As his largest UK retrospective to date opens its doors, we trace the life and legacy of the late Malick Sidibé, with friend and curator Philippe Boutté
Step in front of one of Malick Sidibé’s black and white images and there’s little doubt you’ll be transported into the swinging 60s of Bamako, Mali. Out of the corner of your eye, you’ll feel like the people in them – dancing, laughing, joking – are actually moving, and the sounds of Malian roots music will fill your ears.
Sidibé’s images captured life in Mali in the 60s and 70s, from the party to the after party, as well as locals who visited him in his infamous black and white tiled studio. Although blind in one eye he was dubbed "The Eye of Bamako" and garnered a reputation travelling up and down the country taking photos of parties and weekend gatherings on the Niger River at a time when the country was in the midst of experiencing freedom for the first time since it fell under colonial rule in 1892. Youths were able to express themselves in a way not yet seen in their lifetimes – and Sidibé and his camera saw it all.
On 14 April this year, Sidibé passed away at 80-years-old, leaving behind three wives and 17 children. In honour of his life, work and spirit, Somerset House has organised the largest UK showing of his photographs to date. Spread across three rooms that emulate the photographer’s much-loved studio, we travel with Sidibé through the culture of 60s and 70s Bamako. As one of Africa’s most influential photographers, his presence can be felt across fashion – Grace Wales Bonner – photography – recently in Kristin-Lee Moolman and Ibrahim Kamara’s collaborative 2026 series, and music – notably, in Janet Jackson’s “Got Til It’s Gone” film clip. With The Eye Of Modern Mali now open, we asked Philippe Boutté, a friend of Sidibé’s since 1995, as well as co-curator of the exhibition, to shine further light on Sidibé’s life and legacy.
HE WAS ONE OF 17 CHILDREN – AND THE ONLY ONE TO GO TO SCHOOL
Malick Sidibé was the enigmatic son of his family. Born as one of 17 children in Soloba, Mali (which was then French Sudan) around 1935, he was the only one of his brothers and sisters to study. “He was very close to his father”, explains Boutté, noting that the photographer spoke a lot about his father even though he passed away when Sidibé was 10. “They were peasants in a small village, but his father decided something else for Malick, he wanted him to go to school so he chose him.” Sidibé was, in fact, selected by the town’s mayor to receive a scholarship to a mostly white, colonial school. However, it was with his father’s faith that his future was set in motion; “He had the admiration of his father – without him, he wouldn’t have had that life at all.”
HE BEGAN HIS ART CAREER AS A TALENTED DRAWER
Sidibé’s introduction to art came before he ever picked up a camera, initially finding his talent through drawing – “he had a good vision”, reveals Boutté. While attending Bamako’s School of Sudanese Craftsmen (now the Institut National des Arts), he was introduced to French photographer Gérard Guillat who had come to the school in search of a drawing student to help decorate his studio. Sidibé was a natural choice and he went on to become Guillat's assistant. It was while working with the photographer that Sidibe purchased his first camera, a Brownie flash camera in 1956. Entirely untrained in photography, Sidibé would watch and learn from Guillat until he was confident enough to start shooting his own. His first photos were thought to have been taken at the Niger River during a weekend gathering of friends in his native village, scenes he would continue to shoot as he progressed in his career.
HE WAS PROBABLY AT EVERY PARTY, AND AFTER PARTY, THAT MATTERED IN MALI
Sidibé truly established himself as a travelling photographer by trekking around Mali on Friday and Saturday nights to photograph parties and events. Never afraid of hard work, he would often stay up through the night to ensure the prints of loved-up couples smiling or dancing in front of his lens were ready for people to look at and purchase the next day.
Music was imperative to Sidibé’s work, and he once said, “Music freed us. Suddenly, young men could get close to young women, hold them in their hands. Before, it was not allowed. And everyone wanted to be photographed dancing up close.” Not only do his images show off a newly dawning freedom and Mali’s thriving nightlife but also the fashion and style of young people. “The party goes all Friday and Saturday night and on Sunday the young people continued the party at the Niger River. They would play, dance and listen to music until the end of the weekend,” recalls Boutté.
HIS STUDIO WAS THE BEATING HEART OF BAMAKO
In 1958, Sidibé was confident enough to branch out on his own, opening his studio in the Bagadadji quarter of the city. “Everybody came to Malick. It was in the centre of Bamako and it was a rendezvous for all his friends,” explains Boutté. In the 70s, he mostly turned his focus from travelling to studio portraiture. Inviting people to show off newly purchased items for his camera. “People would come and present their new clothes, their new musical instruments... everything that they wanted to keep for memories,” says Boutté. “It’s a very small studio (3 x 4 meters) but people could be free to be who they wanted to represent. He asked them to show off their new hats, belts, radios... the way they wanted to be shown and (what they wanted) to send to their family.”
HIS SUCCESS CAME LATE, VIA FRANCE
It wasn’t until later in life that his images would move from family living rooms to gallery wall – and are now found in museums all over the world. In part, due to French photographer Françoise Huguier, who visited Mali looking for the person behind a photographer she saw in an exhibition. Flying to Bamako to find the eye behind the image, Boutté says she “showed a Xerox copy of the photograph to a taxi driver and the taxi driver said ‘Oh, I can go with you to Malick's studio. He is probably the photographer.’ So she came to Malick and showed him the photograph and Malick said, ‘Ah! I know the photographer, it's Seydou Keïta!’ Malick brings her to Seydou Keïta's studio and to opens his archives. Then Seydou Keïta said, ‘You know, the man who you came with at my studio is also a very famous photographer. He photographs young people and is a very good one, you have to see his work’, so they came back to Malick – and that was the beginning of the story.”
Huguier’s home country would also host his first international exhibition, in 1995, at Paris’s Fondation Cartier, titled Bamako (1962-1975). Since, he has built a reputation as one of the most famous African photographers, and his work has been shown around the world, from Japan to South America, the US and Spain and now, finally, in the UK. Alongside a multitude of awards and recognition, in 2007, he was also the first African to be awarded the Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale, with the event’s artistic director, Robert Storr, stating that no one had done more to enhance photography on the continent.
PERHAPS THE BEST IS YET TO COME
It is believed he has over 400,000 negatives in boxes in his studios. Boutté says these will be explored and archived in order to create a new show featuring unseen works, eventually returning to Foundation Cartier where Sidibé first found himself on a global stage, adding, “They are surely amazing – all the images in his archive.”
The Eye of Modern Mali is now open at Somerset House until 15 January, 2017