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Seydou Keïta – Bamako Portraits
“Untitled”, 1952-1955© Seydou Keïta / SKPEAC/ photo courtesy of CAAC - The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva

These beautiful portraits celebrate freedom in West Africa

Preceding the work of Malick Sidibé, photographer Seydou Keïta used his camera to elevate everyday life in Mali

“Every so often I had to go up the country to take photos for identification cards. Out in the country, as soon as I took out my camera, everyone ran or turned away. It was believed to be very dangerous to have your photo taken because your soul was taken away, and you could die.” In 1997, Malian photographer Seydou Keïta explained to Parisian curator Andrew Magnin that photography was once rejected by African people. Not only is Keïta referring to a belief rooted in African spiritualism, but he also references the impact of colonial photography that was once used to exoticise Africa. 

Under colonialism, Africans were humiliatingly forced to pose for the camera as an exercise of control. Subsequently, the medium became highly distrusted. It wasn’t until photography was reclaimed by African natives themselves in the 1880s that the medium gained a sense of trust with its subjects. “Even in the city, some older people believed the same thing,” Keïta explained to Magnin. “Some people thought that the photographer could see them naked through the camera. I had to make them come to my studio, and once they looked through the lens, they were reassured.”

In the 1940s, a new wave of photographers emerged using composed portrait art to celebrate individual African identities across the continent. In Mali, it was Keïta who used photography to celebrate everyday life. “In none of his there a hint of the nonconsensual,” wrote a critic for the Independent in 1999, “that hallmark of so much of the intrusive photography that Africa has had to suffer.” Recognising Keïta’s legacy in the celebration of Malian life is Amsterdam’s FOAM Museum who is currently showing Keïta’s work in the exhibition, Seydou Keïta – Bamako Portraits, running until June 20.

“It was believed to be very dangerous to have your photo taken because your soul was taken away, and you could die.” – Seydou Keïta

Keïta was one of the first photographers to work in Mali’s capital, Bamako, followed shortly after by photographic icon Malick Sidibé – both of whom would come to define the photographic identity of 1940s-70s Mali. Keïta initially trained to be a carpenter, but after he received a Kodak Brownie Flash camera from his uncle in 1935, he shifted his focus to shooting close family and friends. It wasn’t long before Keita’s interest in photography flourished into what would become a lifelong career. He went on to spend his adolescence mastering the technical challenges of shooting and printing, and in 1948, he opened his first studio in his family home in the city's central Bamako-Koura district. 

In this outdoor studio, Keïta pioneered the visual style he would become iconic for; composed portraits that illuminated Bamako as a city transitioning from French colonialism to Malian independence. While his portraits are formal in their composure, Keïta's lens strikes intimacy with his sitters as they pose for him among an overloaded use of costuming and props that signify the subject's liberation from the force of France. Keïta was known to work incredibly quickly, shooting up to 40 portraits a day that would then become his archive of over 10,000 negatives. He was also known to furnish his studios with numerous props, including costumes, Vespas, luxury cars and the backdrops that would, later on, be used as signifiers to help arrange his work chronologically.

In 1977, Keïta retired, only to be brought to international fame 15 years later after three of his photos surfaced in a show titled Bamako, Mali, 1950s, 1955 at the Museum for African Art in New York. Keïta's photos caught the eye of one of the world's biggest collectors of contemporary African art, Jean Pigozzi. The photos, however, were attributed to 'unknown' so Pigozzi sent Andrew Magnin to Mali to find out whose they were. After meeting and showing the photos to Malick Sidibé, Magnin was then bought to Seydou Keïta. Magnin then left Mali with a few of Keïta's negatives with an aim to find them an audience in America. 

With the help of Magnin and Pigozzi, Keïta's photos (that were once post-card size) would soon be found blown up to 80 times their original size on the walls of the Cartier Foundation in Paris and the Gagosian in New York. “You can have no idea what I felt the first time I saw my negatives developed on a large scale, clean and perfect, without a single stain,” Keïta once told Magnin. “At that moment I knew that my work was really very good.”

Seydou Keïta – Bamako Portraits is on at FOAM Museum Amsterdam from April 6 - June 20. The show is part of an exhibition series about photo studios, presented by Foam in recent years, founded on the growing interest in ‘vernacular photography’ and its acknowledgement of social-historical and artistic value. You can find out more here