The photographs of Malick Sidibé remind us how the political content of an image can shift and evolve under the unpredictable influences of time and the arrival of new contexts. Currently on view at Jack Shainman Gallery, Sidibé’s work is a mix of black-and-white portraits and candid shots of local people from his native Bamako, Mali. The artist first began his work in photography by assisting a French colonial photographer and then later opened his own studio, Studio Malick, in 1962 in Bamako. Mali gained liberation from France in 1960, and Sidibé’s photographs taken throughout the ’60s and ’70s document a community of young Bamakois during this postcolonial transition and the subsequent socialist and military regimes.
In a brief documentary directed by Douglas Sloan, Sidibé stated he was most interested in letting people enjoy themselves and in making his subjects happy. At the time, he didn’t consider his portraiture as art, but rather as a service: providing people with striking, beautiful pictures of themselves. Some of the portraits shown in Jack Shainman are hung in hand-painted, colorful frames made by Checkna Toure, an artisan who had a studio around the corner from Studio Malick. This framing grants its photograph a status of distinct object rather than an endlessly reproducible image, and serves as a reminder that the initial prints were meant as keepsakes and items of proud display by the subjects themselves.