Malick Sidibé @Jack Shainman

JTF (just the facts): A total of 57 black and white photographs, variously framed and matted, and hung against white walls in the entry gallery, the divided gallery space in the back, and one of the smaller side rooms. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, some with additions of glass, paint, cardboard, tape, and string. The images were taken between 1963 and 2003, and while a handful are vintage, most were printed later, in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, or 2008. Physical sizes range from roughly 3×2 to 21×14 (or reverse). No edition information was provided on the checklist. The show also includes a short film (6 minutes), being shown in one of the smaller side rooms; it was made by Susan Vogel in 2006. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: For many, the aspirational optimism and contagious youthful energy of Malick Sidibé’s formal studio portraits and casual dance party snapshots are already well entrenched in the pantheon of African photography, so a refresher course of his greatest hits and key works wouldn’t likely teach us anything particularly new. And while a photographer’s best known images often provide a handy starting point for engaging with his or her artistic point of view, lesser known and secondary images add a dose richness to that simple thumbnail framework, filling in gaps and expanding our understanding of the choices being made and the approaches being explored. Given that this is Sidibé’s sixth show at Jack Shainman, most of the first order issues in his work have already been explored in some depth in previous shows. So this exhibit aims for something deeper and more obscure, unearthing the gems hiding in the storage boxes that reflect many of the important recurring themes found in his work, but limiting the selections largely to examples that we haven’t already seen before.

One of Sidibé’s most consistent talents has been his ability to get his sitters to show off their best selves, using clothing, accessories, and props as cornerstones of portraits that capture who they want to be, and in the images on view here, he finds this magic again and again. Platform shoes, flared pants, a polka dot dress with a fringed handbag, funky sunglasses, even traditional patterned dresses and flowing tunics, they each become signifiers for identity creation. From a mom and baby on a motorcycle to a self-styled Zorro with two drawn guns, dreams come in all shapes and sizes, and Sidibé is clearly a good listener, fashioning his images to capture the sparkle in each person’s eye.

Several of the more unusual portraits on display find Sidibé working outside and at night, almost like a bridge between his studio work and his party pictures. A dapper taxi driver shows off his funky checkered pants, a young man pretends to play an electric guitar posing in front of a car, and three friends play secret agent in trench coats and hats. When he heads into the dances, he captures awkwardly demure pairs and crazy swooping couples with equal attention, many folks just happy to strut and preen holding records as badges of coolness. He even finds time to catch the Radio Mali dj in action, spinning vinyl from a corner crowded with gear.

Sidibé’s more recent portraits of women’s backs are given pride of place at the front of the exhibit. Here he riffs on classic reclining poses from art history, keeping faces turned away and bodies generally clothed. Ample curves fill out patterned dresses, finding balance with bold stripes and high contrast checks, and pairs and threesomes stand arm in arm in hip hugging long skirts. There is unknowable mystery in these quietly sculptural pictures, where the concealment of the conservative Muslim culture can still be timelessly seductive.

Perhaps my favorite moments of this show came during the short video, where Sidibé sits and chats with an interviewer, mulling over the pathways of his career. There is such buoyant joy in his manner, full of easy going charm and light hearted joking, that it is nearly impossible not to come away enthralled by his genuine engagement with life. And then when we return to his pictures in the surrounding galleries, it becomes obvious how much his personality has influenced his photographs – he makes people comfortable, and that authentic trust leads to pictures that bottle the effervescent energy of his sitters. Even in these lesser known works, the consistency of that personal one-on-one engagement comes through with vibrant clarity – he’s made a career of celebrating the hopes and dreams of his subjects, and that positivity thrums through each and every image on the walls.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $4500 to $15000. 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 $20000.

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