Malick Sidibé: Dance Halls, Soirees & Studio @Throckmorton

JTF (just the facts): A total of 46 black and white photographs and 9 portfolios, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the divided gallery space and the elevator lobby.

The following works are included in the show:

  • 45 gelatin silver prints, 1960s, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1968/1990s, 1960s-1970s, 1970, 1970/1990s, 1970/2011, 1970s, 1971, 1971/2005, 1975, 1976, 1979, 1980s, 1983, n.d., sized roughly 4×5, 5×3, 5×7, 6×4, 7×5, 7×9, 7×10, 8×10, 9×7, 10×7, 12×9, 12×10, 11×14, 14×11, 14×12, 15×12, 24×36 inches
  • 1 portfolio of 21 gelatin silver prints, 1964, sized roughly 3×2 inches each
  • 1 portfolio of 24 gelatin silver prints, 1964, sized roughly 3×2 inches each
  • 1 portfolio of 24 gelatin silver prints, 1966, sized roughly 3×2 inches each
  • 1 portfolio of 19 gelatin silver prints, 1968, sized roughly 3×2 inches each
  • 1 portfolio of 22 gelatin silver prints, 1968, sized roughly 3×2 inches each
  • 1 portfolio of 21 gelatin silver prints, 1969, sized roughly 3×2 inches each
  • 1 portfolio of 22 gelatin silver prints, 1969, sized roughly 3×2 inches each
  • 1 portfolio of 23 gelatin silver prints, 1969, sized roughly 3×2 inches each
  • 1 portfolio of 23 gelatin silver prints, 1970, sized roughly 3×2 inches each
  • 1 pigment print, 1968/later, 40×30 inches

(Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: It’s been half a dozen years since Malick Sidibé’s last solo gallery show in New York, and after the gloomy years of the pandemic, the contagious positivity that fills the West African photographer’s portraits feels like a well-timed corrective.

The high points of Sidibé’s artistic story are now broadly known – a thriving photographic portrait studio in Bamako just after independence from France in the 1960s and 1970s, then a first exhibition outside of Mali in 1994, followed by publications, more exhibitions, an award-winning turn at the Venice Biennale in 2007, and later, various lifetime achievement awards. And although Sidibé died in 2016, his work is now acknowledged to hold a place of durable significance in African photography.

Sidibé made lots of later prints and enlargements during his last decades, which helped bring his classic images like Nuit de Noël (Happy-Club) to a worldwide audience. But beyond those greatest hits, Sidibé’s day to day portraiture efforts were remarkably consistent, as he helped each sitter find his or her own visual identity. Gathered over a twenty year period, the works on view in this show explore the range of that activity, from the formal to the funky, and on into the parties of the night.

The most straightforward of Sidibé’s portraits do the everyday work of a local portrait studio – memorializing families, sisters, couples, births, and other important life moments. But even in these mundane pictures, Sidibé seems to have worked hard to find points of visual interest, whether they be patterned fabrics, poses and gazes between subjects, or just the ability to make a nervous sitter more comfortable and at ease. All white gowns are featured in one portrait, while matching black and white looks are multiplied in another; and in an image of a standing woman in a striped dress, Sidibé has used an unbalanced frame, pushing her far to the left side to create a graceful sense of tall space.

Part of what was happening in post-independence Mali was a turn toward Western style modernization, in music, fashions, hairstyles, and other consumer symbols, and Sidibé’s best portraits capture this moment of deliberate cultural and personal reinvention. Motorcycles and mopeds (brought right into the studio) add an immediate sense of risk taking modernity, especially when matched with a striped helmet and a striped wall behind. Groups of men face off as boxers, pose as “Spanish” friends (with one in a sombrero), and hover around a radio like it was a treasured icon. Flared pants, hip suits, and short patterned dresses also make appearances, signaling a sense of youthful coolness; one woman points to her watch with sassy confidence, perhaps making some mysterious reference to passing time or just showing off her new wrist accessory. Sidibé also made portraits of some women from the back, intentionally obscuring their faces and reorienting the dynamics of the traditional portraiture gaze. Clearly, Sidibé’s studio was a safe place to dream, leading to a range of aspirationally performative moments and forward looking setups.

One aspect of Sidibé’s photography practice that is often overlooked or under appreciated is his work as an event photographer at night. This show offers a range of excellent vintage examples of his distinctive approach – each one a selection of small thumbnails from the event pasted to a paper portfolio. The idea was that after each event, he would post the thumbnails outside his studio, with each individual image having a number underneath so guests could order prints of their favorites. Sidibé seems to have been a fixture at such gatherings, as everyone seems comfortable with his presence. He hit weddings, parties, dances, and other events, and it is at these parties that he made some of his more enchanting images of people dancing, or simply posing with a drink or a favorite record album. The styles and swaggering looks are loose and youthful, aside from one groom who has a telltale “deer in the headlights” glazed stare on his wedding day. Part historical artifact and part photographic collage, these party portfolios are filled with energy and life, providing a foil to the relative formality of Sidibé’s studio portraits.

Seen as a tightly edited group, this selection of images provides a succinct visual summary of Sidibé’s eye and the major themes that percolate through his work. This is a summer show that not only delivers an approachable and easy going mood, but supports that optimism with the rigor and depth of a curated survey. Sidibé’s photographic charms never seem to become too predictable, and even on the hottest days of the summer, this is a show that feels cool.

Collector’s POV: The single prints in this show range in price from $4500 to $8500, while the portfolios range from $6500 to $7500. The larger pigment print is priced at $10000. Sidibé’s work is intermittently available in the secondary markets (mostly in the form of later prints), where recent prices have ranged between roughly $2000 and $48000, with a top price of $88000 for a group of prints.

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