It’s hard not to feel slightly envious of Malick Sidibé’s youthful subjects. From wall to wall, vivacity beams out of joyous faces, high on nothing but the natural exuberance that belongs to adolescence. On the cusp of adulthood, with a whole new world ahead of them, these youth, Sidibé’s youth, dance to grooves unheard like there’s no tomorrow. This small, yet hugely rich exhibition at Somerset House attempts to replay these grooves through the dynamic curation of Sidibé’s photography and DJ Rita Ray’s 60s/70s infused soundscape. Uniting the musicality of image and sound, ‘The Eye of Modern Mali’ transports the viewer to the Malian capital, Bamako, to relive the revelry.
In demand from the local youth, Sidibé became the photographic raconteur of Bamako’s nightlife. Riding around on his bicycle, equipped with a lightweight Kodak Brownie camera, he would take a film’s worth of photos at one party, then move onto another; come the early hours of the morning, Sidibé would cycle back to his studio to develop the lot. ‘Whenever there was a dance, I was invited,’ Sidibé states in an introduction to the exhibition. So formative were these photos that the first section, entitled Tiep à Bamako (‘Nightlife in Bamako’), can be seen as a simultaneous fashioning of Malian Youth and Sidibé as a fully-fledged documentary photographer.
And fashion is key to this exhibition. Musical trends, sartorial styles, the manner of gesture, touch and posture are all effortlessly held under Sidibé’s astute eye. Take, for instance, ‘Nuit de Noel’ (‘Happy Club’), captured in 1963; lit with Sidibé’s characteristic flash, a young couple dance without touching, the contours of one body innocently mirroring the other, whilst their feet are tentatively asymmetrical. This subtle photo contains a poetic of intimacy unlike no other and hints at the onset of young love. Since Sidibé’s presence is withheld from the image, one could be forgiven for thinking the viewer another voyeur of newfound desire, but this isn’t the case. The photograph has a self-consciousness about it, an openness that invites us to watch this literal and metaphorical dance, to appreciate the moment as much as the couple do.
Like many of the works in this first room, ‘Nuit de Noel’ creates a beautiful balancing act between scripted scenes and ‘of-the-moment’ minutiae. Another much-loved portrait that hangs in the same room, similarly masters this ocular feat. In ‘Un Yé-yé en Position’, a young boy stands nonchalantly in front of a white wall, cigarette in hand, sun glasses hiding his tilted gaze. Unmistakably a pose for the camera, the boy assumes the clothing (white flares and a psychedelic shirt), accoutrement and manner of an adult, but is barely past puberty, let alone the naivety of such a stage. Hiding under the guise of the moment, Sidibé foregrounds the boy’s attitude, verve and determination to be older than his years. This is a photographic becoming, and one which so many of Sidibé’s subjects hope for under the auteur’s lens. Whether in the midst of a jive or posing with their favourite James Brown albums, Sidibé’s young Malians relish the opportunity to fashion themselves through his camera, delighting in the potential a single image holds for remaking the self.
The remaking of the self, whether through accessories, dancing, the caressing touch of a lover or the attention a camera inevitably bestows, is a salient theme in the exhibition. In the third room, Le Studio (‘The Studio’), Sidibé’s subjects revel in the dramatic possibilities that this space confers. Using hats and other paraphernalia stored in the photographer’s own shop, the young men and women assume new shapes of confidence and look directly at the camera, communicating their identity with pride. Taken with black and white film, these subjects look back with proud, unsubdued colour, with a ferocity of optimism in the wake of colonial independence. Whether in his studio, amongst the throngs of a party or on the banks of the river Niger, the late Malian photographer’s work captures the formidable spirit of freedom alive and forcefully at work in a whole new, bright generation.
The Eye of Mali exhibition runs at Somerset House until 15th January 2017. Entry is free.