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Arts & Culture

Malick Sidibé’s portraits depict the evolution of self-definition

African photographer’s portraits document the spirit of independence that swept Mali in the 1960s

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“Here Is My Watch and Here Is My Ring” (1964)

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“The Four Friends” (1967)


In their posed masquerade, each subject projects a distinct persona – sometimes exuberant, sometimes impassive – revealing as much as they conceal. Eventually Sidibé’s practice moved even further ahead, from portraits made simply to please the customer to studies of pattern, light and shadow. A grouping of fashion-oriented photos on one wall of the CFAM gallery shows bold steps forward, not just in fashion, but in subject matter. “In My Bra and Underpants” depicts a stern woman in large lingerie, but whether the viewer finds it erotic or not, it’s still an awfully daring image for 1967.

“Flexing His Muscles” shows a man stripped down to jockey shorts, doing just that; his stance is strong, but his facial expression is tentative. Did Sidibé intend what we now read as a symbolic representation of Mali’s ambivalence toward its newfound independence?

Does it matter whether he did? Sidibé’s work serves many purposes. Foremost, his pictures are documentary: For historians, they track the sea change in Mali’s social conventions; for their subjects, they documented a noteworthy moment or purchase: a new piece of jewelry, an engagement or birthday.

But for a gallery viewer, these portraits chart the evolution of self-definition.

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