A Review of Sorts: Malick Sidibe


Book Reviews, Photobooks


Let’s be bold! Compare Malick Sidibe’s photographs, especially the many ones taken at dances or social events, with Dash Snow’s party Polaroids. No, really, I mean it. You have to ignore the slightly different media (b/w versus colour, the film cameras versus the instant ones), you have to ignore the backgrounds of the subjects, and you’re off to the most amazing journey. But you might think it’s a weird comparison, isn’t it?

I don’t think so. In particular, when talking about art, making comparisons that are not obvious can result in insights you might not necessarily get otherwise. Of course, there is no guarantee there will actually be any insights, but one can try. One risks failing, but one might still learn something. In that sense, there is no such thing as failure in such an endeavour.

I’ve mentioned this before: What I’m looking for in art is a transformative experience. Art that confirms what I’ve been thinking all along, that doesn’t challenge me as a person, that doesn’t have a human (maybe too human) creator at its origin doesn’t interest me all that much. I’m hoping to become at least a different person (if not a better person - speak about lofty goals!) by exposing myself to art.

Have a look at Malick Sidibe to get an idea of what I am talking about. The book contains an overview of the African photographer’s work across time. What keeps me excited about this work - regardless of how often I look at it - is the immensely uplifting human spirit caught on film.

An “immensely uplifting human spirit” - it’s hard to imagine someone would say that about Snow’s photographs. Brush away the (obvious) display of alienation, and you’re left with a big void. I know, some people like to party hard, but how is that something I do not know?

I do feel sorry for what happened to Dash Snow. When I heard he had died, I was a shocked. I wished he had not become a part of an art world that seems to be longing a bit too much for a tortured artist, who’ll satisfy the standard narrative (no need to spell it out, is there?).

Maybe that’s really what bothers me so much about those Polaroids - that they’re being celebrated not for their artistic merit (there clearly is very little - if any) or because of the artist or because of what they might have meant for and said about the person who took them. They’re celebrated for the spectacle.

In that sense, Dash Snow’s party Polaroids aren’t so much about the parties or the fun or the person who took them, they’re more about something the art world just loves to see. This is, of course, where the comparison with Malick Sidibe’s work becomes most jarring, because Sidibe’s work is too multi-dimensional to satisfy anything the art world might want to see. They don’t lend themselves to being used in such a way.

Open Malick Sidibe, and on the page after the introduction, there are the photographer’s own words, which in their honest simplicity might leave you a bit speechless. There’s no pretension. It’s almost too simple, except when you look at the photographs, what really is going on is that it’s no effort for the photographer to do what he is doing.

There’s an older Steidl book of Malick Sidibe’s work, which I don’t own, so I can’t make any comparisons. This Fondation Zinsou edition is beautiful. They seem to have gone a bit overboard with the clear lacquer finish put on most of the pages (there are two smaller inserts, with different paper), so every time I open my copy, pages stick together. That aside, Malick Sidibe is a real treasure, containing some of the most wonderful photography I’ve seen in a while.

It’s timeless, and it reaches across divides. It also manages to get around the various mechanisms we all have set up to deal with photography - somehow the work manages to sneak inside us. Instead of arming us more (Snow), it disarms us.

Sidibe’s work really is something to be experienced, and if you’re wondering why you could possibly be interested in studio photography taken in Mali, get the book, because you’re sure to find out.

Malick Sidibe, with a brief introduction and a page of quotes by the photographer (in French and English), published by Fondation Zinsou, 191 pages, 2009