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LOS ANGELES — Like James Brown’s best soul hits, Mali artist Malick Sidibé’s photographs capture the essence of cool: young men and women posturing like peacocks, full of motion and a lust for life.
Not surprisingly, Sidibé’s work has been gaining fans in the music and fashion industries in recent years as exhibitions of his work have traveled everywhere from London to Chicago. The team behind Janet Jackson’s hit video “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” generously references the aesthetics of Sidibé’s work, as well as his fellow Malian Seydou Keita. And more may follow. Sidibé’s black-and-whites from the Sixties and early Seventies are currently being shown at the Patrick Painter gallery at Bergamont Station in Santa Monica, Calif., through Aug. 24.
“This guy’s work has really hit a chord with me and so many people,” says actor Matt Dillon, who took his first-ever turn as curator with the show. A passionate fan of African-Cuban music, Dillon discovered Sidibé through a fellow record collector. “There’s so much joy in these pictures,” he notes. “There’s nothing cynical or jaded about them. There’s nothing ironic. They’re very festive, yet very soulful, images.”
Like their Western world counterparts, Mali’s teens, living near Bamako, where Sidibé lives and continues to work, relish the fashions and rock ’n’ roll that signal liberation. But besides creating images of a youth culture that are universal, Sidibé’s work also records the political and social changes that have taken place in Mali since the country became independent from France in 1960.
Although he prefers the controlled environment of a studio — where subjects would bring in props, particularly their favorite albums — it’s his stylish shots of teens dancing in the makeshift discos around Bamako that are particularly telling: A DJ, scarf looped casually around his neck, gives off a sly charm in front of his turntables; a pair of girls hold up a James Brown album cover like a coveted trophy.
Born in Soloba, Mali, “around” 1935, Sidibé trained as a jeweler. But at 21, he bought a Kodak Brownie Flash and began accompanying a local photographer, Gerard “Geegee the Film” Guillat on his rounds. By the Fifties, in West Africa, commissioning a portrait was a sign of status. And no portrait was more valued than one by Keita or Sidibé, who would open their studios, even on Muslim holidays, to a line of hundreds of men, women and children.
“It’s this special occasion for them,” says Dillon. “There’s this story Malick has often told about how many of his customers spray themselves with perfume before having their pictures taken. Malick says, ‘Why? They can’t smell the pictures.’ But that says so much about the experience and the man.”