“He who has not had his photo taken with Seydou Keïta has not had his photo taken!” This is what they would say in Bamako…
In 1935, a 14-year old Malian boy named Seydou Keïta received a gift from his uncle that would change the course of his life: a Kodak Brownie flash camera. At the time, Keïta was young and uneducated, working as a carpenter’s apprentice under his father. But something in him was immediately drawn to the camera. In the years that followed, he taught himself the ins and outs of photography, opening a photography studio in his hometown, Bamako.
Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, Keïta took thousands of portraits of young Malians and even other Africans from across the continent. He would eventually go on to become one of the most prolific portraiture photographers of the 21st century.
In this comprehensive exhibition, the Grand Palais is showcasing nearly 300 works of the late Keïta. The large black-and-white prints are lovely; the technical prowess of this self-taught photographer is on full display. Keïta developed a unique approach to his portrait photography which weaves a common thread among his varied output. A master of light, Keïta shot most of his photographs using only the natural light of his Bamako courtyard. There, he draped vibrant printed fabrics over a wall as a backdrop and made his work.
Although he seemed to capture a great degree of familiarity in his frames, those he photographed were mostly anonymous to him. His sole goal was to highlight the beauty of each of his subjects. In doing so, he curated every photograph meticulously; the slightest tilt of the head, the crook of an arm, the shifting of the gaze—all made a difference. Each arrangement had to be aesthetically perfect since he took only a single shot of each subject he photographed, sometimes upwards of 40 people in a day. In an age of digital cameras and Instagram—a constant and disposable flow of images—it’s hard not to be awed by the amount of attention and intention behind each of his shots.
Indeed, despite its age, Keïta’s work remains a breath of fresh air. Too often, even today, the Western world’s exposure to the African continent is in the context of war, famine and enduring symptoms of colonization and corruption. In this respect, Keïta departs from the (post-)colonial narrative, rejecting previous representations of Malians as objects to study and scrutinize on the part of the Western gaze.
For example, many of his images include props such as ties, hats, glasses, pens, cars and radios, all symbolic of modernity. Their very usage is an act of reclaiming home-grown modernity in a way that rejects Western imperialism. The photographs thus capture a watershed moment in world history, embodying a young generation who were emerging at this moment as free, independent Africans.
Keïta’s subjects thus inhabit a space of dignity and grace. His success as a photographer lay in his ability to depict Malian society as both a collection of individuals—vibrant and dynamic, full of sorrows and joys—and relatable human beings, marked by the same experiences as the rest of mankind. It is this sense of pride which is particularly moving for us, the viewer. Decades later, we have the privilege to bear witness to an artistic proclamation about what it means to be African, back then as much as today.
Editors’ Note: The exhibition ”Seydou Keïta” was shown at the Grand Palais in Paris in spring and summer 2016.