Seydou Keïta

25 April - 14 May 2022 Cloître Saint-Merri I & II - Paris

Nathalie Obadia is pleased to present the third exhibition of Malian photographer, Seydou Keïta (c. 1921-2001), who, from 1948 to 1962, ran one of the most sought-after photography studios in Western Africa. This exhibition coincides with the second edition of Traversées Africaines, which focuses on contemporary artists from Africa or the African diaspora.

In Bamako, in the 1950s, it was widely said that "whoever had not been photographed by Seydou Keïta did not have a picture."1 This quote illustrates the growing reputation of a self-taught photographer, originally destined to become a carpenter and who happened upon photography by chance. In the beginning, Pierre Garnier, manager of the Sudanese Photo Hall, took him under his wing, taught him how to develop his photographs and provided him with materials and equipment. Later on, the young artist also met Mountaga Dembélé, a pioneer in the field of Malian photography and teacher for the colonial administration, who gave him precious tips on technique.

Upon his return from a trip to Senegal, his uncle gave him a small Kodak Brownie Flash camera, with which Seydou Keïta first captured his family and friends, then the passersby in the street. In 1948, he decided to found his own studio and set himself up on the family plot, behind the main jail, in the Bamako-Coura quarter ("Nouveau-Bamako"). Seydou Keïta decided to specialize in commissioned portraits, individual or group, which he realized mostly with a view camera, in black and white. Thanks to the quality of his prints and the great sophistication of his portraits, demand for his work surged. "Bamako's elite came to have their pictures taken at my studio: civil servants, merchants, politicians," he liked to recount. In fact, a varied clientele came knocking on his door, first Malian, but soon also from neighboring countries, including Senegal, Guinea or even the Ivory Coast. Seydou Keïta benefited both from Bamako's strategic placement, on the main road that goes to Dakar by train, and from the very lively Bamako-Coura quarter. With their families or friends, alone or as couples, clients queued to be photographed, seduced by the postcard-sized, stamped prints, which they could send to their loved ones. On the walls of his studio, Seydou Keïta hung some of his previous photographs, so that his clients could get some ideas before posing for the camera. This exhibition echoes his studio hanging, with a dozen prints exhibited on one wall, shedding light on the diversity of his work.

In the interest of saving paper and time, the artist only took one photograph per client. According to him, "The technique of photography is simple, but what made the difference was that I knew the right position for every sitter; I never made a mistake."1 One of the pictures in this exhibition attests to the veracity of this declaration: female twins, clad in their best clothes and captured in all their spontaneity by Seydou Keïta. Fabric hangs on the wall behind them. The photographer used his fringed bedcover as a background for a while, before purchasing fashionable fabrics, mostly wax, which he replaced every two to three years. To this day, these fabrics are key in dating his works. What's more, they provide, behind the subjects, a veritable gallery of motifs, which are eye-catching and connect the images to one another.

Another exhibited print is one of the most striking examples of this use of background, so unique to Seydou Keïta. We see two women, eyes fixed on the camera and hands placed palm to palm, who "seem to float in a sea of geometric patterns."2 Like the majority of women who come to his studio, the models wear traditional dress and jewelry. They pose elegantly in front of the motifs that blend with those of their outfits: the spectator's eye sometimes gets lost, before settling on the singularities of the photographed individuals. The fabric lends a theatrical quality to the scene: in front of the lens, Seydou Keïta's models have the freedom and space to fashion their own images and, sometimes, to play the role they aspire to: "Keïta anticipates his clients' desires and allows them to be whoever they want to be in front of the camera."2 For instance, the young photographer lets his models choose from the accessories stored at his studio: a radio, watches, ties, plastic flowers… He even allows them to pose next to his Vespa - a possession that marks the artist's own financial success. All these accessories symbolize the will to reach a certain social status or to allow oneself the same privileges reserved for Whites. Many men prefer to pose in European dress, like these three clients, with their hands nonchalantly in their pockets and a cigarette perched on their lips; or this young boy with a beret, immortalized next to a bicycle. Natural light, focus on the pose, backgrounds punctuated by the motifs: all these elements characterize Seydou Keïta's pictures and make them instantly recognizable.

The photographer never claimed the influence of artists from Mali or from elsewhere, in fact, and he had very few books from which he could glean artistic inspiration. His work is no less a turning point in West African photography. As Yves Aupetitallot reminds us, the medium was a tool used for the French colonial expansion in the Subsaharan region: photography, for example, served to identify and classify the subjects of the French power, and contributed to create, in the long term, a stereotyped and supposedly "scientific" vision of Malians. Seydou Keïta is "the consummate descendant of this history and of the emergence of African photography in reaction to the ethnocentric photography that came from colonialism."3 Thus, these elaborately composed, silver gelatin portraits constitute a unique testimony to the changes that occurred in Malian society at the time, a society that was emancipating from traditions and aspired to a certain modernity, while decolonization was under way and independence drew near.

In 1962, two years after the proclamation of independence of the Sudanese Republic, and at the request of the authorities, Seydou Keïta closed his studio and became the official government photographer until his retirement in 1977. However, outside Subsaharan Africa, his work was unknown to the western art world, until 1991. It was only then, following the exhibition Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art (Center for African Art, New York), that collector Jean Pigozzi and curator André Magnin discovered uncredited photographs by Seydou Keïta.  André Magnin decided then to set off in search of the unknown author of these pictures. Thanks to artist Malick Sidibé, he was able to identify then meet him. Astounded by the thousands of dormant negatives, carefully conserved by Seydou Keïta, André Magnin selected a number of them for Jean Pigozzi's collection. The artist's first retrospective took place in 1994 at the Fondation Cartier: for someone who only made contact prints and very few enlargements, Seydou Keïta was moved when he discovered the large-scale prints of his photographs. "You can't imagine what it was like for me the first time I saw prints of my negatives in large-scale, no spots, clean and perfect. I knew then that my work was really, really good. The people in my pictures look so alive, almost as if they were standing in front of me." 4  

1 « Seydou Keïta, propos recueillis par André Magnin, Bamako, 1995-1996 », in Seydou Keïta, Éd. Scalo Zurich, Berlin, 1997.
2 Dan Leers, « Seydou Keïta, un innovateur qui a fait école », in Seydou Keïta, cat. exp. Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, France, 31 mars - 11 juillet 2016, p.45 and p.40
3 Yves Aupetitallot, « Seydou Keïta vers la modernité post-coloniale », Seydou Keïta, cat. exp. Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, France, 31 mars - 11 juillet 2016, p. 22
4 Michelle Lamuniere (dir.), You Look Beautiful Like That : The Portrait Photographs of Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, cat. exp. The Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, États-Unis, 1er Septembre - 16 Décembre 2001, p. 47.