Each spring when TVO does its photography month of documentaries it shows Dolce Vita Africana about Malick Sidibé. Sidibé opened his photography studio in Bamako, Mali in 1958, and is best known for his photos of Bamako youth, dancing at clubs, clowning around on beaches, posing formally in their coolest clothes. He photographed everyone however, from babies to the very elderly charting over 50 years and hundreds of thousands of photographs.
In Dolce Vita Africana he meets up with a group of men, in their seventies as was Sidibé at the time, with all the photos of them in their teens and twenties. Much laughter at the clothes, at their youth at their beauty. One says of all the girls in their bathing suits, 'some of these girls are in burqas now'. When they have a party, for old time's sake with all the old 45s and everyone dresses up, yes, most of the women are very covered.
Mali achieved independence from France in 1960; it is 90% Muslim, speaks French and has a secular constitution no doubt greatly influenced by the French civil system. The original Mali Empire controlled trade in the west Sahara, a fluid empire and territory which, after several internal shifts in power over 600 years fell to the French in the late 19th century and became French Sudan. With decolonisation French Sudan became the Republic of Mali and Senegal. At which point Sidibé opened his studio and documented the effervescent and heady gaiety of newly postcolonial Mali. The old shackles were off, the new ones had not yet arrived.
There is a brief postcolonial interregnum which is a social free-fall, a period of great creativity as paradigms crash before some new ideological system moves in. Cuba between pre-1959 American colonisation and post-1961 Soviet interest. Spain between Franco's death in 1976 and joining the EU in 1992. It is a delicate time, when new values are tried out and either kept or discarded.
Sidibé comes out of that time. His eye is so free. His studio is small, difficult, he lives a social life in his neighbourhood in Bamako, he takes, still, thousands of pictures of people who are presented calmly, formally and respectfully. The photographic space is shallow, people are significant.
The relatively recent discovery of Malick Sidibé in Europe and the attendant exhibitions, prizes and lifetime achievement awards perhaps indicates the appreciation of a photographic eye that is not ideological and cares very much about the subject, rather than the process of making photographs or using photographs as text, as voice. This is Sidibé's photographic clarity, his modernity.
and the trailer for Dolce Vita Africana: