Malick Sidibé at the DePaul Art Museum (DPAM) | Art review
“Studio Malick” presents Sidibe’s photographs of 1960s Mali.
At the beginning of his career, Malick Sidibé often stayed up late photographing parties in Bamako, Mali. He spent the rest of the night in his studio, developing proof prints so they would be ready when his young clients arrived the next morning to purchase souvenirs of their exploits.
“Studio Malick” begins in the early 1960s, when Sidibé’s party snapshots captured the exuberance of newly independent Mali’s youth culture. In his black-and-white photos, women wear minidresses, men wear flares, and they dance together—a practice still considered shocking at the time, Sidibé recalled in a 2008 interview.
The exhibition displays numerous paper chemises, or folders, on which the photographer arranged his small numbered proofs of birthday parties, graduation shindigs and presumably less scandalous baptisms. With the mid-1960s, the show shifts to Sidibé’s studio practice, which he pursued once small, portable 35mm cameras became ubiquitous in Bamako, and partygoers could shoot their own photos.
Seeking portraits, hipsters still flocked to the artist, though he didn’t always think of himself as such. According to the wall text, Malians regarded photographers as similar to tailors or beauticians: tradespeople whose skills enhanced their clients’ appearances. While Sidibé’s postcard-size portraits cost a mere 25 cents, a price even working-class customers could afford, his subjects are eager to convey their style and status. They pose in their best clothes—sometimes stripping down to brand-new underwear—or with their favorite possessions, as in The Two of Us on a Motorcycle (pictured, 1970).
“Studio Malick” includes a video in which Sidibé describes how he taught himself to use a camera and speaks about his process, but I wish the show explained how this neighborhood shutterbug became an international art star. At least it offers us glimpses of an exciting era.