Regardez-moi at Sherrick & Paul
by Erica Ciccarone
Sherrick & Paul will close out 2015 with a rare treat for art lovers and cultural connoisseurs with an exhibition of photography by Malick Sidibé, whose post-independence photographs of Mali explode with colors, even though he uses only black-and-white film.
In the late 1950s, Western music had arrived in Mali, and with it came fashion, dance moves, and the infectious energy of youth. With his first camera, a Brownie Flash, young Malick Sidibé went to nightclubs and photographed this legion of well-dressed, contemporary Malians. Then, in 1960, Mali won its independence from France, and many years of political transitions and economic instability followed.
“For me, photography is all about youth,” says Sidibé in Dolce Vita Africana, a documentary about his life and work. “It’s a happy world, full of joy; that’s what it is for me. It’s not some crying kid on a street corner or a sick person.”
Sidibé would stay out all night taking photos and arrive home at dawn to develop them. His dancing snapshots have become iconic. In one, a young man leans into a near backbend on the dance floor while his date boogies beside him. Titled Regardez-moi, the photograph conveys pure jubilation. Nothing is more important to this couple than having fun. Not the country’s political transition or economic hardship, not the expectations of parents or teachers. The reason Sidibé’s club photographs are so well loved is that we associate these images with those from our own lives. We recall that to arrive in our twenties is to have somehow swaggered out of adolescence with confidence and grace. The work accesses our desire to be back there, to be young and dancing, with a date no less, to truly live in the moment of the song as we hear it, and to have the world unfurled at our feet. Regardez-moi. Look at me.
Although they do read as snapshots, they are masterpieces of composition. Within his frame, people are both larger than life and deeply familiar, while still maintaining their own personal sense of decorum. Even when photographing his friends as they swam in the river, the boys in their shorts, the girls in their underwear, there is no sense of indecency. “It’s like the earth and the sky belong to them. They can yell and shout as much as they want,” he said in Dolce Vita Africana.
This sense of self-possession is especially poignant in his portrait photography. Whether his subject is a schoolgirl or a politician, Sidibé endows each with a sense of royalty, a composure that radiates strength and assuredness. It’s no surprise to me that decades into his career, with work shown at museums and in private collections around the world, and with the Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement under his belt, he still welcomes local visitors to his Bamako studio for portraits. It is through his portraits that we are reminded that the Malian Empire was for centuries one of three controlling powers of trans-Saharan trade.
I don’t think Sidibé would call his work political, but I can’t help but read it as such. Like most Americans, I am capable of having a myopic view of Africa. So little of our historical education is devoted to the continent, and what little news makes its way into our purview is mostly of poverty, war, and government corruption. Sidibé teaches us that Africa is a vast continent of many, many narratives.
Susan Sherrick first learned of Sidibé ’s work when she was living in New York. “It got in my head—the clothes, the patterns, the design and the dancing, the relationships between the people in the photographs . . . I was so intrigued by it. I hadn’t seen anything like it before.” Now with her own gallery, Sherrick contacted Jack Shainman, who represents Sidibé in the U.S., and he was enthusiastic about a show in Nashville.
See Malick Sidibé’s exhibition from November 5 to January 9 at Sherrick & Paul. For more information, visit www.sherrickandpaul.com.