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Studio Malick paints West African life in 1960's

By Summer Concepcion
On April 6, 2012

When one thinks of the 1960's, images of "mod" style, the British Invasion, and even hippie culture come to mind. It is not common for one to consider how the iconic decade was for people outside of American and British culture.

That's where DePaul Art Museum's current exhibition Studio Malick steps in. Featuring Malian photographer Malick Sidibe's works around the time when Mali gained independence from France in 1960, the exhibit allows viewers a glimpse into the youth culture that hit the once-conservative West African nation.

And then there is the initial reaction of "There was a type of 'youth culture' in a West African country? It must not be anything like the American and British 'youth culture' of the 1960's, right?" The answer: yes and no. Yes, their idea of a youth culture was different than American and British notions, but at the same time one would be surprised to find many similarities.

When the Malian capital city of Bamako suddenly became a center for youth culture, Sidibe documented the new cultural decade through the lens of his 35mm camera. In doing so, he captured the spontaneity in youths going to nightclubs after curfew and essentially the new cosmopolitan lifestyle these young people adopted through black and white snapshots.

Looking at images of young men wearing bellbottoms and young women putting their own twist on the 1960's "mod" style, one realizes how even youths of a completely foreign culture were discovering a new life outside of how times were before.

In the 1970's when Sidibe could not make as much business documenting events with the popularity of handheld cameras, he continued his documentary work through taking studio portraits. What differentiated Sidibe's portraits from others was how his clients were able to use their imagination in whatever role they wanted to portray by dressing up and using a variety of props.

Beyond achieving the obvious goal of roleplay, Sidibe's subjects conveyed their aspirations. How one portrayed themselves through Sidibe's portraits made the statement of the person they wanted to be. Young Malians wanted to be seen as fashionable and cosmopolitan, and perhaps also wanted to show that they were just like any other young person experimenting with their identity and were in the process of doing so.

"There's something really revealing about the people who sat for Sidibe's portraits," said DPAM director Louise Lincoln. "We're allowed to speculate and can read the photos in a variety of ways."

The exhibition also features a video of an interview of Sidibe discussing the philosophy behind his work. What's most admirable is his recognition of the need to not discriminate in choosing his subjects, in contrast to popular Bamako photographer Seydou Keita whose portraits of people and family of higher status gained popularity in the 1940's.

"Everyone needs to see their face. Immortality is gained through pictures and photography is the best thing for posterity," said Sidibe. "[Photography is what] thrust me in the middle of life."

But in order to fully understand the context of Sidibe's work, one must take a look at the other current exhibitions featuring renowned pop artist Andy Warhol's photographs and various African sculptural representations of the human body.

Juxtaposing Warhol's photographs and DPAM's strong collections of classical African sculpture with Sidibe's work fills in any missing gaps there might have been initially. African sculpture emphasizes how African culture valued the potential of the human body while Warhol's Polaroids and snapshots of celebrities and even of daily life shares similar characteristics to Sidibe's in the documenting of rebellious youth culture in addition to how both photographers overpowered their subjects in recognition over time.

Was such juxtaposition intentional? According to Lincoln, sure it was.

"We didn't want to insist too much on the similarities between Sidibe and Warhol, but we wanted to show a connection," said Lincoln. "As outsiders, we can see that taking two distant parts and linking them even provides global context for how art and times were."

With the proliferation of the use of applications such as Instagram and Hipstamatic in publishing personal photos online, the message the Studio Malick exhibition conveys about the role of photography still rings true.

"What's most striking about Sidibe's photos is how spontaneous his subjects are in them," said Lincoln. "I see that type of spontaneity a lot in contemporary photography practices today."

Photography as a vehicle to capture moments is why the exhibition resonates even in this day and age. Taking the time to see the story Sidibe reveals right before our eyes illustrates the power behind such art form and even opens our eyes to the world outside our own.

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