LEILA HELLER GALLERY Alserkal Avenue
The gifted Malian photographer Seydou Keïta is best known for the portraits he took between 1940 and the early 1960s, a time that saw him transition from being a carpenter and amateur photographer to a professional with a busy studio in Bamako.
That opened in 1948, and this rather good Leila Heller show is drawn from monochrome portraits taken from that date to 1960.
In 1962 the newly installed Socialist government made Keïta its official photographer (not an honour he could refuse) and he eventually closed his studio, although he remained active until his retirement in 1977. He died in Paris in 2001.
His significance lies partly in his technical ability; these are crisp, clear shots that make the most of the monochrome environment. His mastery of light, subject, and framing have established Keïta amongst the twentieth-century masters of the genre, and some consider that he should be considered on the same level as great portrait photographers like Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and August Sander.
He is also important for the way he documented a society in transition.
His clients wanted to look their best, elegant and poised; they were reluctant to present themselves before a white photographer, given the colonial history and attendant attitudes, but with Keïta they were equals and happy to declare themselves as participants in a new world.
But it’s a world in formation. The physical elements in some of these photographs – traditional African wear, the beads, the hairstyles – show how a contemporary worldview was encroaching on traditional Malian culture (and religion).
Seydou himself also remarked on the way photography could influence a specifically modern Muslim identity. “At that time, our great persona did not want to be photographed. Religion had forbidden it then. They said a Muslim should not make photos.
“But young people would not listen to this. They wanted to be photographed.”
Often his customers would sit for portraits that they would mail to relatives who were still in the countryside; the prints were a kind of private correspondence, maintaining family links amid a great migration from rural to urban areas. They were paying for a record, in a single, dignified image, of what they thought of themselves, their standing in the world, and who they and their heirs might become in a time of dramatic change for the country.
In an interview with Françoise Huguier, the photojournalist who discovered Seydou Keïta and promoted him internationally, he talked about the practical issues of achieving this. “City dwellers dressed up like Europeans, very influenced by the French behaviour. But not many people could afford to dress like that. At the studio, I had three different European suits with tie, shirt, shoes, hat, as well as some accessories – fountain pen, plastic flowers, radio set or telephone – that I lent to customers.
“For ladies, the dresses had not deeply changed yet. Western garments like skirts came into fashion only in the late 60s. Women would come with their large dress and I arranged it: the more it was spread, the happier they were. The outfits had to show out in the picture: jewels were important as well as hands, long thin fingers – women were very concerned by that, they were signs of elegance and beauty.”
The result is what the noted art critic and curator Okwui Enwezor described as the emergence of “subjectivities and desires in a modern and modernizing Africa … These portraits are archetypes, models for the way their sitters wanted to appear”.
And because he understood so well what was required, his portraits are full of humanity. Even when posed (and virtually all of them very obviously are posed) there’s very little stiffness; Keïta’s sitters typically look at ease, even when styled with clothes and accessories from his wardrobe. It’s an ease that has clearly been negotiated with the photographer.
Six works in the exhibition, Untitled, 1948-1954, share the same textile background (something of an innovation in portrait photography at the time) and frame the sitter to reveal a rich variety of expressions. Whether it is a father sitting with his child to express a sense of pride in his new family, or a reticent woman with her arms clasped together looking off towards the future, or four women sitting together having tea, Keïta develops a rich aesthetic vocabulary through his portraits staged against painted backdrops juxtaposing the fabrics with signifiers of modern identity.
Keïta’s archive of over 10,000 negatives came to light in the early 1990s, and the first solo exhibition of Keïta’s modern prints was held in 1994 at the Cartier Foundation in Paris. That kick-started significant international recognition for his images, in particular with major shows at top galleries around the turn of the century and after (including the influential Guggenheim show curated in 1996 by Okwui Enwezor that included Seydou Keïta’s work).
There has been some controversy about the prints taken from Keïta’s originals, basically about who owns the negatives and whether someone else forged his signature on some of the large-format prints (see the rather breathless New York Times article of 2006) . But that’s for the movie version; the photographs themselves tell their own story.
And if you want more Seydou Keïta and happen to be passing through Paris before 11 July, there’s a substantial show at the Grand Palais with almost 300 of his portraits. They including modern large-format prints signed by Keïta, as well as dozens of vintage postcard-sized originals. And if you want more Keïta, the official Seydou Keïta website (the digital arm of the organisation that has exclusive global rights to his entire photographic oeuvre) has many browsable images.