The door is open at Malick Sidibe’s studio, and all are welcome. Fine dress is required; accessories are encouraged.
Mr Sidibe ran a photography studio in Bamako, Mali for 30 years before he became known internationally. For a few francs, he shot portraits of Malians in a country imagining itself anew. He produced thousands of images, snapping people playing, swimming and dancing, often men and women mid-swing on the dance floor. Malick Sidibe died on April 15th, aged 80.
Mali became an independent country in 1960, just as Mr Sidibe began thinking about opening his own studio. The capital, Bamako, had long been a small village on the Niger river until French colonists goaded it into focus with a bridge, trains and hotels. Under their first free president, urban Bamakois experimented with prosperity and the collision of diverse Malian culture with styles from Europe and the Soviet Union. Men were as interested in suits as they were in colourful boubous, traditional shag hunting shirts or crisp wide ties. Women wore dresses and trousers. They danced to vinyl records of brassy town bands, and drove foreign motorcycles with chrome finishings. All of these fine, fun things were brought to Mr Sidibe’s portrait studio.
Mr Sidibe was trained to draw, but he discovered photography in a Frenchman’s photography shop that he had been hired to decorate. Once he saw the faces that looked back from the silver photo paper, he was hooked. A remnant of his apprenticeship still hangs in his studio: an early portrait of his mentor gripping a buxom paper-model from the shop window, laughing like a newlywed. A similar sense of humour would fuel Mr Sidibe’s own shop for almost half a century.
In a rented cement room just three by four metres wide, Mr Sidibe hung striped and checked laminate, laid patterned rugs and placed a stool under a case of lightbulbs. He filled a box with hats and another with ties. His studio would maintain this look over decades, like the control sample for an experiment in style. Clients lined up until late in the warm Bamako night to have their picture taken. “It wasn’t gallant,” he said, if it didn’t have the very best clothes.
The door remains open at Mr Sidibe’s studio, and his son Karim will happily show visitors his father’s 80 cameras. Yet his workshop—door 632 on street 508—cannot be found on a map. To find it requires asking around Bagadaji. Everyone knows, though the photographer retired years ago.
“Would you like to meet Malick?” a young Malian photographer once asked Prospero from the front of his motorcycle, before turning onto a muddy street in a suburb south of the river. The two-story house he stopped in front of was not opulent, but it had a courtyard and several small charcoal grills already smoking for tea and supper. Women, men and children waved hello while washing clothes. Sitting with his wife behind a translucent curtain, in a small room with a twin bed, was Mr Sidibe. He wore a white boubou and a trim hat. His eyes pointed in two slightly askew arcs, and he smiled to welcome Prospero into his home. Mr Sidibe spoke between abundant laughter, in a quiet voice Prospero had to lean in to hear.
Mr Sidibe has 15 children—possibly more—and 3 wives. He has only ever seen out of his right eye, having lost the sight in his left when he was young. His favourite camera was the German Rolliflex, an archaic model with two lenses atop one another and a crank on the side. “A photographer doesn’t have breaks,” Mr Sidibe explained, and on Ramadan nights he was always in huge demand. Despite the small size of his studio, his clients always managed to bring their motorcycles, their goats and their horses inside. Sometimes they would put on powder to lighten their skin. What made him laugh most was remembering the customers who spritzed themselves with the perfume he stocked, just to make the image come out a bit better.
When collectors visited Mali in the 1990s and discovered Mr Sidibe for themselves, he sold much of his well-archived negative collection and became the icon abroad that he already was at home. Over the last 25 years of his life, he won multiple achievement awards, and his pictures can be found in museums around the world. His pictures are not just a history. They are a definition of Mali’s sense of style.
In his older age, Mr Sidibe was drawn to memories of the country's transformation, and its blend of old and new, traditional and modern. He laughed when recalling a wooden airplane that his fellow villagers built after seeing a real one pass overhead. It crashed, he hooted in giggles, because the villagers didn't have enough material to send it up into the air.
Against the wall behind him stood a filing cabinet, hidden by cloth yet clearly bulging from stacks on the shelves. Original prints? Much of Malick Sidibe's work hangs abroad now, but an archive of photos of Malian grandfathers and mothers in their coolest sunglasses must hang in hundreds of living rooms around the country.