It’s the 1960s and a once-conservative nation is transformed by the youth culture of music, dancing and provocative fashion. Youth revel at nightclubs into the wee hours. Portraits capture people in their most fashionable clothes or with a prized possession. This is Mali as seen through the eyes of celebrated international photographer Malick Sidibé.
The current traveling exhibition that honors his work, Malick Sidibé: Chemises, opens at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center on January 24 and will be on view until March 30. The exhibition is extensive, including fifty-three recent enlargements of Sidibé's studio portraits and fifty small vintage prints displayed in hand-painted frames. Also included are two party photographs from the Art Center’s own collection. A focal point of the show is the numerous small prints of party scenes mounted on colored office folders, the chemises of the exhibition’s title. See the exhibition checklist for more information.
Sidibé was one of the first in Mali’s capital city of Bamako to embrace the spontaneity afforded by the 35mm camera. As Mali gained independence from France in 1960 and cultural norms changed with an explosion of music and fashion, Sidibé’s ubiquitous lens chronicled this rapid shift. Sidibé would often photograph parties late into the night and then return to his studio to process and print his film so his clients could come by and place orders the next morning. Because the 35mm contact sheets were often too small to view, Sidibé adhered small proof prints to colored office folders, called chemises (which translates from French as “shirt” or “sleeve”), and laid them out in front of his studio for his clients’ perusal. He grouped each of the chemises by club or event and the individual proofs were meticulously numbered to facilitate orders.
“Sidibés clients frequently purchased photographs of themselves and their friends as souvenirs of the previous night’s festivities,” explains Mary–Kay Lombino, the Emily Hargroves ’57 and Richard B. Fisher Curator and Assistant Director for Strategic Planning at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. “Among his best customers were young men who bought his photographs as gifts for their dates, hoping it might become a precious memento.”
The museum’s opening night activities begin with a lecture by art historian and Vassar alumna Michelle Lamunière, who has published extensively on portrait photography in West Africa. This will be followed by a screening of Dolce vita africana, a documentary on Sidibe’s life and work, on Sunday afternoon, January 26.
Despite his current lauded status in the international art world, Sidibé did not always think of himself as an artist per se. In 1960s Mali, photographers were akin to other tradespeople, such as tailors and beauticians, whose skills enhanced their clients’ personal appearance. Sidibé reached the pinnacle of his craft by gratifying the self-image of his subjects. He described his technique as “emphasizing what it was they wanted to show: their dress, their distinguished tailoring, their wealth and I added to this, which gave them the image of a real star.”
From early in his professional career, Sidibé’s approach to portraiture--and photography in general--was notably distinct from that of more traditional studio photographers. Photographing in nightclubs and at parties in Bamako, Sidibé developed a uniquely loose and improvisational style that reflected the excitement of the events and his lively and stylish subjects. Of the parties he said, “When young people dance they’re spellbound by the music. In that atmosphere, people didn’t pay any attention to me anymore.”
Many of the parties Sidibé photographed occurred after curfew and the music played and clothing worn was deemed provocative by a dominant conservative culture. Sidibé responded to the energy of the rock music and spirited mood of the parties and nightclubs he attended. The naturalism of his photographs, which stands in stark contrast to the artifice of most studio portraiture, is due in part to the connection he made with his subjects. “Not only did Sidibé satisfy his subjects’ desire to be seen as fashionable and cosmopolitan, he also showed them connecting with an international youth culture through music, fashion, and an attitude of vibrant optimism--a sign of the changing times,” says Lombino.
By the 1970s, inexpensive cameras proliferated in Bamako, people were able to make their own snapshots and Sidibé’s business photographing parties began to diminish. To compensate, he shifted his focus to studio portraiture. In this later work he deftly transposed the spontaneity and informal qualities of his party photographs into the studio.
Sidibé treated the studio as a stage where his clients could present their ideal selves or even play roles and reinvent themselves before the camera. His clients often wore their finest clothes or posed with a prized possession, such as a watch, a record or a motorcycle, as a sign of their wealth, status, or familiarity with the latest trends. Sidibé also collaborated with his subjects to create poses that mimicked action or highlighted their discriminating fashion taste. By eliciting a particular gesture or expression, Sidibé helped to arouse their imaginations and assisted them in presenting a carefully crafted persona to the world. “Together,” explains Lombino, “photographer and subject actively constructed an image that not only portrayed a pleasing likeness, but also reflected the sitters’ inner life and aspirations.”
Organized by diChroma Photography in collaboration with the DePaul Museum of Art, the presentation of Malick Sidibé: Chemises at Vassar is supported by the Friends of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center Exhibition Fund.
Exhibition Special Events
Friday January 24, 2014
5:30pm Lecture, Taylor Room 102 with Michelle Lamunière (Vassar class of 1988), who will deliver a talk, “'You Look Beautiful Like That’: Photography and Self-Definition in the Portraits of Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibé.”
Lamunière is the photography specialist at Skinner Auctioneers and Appraisers in Boston and Marlborough, Massachusetts. She served for twelve years as a curator in the Department of Photographs at the Harvard Art Museums.
6:30pm Reception, Art Center Galleries
Sunday, January 26, 2014
2:30pm Film screening, Taylor Hall, Room 203
Screening of a documentary on Malick Sidibé's life and work, Dolce vita africana (2008), by Cosima Spender.
February 6, 2014
5:00-5:30 pm The Artful Dodger at Late Night
On ‘African Times’: Reflections on the Counter-archival Photography of Malick Sidibé
The Artful Dodger program features informal presentations in which a Vassar faculty member who is not an art historian shares a personal perspective on one or more artworks in the collection. Taking as his point of departure Sidibé’s depictions of exuberant youth and urban life in Mali's capital of Bamako, Sam Opondo (Political Science/Africana Studies) looks at how Malick Sidibé’s photography presents a counter-archival disturbance to clichéd representations of African lives and times. A reception follows.
February 20, Thursday
4:00 pm Curator’s Gallery Talk
Malick Sidibé: Chemises
Join curator Mary-Kay Lombino in the galleries for an informal discussion of the exhibition Malick Sidibé: Chemises. You’ll enjoy a unique curatorial perspective on the show as a whole and have the chance to explore some of the works in detail.
About the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center was founded in 1864 as the Vassar College Art Gallery. The current 36,400-square-foot facility, designed by Cesar Pelli and named in honor of the new building's primary donor, opened in 1993. Vassar was the first U.S. college founded with a permanent art collection and gallery, and at any given time, the Permanent Collection Galleries of the Art Center feature approximately 350 works from Vassar's extensive collections. The Art Center's collections chart the history of art from antiquity to the present and comprise over 18,000 works, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, and glass and ceramic wares. Notable holdings include the Warburg Collection of Old Master prints, an important group of Hudson River School paintings given by Matthew Vassar at the college's inception, and a wide range of works by major European and American 20th-century painters.
Admission to the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is free and all galleries are wheelchair accessible. The Art Center is open to the public Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, 10:00am–5:00pm; Thursday, 10:00am–9:00pm; and Sunday, 1:00–5:00pm. Located at the entrance to the historic Vassar College campus, the Art Center can be reached within minutes from other Mid-Hudson cultural attractions, such as Dia:Beacon, the Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt national historic sites and homes, and the Vanderbilt mansion. For additional information, the public may call (845) 437-5632 or visit fllac.vassar.edu.
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Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.