Sidibé became the first African winner of the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the 2007 Venice Biennale.
It’s an ongoing, seemingly never ending project to have the larger world see and appreciate the layered realities of Africa, and Sidibé’s work is at the vanguard of 20th century art doing that heavy lifting while making it seem effortless.
According to his obituary in the Guardian, Sidibé was born in either 1935 or 1936 in Mali, which was then called the French Sudan. He started school at the age of 10, and in 1952 won a place at the École des Artisans Soudanais in Bamako, receiving his first bug career break working in the studio of Bamako’s leading society photographer, Gérard Guillat.
Something of his inimitable style was introduced to the larger pop world in 1997 when music video director Mark Romanek turned to Sidibé’s work for inspiration for Janet Jackson’s best video for her best track, “Got Til It’s Gone.” The lushly photographed clip captured the sexy, sensual highlife vibe of 1960s West African nightclubs by directly referencing the clothing and styles Sidibé had captured in his work. It was a bold celebration of unapologetically black beauty and agency that went directly to Africa to find its muse. (The Jackson clip, in turn, is in some ways the template for the nightclub-set version of Rihanna’s “Work” video.)
Describing his approach to photographing his portrait subjects – and the effect he is after – in the LensCulture interview, the legendary photographer said, “When you look at my photos, you are seeing a photo that seems to move before your eyes. Those are the sorts of poses I gave them. Not poses that were inert or lifeless. No.”