BY RENNE KAPLAN
Fogg Art Museum, Sept-ember 1 through December 16, 2001.
“You look beautiful like that” is the kind of flattery every woman would like to hear someone coo gently into her ear. “Whatever it is you’re doing, baby, you’re looking great.” The compliment, in this case, comes from an expression in Bambara, the language widely spoken in Mali: i ka nyè tan is what they say to tell you that. “You Look Beautiful Like That” is also the title of an exhibit of portrait photographs from Mali, currently showing at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum.
It is a small group of black and white studio portraits from the years surrounding Mali’s 1960 independence from France. The pictures are of men and women and children, all dressed up, posing carefully, eager to make the right impression. One man wears a sharkskin jacket and a shiny wristwatch, sitting stiffly on a Vespa scooter. One woman lays in the ample folds of a lushly-printed African dress, wearing a matching head-wrap. One very little girl stands in the middle of the frame showing off her pretty white skirt, the only thing she’s wearing.
The ‘beautiful’ in the Bambara expression seems to refer to something more innocent and more earnest than flattery. Each of the portraits is carefully posed and composed. Each of the subjects stares frankly into the camera. The beautiful in these portraits is simply the beauty of people trying their hardest to look their best, and of photographers doing their best to flatter them, however they pleased.
The exhibit features the work of two Malians in particular, Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, both commercial photographers who were successful in Bamako, the capital of Mali, in the years surrounding independence. They would keep troves of props and make-shift backdrops in their studios for their customers to choose from: chairs, handbags, radios, clocks, scooters, plastic flowers, Western suits, jewelry, watches, fountain pens. The backdrops varied from a simple black or white curtain, to Sidibé’s own lace bedspread, a leaf-print sheet, a striped drape.
In Sidibé’s 1972 photograph “Three Young Peul Shepherds,” three men stand lined up with their arms at their sides, all three wearing traditional white African shirts and felt fedoras that they’d probably picked out at the studio, and the middle one holds a large transistor radio. They look polite, well-kempt, a little uncomfortable. In a Keïta portrait from the early 60’s, the two men being photographed seem to have a different kind of groove going on, striking a pose with their hands on their hips, wearing shades, skinny ties, and plaid stovepipe pants. And in another Keïta photograph from the same period, the sitter, dressed in Western slacks and shirt, wanted to be photographed just with his sheep. (It was a very big sheep).
The choice of props and of clothes and poses was deliberate. These were not the generic atmospheric details of Western commercial portraits — the white trellis, the “Autumn” background — but a conscious selection of meaningful objects. As the exhibit’s accompanying text explains, sitting for a portrait and then displaying it at home or sending it back to friends and relatives was a powerful means of self-definition. The 1960’s in Mali, like much of post-colonial Africa, were a period of considerable social change, with an increased movement from rural areas to the city, and a burgeoning middle class, eager to show off its prosperity and status. The portrait was an opportunity for subject and photographer to set the scene and make a statement about who they were.
And they were not exclusively statements of wealth or importance — some Malians at the time just wanted to look cool. In Sidibé’s “Young man, Bellbottoms, Bag and Watch,” a lean-bodied teenager wears a tight black button-down shirt over black bell-bottoms and flip-flops, carries a vinyl airline bag on his shoulder, and wears saucer-size sunglasses under a well-trimmed Afro. He could be a retro-chic hipster from today who went to sleep in his 21st century East Village tenement and just happened to wake up in 1970’s Bamako.
The portraits of women are especially visually rich: they tend to be close-ups, a graphic contrast of prints, patterned back-drops, gleaming skin and big beads. For a woman, getting her picture taken was about conveying beauty and wealth with clothing, jewelry and hairstyles, rather than props. Patterns and fabrics all meant something, as did the way the clothing was draped or the number of pieces of fabric used. Some portraits though just focussed an elaborate hair-do or a trendy mini-dress — to show the family back home what the kids were wearing.
There is a certain whimsy and craftsiness to the clash of prints and the wrinkled backdrops, and the occasionally visible dirt floor. But the compositions are carefully, even classically arranged. The formality of the poses recalls the equally staged portraits of American debs and prom queens from the same period. Except that those images were airbrushed to a homogenous perfection of creamy shoulders and look-alike white dresses. There was very little left that was personal. Keïta and Sidibé on the other hand would invent a new formula for every portrait. They created images that were unique and quirky, particular to each of their subjects, and ultimately deeply intimate in the choices they revealed.
Many of the portraits — like the one of four guys, their tight half-open shirts, and a big sombrero — are probably less about who the subjects were than how they wanted to be seen. These photographs let their subjects play dress-up and dream. There is a beauty to the frankness of the effort, and a sense of optimism in the freedom these modernizing Malians must have felt in creating themselves for the camera. It seems like the point of the portraits, in the end, was for the subjects to be able to look at their own images and think: i ka nyè tan.