EXHIBITION REVIEW: Malick Sidibé: The Eye of Modern Mali at Somerset House

In the first UK solo exhibition of his work, Malick Sidibé: The Eye of Modern Mali provides a tightly-curated retrospective of the work of the late African photographer.

Sidibé, arguably Africa’s most significant photographer to date, is best known for documenting the vibrant youth culture of post-independence Mali in the 1960s and 70s. After learning his craft under the supervision of French photographer Gérard Guillat he became the go-to man at every gathering or event around town. Often criss-crossing the capital Bamako on his bicycle, he was the invited but unseen guest at many a party, sometimes attending three or four on the same night, before working throughout the night to get the prints ready for viewing at his studio, where local lads would bring their friends to point out the girl they’d been dancing with at the weekend.

He captured beautifully evocative images of stylish and energetic young people, confidently blossoming in the night light of a rapidly changing world, almost dancing in celebration at the possibilities that lay before them. His work has become an authoritative visual record of a particular period in African history and this exhibition presents his work in distinct phases: his vibrant scenes of Bamako nightlife, rural scenes and his later, more formal, studio portraits. The latter including some quite incredible fashion statements that utterly belie the notion of third-world bumpkins.

The work is accompanied here by a specially-compiled soundtrack. Put together by DJ, presenter and African music expert Rita Ray the music, from the likes of Fela Kuti, conjures the perfect mood, almost tempting these subjects to leap from their frames and continue their bop as you tap your feet in unison. Sidibé himself spoke of the pivotal role that music played in the liberation of African youth during this period, and so it is entirely fitting that his work is accompanied in this way and the viewing is enhanced as a result.

Contained in three rooms, this exhibition is a great introduction to Sidibé’s work that will leave you wanting to learn, and see, more. It’s showing at Somerset House in London till 26th February 2017 and entry is free.

For more information visit the Somerset House website.

All images © Malick Sidibé. Courtesy Galerie MAGNIN-A, Paris.

Top to bottom: A la plage, 1974; Dansez le Twist, 1965; Nuit du 31 Décembre, 1969.


The Eye of Modern Mali was reviewed for Shutter Hub by Justin Carey

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