Bamako Portraits: Foam Amsterdam curator Mirjam Kooiman on the work of Seydou KeïtaPublished 23 May 2018 at 15:35 by Roxy Merrell
Seydou Keïta opened his portrait studio in Bamako, the capital of Mali in 1948. Offering his customers his skilled eye for dynamic portraits and a wide array of props, each of Keïta’s portraits are a collaboration between subject and artist. His oeuvre offers a unique and stunning insight into Malian urban society in the 1950s and 1960s. When speaking to Foam curator Mirjam Kooiman details of Bamako Portraits, Seydou Keïta’s first solo exhibition in the Netherlands, her enthusiasm knows no bounds: ‘When I get excited about something, I just have this urge to tell people everything I know: it makes me so enthusiastic!’ Read on to learn about the artistry and historical relevance of Keïta proud portraits.
How did you first encounter Seydou Keïta’s work?
In 2016 I saw the exhibition of Seydou Keïta in Grand Palais, Paris, and immediately thought this would be something for Foam. I think it was in 2018 that Foam was quite early in 2008 to show the work of Malick Sidibé – a photographer active in the same time as Keïta in Bamako, Mali. They both have distinctive styles, but you can also really see the similarities. Since then, we have been programming a lot of exhibitions that focus on what’s called “vernacular photography” – the kind of photography you and I have in our photo albums. It’s more part of visual culture and the subject’s personal lives. Photographs not initially intended as art.
What makes this type of photography interesting?
Here at Foam, we realize we live in a globalizing world. Even though we’re a western museum based in Amsterdam, it’s important for us to expand our views for ourselves and our audiences, to research other photographic discourses and practices that happen outside of this western hemisphere. Seydou Keïta has been of enormous influence on African photography, and today, contemporary African photography is more popular than ever.
In that sense, I was very eager to show the work of Seydou Keïta because his portraits and studio practice reflect the ’50s and ’60s in Mali. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t really have any image in mind for Bamako in that time. I also don’t think many people here necessarily know that it was a French colony. Until that time, most photographers were western photographers, meaning our understanding was shaped by their interests and their ideas of colonialism, at times even resulting in discriminatory images.
Seydou Keïta’s studio changed photography in Bamako. People came to Keïta’s studio to have their portraits taken – it was their own decision and the images were made in collaboration with the photographer. Besides his artistry and sense for graphical compositions, you see how Keïta understood how people wanted to be portrayed. If you pay close attention to the exhibition, you’ll see lots of recurring items – the radio, a particular watch. People weren’t necessarily posing with their own possessions, but they were styling their own image for the photograph.
That’s fascinating; not just documenting how people were, but how they wanted to be perceived?
Exactly. You see the desire to create a fashionable image of yourself. Another fascinating element about these portraits is the mix of modernity and tradition. If you walk into the exhibition, the first portrait you see if this huge guy in a traditional robe, laughing with a small baby. If you look around the corner, you’ll see three fashionable young guys, with their top buttons open and western-influenced dress. I’ve been told that many of these young guys were influenced by the movies introduced by the French – they wanted to look like the movie stars. Whereas the women took immense pride in the more traditional gowns and their headdresses. You see them appropriating various elements of modernity, such as the watch or posing with a Vespa scooter, mixing it with their tradition to create their own image of themselves. I think tells us a different story about the history of Mali.
What else have you learned from these portraits?
There are so many details that can unfold entire stories. I was recently speaking to Dr. Annette Schmidt, a curator from the Africa department in the Museum of Ethnology, the Tropenmuseum, the Africa museum and the Wereldmuseum. I gave her a tour of the exhibit because she will be a speaker during an event we’re hosting on 6 June called Patterns, props and poses focused on Seydou Keïta’s work. With all her knowledge of African cultures, she was able to tell me about cultural references I wasn’t aware of. For example, what I did notice (and had grouped the images together for that reason) was that there are a lot of portraits of women wearing the exact same dress. What this tells us is that these women were sister wives, they had the same husband. Another amazing insight was that these photographs are one of the few documentation of the traditional necklaces and jewelry worn in that time. Mali encountered financial hardship in the ’60s and proceeded to collect and melt all these gold necklaces.
Go see the exhibition on 26 or 27 May in Foam