Thursday, July 21, 2016

Writing Mali into Light: Seydou Keïta’s Photography at the Grand Palais - Part 1

By Sojourner Ahébée

The word “photography” comes from the Greek roots photos, meaning light, and graphé, meaning drawing or writing. In other words, photography is writing with light. And that is just what Seydou Keïta did with his camera. He wrote Mali into light, love, and liberation.

These days I am often thinking about the Black body. I am thinking about Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the way this list of bodies will be longer by the time I'm done writing this. I am thinking about the camera and what it takes to make you see. I am thinking about the camera and what it means to look, what it means to attend to history, what it means to attend to violence you cannot stop, what it means to attend to violence the Black body has lived through for centuries.

Seydou Keïta was unapologetic in his celebration of the Black body, and Black joy. Through his photos, he invited Black folks on the African continent and across the diaspora to take up space, to love, to dance, to find their truest selves. In light of all the recent police terror that has plagued the Black body in the U.S., the recent exhibition of his work at Paris’s Grand Palais -- and by extension, the full body of his work -- asked me to imagine a future where the Black body can be safe, joyous and alive in all of its possibilities.

Seydou Keïta exhibition flier

Keïta, who was born in 1921 in the French colony of French Sudan (now known as modern-day Mali), was initially be trained as a carpenter by his father from the age of seven. But in 1935 after his uncle’s trip to Senegal, Keïta was gifted with his very first camera -- a Kodak Brownie to be exact -- prompting him to re-imagine his calling and his role in a country navigating transition between its colonial identity and its approaching independence.

Keïta followed his passion for photography throughout the years, and became intimately invested in the portrait. Through his photographs, he conjured the power to give his community visibility and beauty in a world that worked to deny them even those simple things. In 1948, he opened his own photography studio near the train station in Bamako and quickly became a success in the bustling city, as voyagers hailing from all over West Africa as well as young Malian urbanites living in the city flocked to Keïta to have their photos taken.

Twelve years later, French Sudan would gain its independence (1960) and becomes the Republic of Mali. Keïta’s portraits frequent the urgency of such a transition. Here, the personal becomes political. Keita’s portraits become the act of affirming, centering, and naming an African identity post-independence. They are the act of telling an African story of survival, as well as the African desire for modernity from a purely African perspective.

Seydou Keïta at work
Screenshot from "Souvenirs de Seydou Keïta 4/5"

Seydou Keïta at the Grand Palais asks viewers to step into a 20th-century Mali that is rocking back and forth between its tradition and its modernity. For Mali, it is the era of big radios and motorcycles, of men in suits. It is the era of fast trains and long cars. It is the era of families moving into big cities. It is the era of the photograph, it is the era of the black, African body asking to be seen.

The emergence of and need for a post-colonial, modern, Malian aesthetic and identity is evident in many of the photos. But the love and preservation of a traditional Mali, whether that be through the strong presence of African cloth and fashion or the recurring image of traditional ceremonies, celebrations, and marriages, is also evident. Keïta shows us a Mali that is able imagine both worlds for itself.

Seydou Keita
Untitled, 1954
120 x 180 x 4 cm
Image courtesy of Sojourner Ahébée

Keïta’s portraits also bring to the forefront a greater conversation between the West and former, African colonial subjects. Many of the individuals in the portraits sport Westerns fashions and standards of elegance, further establishing a kind of African obsession with Western standards of success and wealth. But this conversation is complicated by a violent and oppressive French colonial history in Mali, rendering the prevalence of Western aesthetics in the photos -- as well as the ways in which they are often paired with traditional, Malian fashion -- as subversive, or, in some sense, as a muscular reacquisition of power and African identity and humanity.

Modernity does not belong to the West, and Keïta’s subjects -- who are often local Malian citizens -- work to challenge the West’s claim on such an aesthetic by clothing themselves in both Malian as well as “Western” modes of dress. Furthermore, this creative and empowering metissage of cultures allows them to imagine a Malian identity that escapes any singular or static notion of existence.

Seydou Keita
Untitled, 1959
120 x 99 cm
Image courtesy of Sojourner Ahébée

Keïta was often searching for a space where the newly-independent, modern Mali and the Mali of a traditional, African past could meet. His portraits provided him with such a space. Keïta developed a deep love and important obsession with Malian textile and cloth. The vast majority of his portraits in the exhibition included large and vibrantly-colored pieces of African textile draped behind his subjects.

Seydou Keita
Untitled (Deux Femmes-fond), 1956
180 x 120 cm
Galerie MAGNIN-A, Paris
Image courtesy of Sojourner Ahébée

Before each shoot, Keïta would meticulously select the piece of cloth he planned to include in the photograph. Cloth in the West African tradition maintains a significant part of West African identity and expression. Many cloths carry their own particular meanings (and stories), and often these meanings create a system of rules and rituals that dictate when and where such a cloth can be worn. So, as post-independent Malians in the photographs are depicted in their suits, or leaning against their shiny radios, Keïta situates the African cloth as a backdrop and as a spirited and colorful reminder of a traditional Malian identity and aesthetic. The cloths that he chooses are often bold in color and in pattern, further making tangible a dynamic and animated Black joy, post-independence.

Seydou Keita
Untitled, 1956-57
90 x 130 cm
Image courtesy of Sojourner Ahébée

Paris’s Grand Palais, one of the city’s most beloved national galleries, was home to the Seydou Keïta photography exhibition from March 31st to July 11th, 2016.

Sojourner Ahébée is a 2016 BOSP Continuation International Fellow for the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University. She is currently serving as the Paris intern for the Wells International Foundation.

Read more of Sojourner's work at Sojourner Ahébée.


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