Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, two commercial photographers from Mali, took mesmerizing portraits in Bamako, the capital, during the period before and after the country’s independence from France in 1960. To their clients, sitting for a portrait and then displaying it at home or sending it to family and friends was a potent means of self-definition at a time of considerable social change. Noting the differences between the original, personal use of the portraits and their enlargement for international exhibitions, You Look Beautiful Like That provides the social and art-historical background that allows for a deeper appreciation of Keïta’s and Sidibé’s photographs.
This is the work of Africans controlling the camera to create images of African subjects for an African audience. For both photographers, the studio was a theater in which to coordinate costumes, lighting, props, and poses. Keïta creatively adapted the formulas of portrait photography, making unique images that reflect both his clients’ social identity within the community and their enthusiastic embrace of modernity. Later, as portrait conventions and societal roles became more flexible, Sidibé’s subjects took an even more active part in constructing the images they wanted to convey. In Bambara, the language widely spoken in Mali, there is an expression, i ka nyè tan, which means “you look beautiful like that.” Keïta’s and Sidibé’s portraits flatter the sitters, presenting them in the best possible light.
Curated by Michelle Lamunière, Department of Photographs, Fogg Art Museum. A fully-illustrated catalogue published by the Harvard University Art Museums and distributed by Yale University Press accompanies the exhibition.