Mali Hai

Photographs out of Africa

Africa is besieged by problems. Sheesh, a lot of those guys are poor. Damn, many of their governments are crooked. But, hey, most of the countries are new, and the continent has been regularly pillaged by more developed countries (read: France, England, and Holland. Thanks, guys).

The raping of the land didn't ruin just the landscape; it fundamentally changed culture and society. You can see examples of the changes wrought by the multitude of interlopers in the Norton Museum of Art's latest exhibit, "You Look Beautiful Like That: The Portrait Photographs of Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé." The two photographers operated commercial studios in Mali's capital of Bamako in the time just before and after 1960. That was an important year in Mali history, marking victory in the country's fight for independence from the Frenchies. During that upheaval, Keïta and Sidibé shot tens of thousands of portraits, using their studios as theaters by giving costumes and props to the citizens of a new nation. The pair's techniques were different from anything that had come before. Photographs had specific themes. One group might be dressed in a combination of Spanish and African garb. The next could feature a whole family straddling a motorcycle.

The title of the exhibit is an English translation of a common phrase in Bambara, the most widely spoken language of Mali. It's an everyday Bambaran compliment that shows the photographers' goal of making their poor, downtrodden subjects look fantastic on film.

This 1959 Keïta photo shows a Malian in her Sunday best
This 1959 Keïta photo shows a Malian in her Sunday best

Details

Opens Saturday, September 21, and continues through January 5. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults, $2 for ages 13 to 21, and free for members and children younger than age 13. Call 561-832-5196.
Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach

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In all, 58 of the photographers' pictures are on display in the museum's King gallery. Just for comparison, there are also a dozen postcards from the first half of the 20th Century. These reveal the conventions of European and African photographers and just what a large step Keïta and Sidibé took when they opened shop in Bamako.

 
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