During the late 1940s and 1960s, Malian photographer Seydou Keïta created an astonishing amount of studio portraits depicting his fellow locals looking their best. Keïta developed his own rich and distinctive visual language—characterized by his use of eclectic props, a palette of graphic backdrops, and vivid clothing—and many individuals, families, and couples were eager to have their picture taken by the self-taught photographer. In the late nineties, although already well-known and established in the regional context, Keïta’s enormous archive surfaced in the West; at last, he gained international acclaim as a leading figure in twentieth-century portraiture. Seydou Keïta: Bamako Portraits, a retrospective at Amsterdam’s Foam Fotografiemuseum, exhibits a vast selection of the photographer’s modern and vintage studio portraiture, vibrantly showcasing his sensational flair and the visual legacy of West Africa during its transition into the post-colonial era.
With his combination of whimsical props and meticulous compositions, Keïta’s portraits are intimate while simultaneously effusing an unmistakable degree of flamboyance. The photographer and sitter worked collaboratively: Keïta’s subjects would select their own props, but would then be navigated by his intuitive direction. For Keïta, even the slightest tilt of the head or movement of the shoulder could transform the photograph, enhancing the subject’s beauty.
The retrospective illustrates Keïta’s prolific success as a photographer, seamlessly exhibiting his vintage prints alongside the modern ones. The vintage prints, many of which are delicately placed in hexagon-shaped display tables, convey the unique rips and tears that have formed over the course of time. They are presented as precious objects, reflecting how Keïta envisioned his work to be treasured by his customers.
These small pieces are placed in juxtaposition to his much larger modern prints, hung flush against the walls. Some of these photographs are life-size, emanating a distinctly human presence. Behind them, the walls of each room are saturated in vibrant hues that recall the bold West African colours and fabrics contained in Keïta’s frame. This dynamism is enhanced by the varied and vigorous hanging: one wall is filled with scattered photographs hung in a checkerboard style, while other surfaces contrast smaller clusters of prints next to larger groupings. These curatorial choices energetically complement Keïta’s theme of playfulness and draw attention to the liveliness of the photographer’s sitters.
Since he never dated his photographs, Keïta’s props and backdrops are not only emblematic of his style—they have also become an aesthetic symbol for the passing of time. Keïta used his props for a short time span, a few years at most. The inclusion of these very elements allowed Keïta to roughly date his own work, and this too plays a curatorial role in the exhibition, helping to guide the viewer throughout the collection. The exhibition text acknowledges this unique aspect of Keïta’s output, coupling the details in the backdrop with respective timeframes. For example, during the period from 1948-1954, he used “his own fringed bedspread” in the background. From 1954-1955, a cloth with small flowers, or later still, one with an arabesque pattern. Thus, viewers are able to bridge a connection between the year, text, and image, an interplay that invites us to closely look at the details in each photograph.
At its core, Foam’s extensive exhibition focuses on presenting Keïta’s work in the social and historical context of Mali’s post-colonial era. Championing the rejection of a Western gaze, Keïta’s portraits abolish the reductive view of Africans portrayed as anthropological objects in photographs. Instead, his images are celebratory, expressing the aspiration towards individualism and identity. The lively spirit of the West African community anchored in Keïta’s portraits, paired with the exhibition’s curatorial flourishes, combine to offer a refreshing and lively presentation of his work. Ultimately, Bamako Portraits shows us how Keïta’s artistic achievement is just as significant today as it was at the time of its creation.
Seydou Keïta: Bamako Portraits is on show at Foam Fotografiemuseum until June 20, 2018. The exhibition is in collaboration with the Contemporary African Art Collection (CAAC) – The Pigozzi Collection.