Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Bansie Vasvani reviews Malick Sidibé’s photographs at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City.
Malick Sidibé’s photographs of Mali, Africa, at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, are an ethnographic tour de force. Taken soon after the country gained independence from France in 1960, the compelling black-and-white images from the 1960s and 1970s capture the significance of music and dance in Malian culture.
In Regardez Moi (1962), Danseur Méringué (1964), and Dansez le Twist (1965), the impact of Cuban music, which became extremely popular in Mali in the 1960s, is apparent. Felt mostly in the francophone African countries that had historical ties with Cuba, the music was returning to its roots. Sidibé’s frames portray movement and energy from salsa or merengue in such a way that the viewer can feel the rhythm of the music and the pulse of the beat. The dapper dancers display an exaggerated sense of mobility as they commingle traditional cadence with modern movements, making a new pastiche. Time and again Sidibé, who was born in Mali in 1936, documents the spirit of this recently liberated, prosperous generation with the intimacy of an insider whose comfort with his subjects is palpable.
Similarly, Twists avec Ray Charles (1969) and Un Admirateur de Jimi Hendrix (1967) express a certain joie de vivre through the subjects’ engagement with the photographer. Open in their admiration of American blues music, which had become a worldwide phenomenon, both individuals show their ardor and lack of self-consciousness in their proud display of LP records by the two American musicians.
Sur les Rochers à la Chaussée (1976) and Pique-Nique à la Chaussée (1972) are celebrations of youth culture outside the setting of nightclubs and daily soirées. The titles refer to the famous Sotuba Causeway (Chaussée Submersible de Sotuba in French), the bridge across the Niger River in Mali’s capital Bamako. These images of young men and women cavorting in swimwear attest to Sidibé’s instinctive ability to document special moments in history that are more than a casual representation of Mali’s people and culture. Abounding with carefree gestures and youthful élan, no different than the fervor of the dancers, the figures highlight the photographer’s holistic approach and inherent sincerity of expression.
Ultimately, Sidibé’s vast, well-documented archives of a certain time and place in history are as valuable to ethnography as they are to photography for relating the pulse and magic of Mali after independence.
Malick Sidibé is on view at Jack Shainman Gallery through April 26, 2014.
Bansie Vasvani is an art historian and critic. She lives in New York City.