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  JERRY HALL
STEPHANIE SEYMORE
MARC JACOBS
  ASIA ARGENTO
DENNIS HOPPER
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DJ SPOOKY

Malick Sidibé,1999

WITH LUCAS MICHAEL
PHOTOGRAPHED BY LUCAS MICHAEL



I first saw Malick Sidibé's work two or three years ago in the African Photography show that André Magnin organized at the Guggenheim Museum. It was an eyeopener. His photographs of the Bamako hipsters, twisters and altogether mega-cool youth, taken mostly in the '60s and '70s, are unabashedly beautiful. They are dancing the cha-cha and "the Mali Twist" at local social clubs, hanging out by the river Niger and sitting for him at Studio Malick — where, at age sixty-five, he continues to take portraits and repair cameras. This is a body of work characterized by acute observation, perfect timing, and an infinite love for its subjects. An incredible sense of joy from times past breathes in these pictures, and still seems completely alive.
I was able to meet Malick when he recently came to New York for the opening of a show at Deitch Projects. Although my French isn't completely embarrassing, André and my brother Roman helped to keep the conversation flowing, and we had a lot of fun talking about his pictures. Originally printed pocket-size, the newly enlarged prints are delicious.



LUCAS: Is this your first time in New York?
MALICK: It is the first time.

LUCAS: Was there a big difference between what you thought it would be and the reality?
MALICK: It's much more modern than I see in films. But we only arrived on Monday afternoon, so I didn't see anything of New York yet. Just a little by taxi. But from what I've seen in movies, I find it very different.

LUCAS: What movies?
MALICK: Cowboy films ... [laughs]

LUCAS: Do you have any plans in New York while you're here?
MALICK: Tonight, we are going for a fashion show of Xuly B‘t. He is also from Mali, and he invited us. I did the photo for his invitation last year. We are also going to the Armory show, and we want to go to Harlem.

LUCAS: You took so many of your pictures in the clubs of Bamako. Let's start there.
MALICK: In the clubs, the competition was to see how many girls you could have. The girls didn't pay to be in the clubs. The young men paid, but the girls didn't. So the clubs that had the most gallant members got the most girls. And it was up to the guys to spend all the money — making themselves look nice and being gallant at parties and doing all that. The girls were more likely to come if the music was fashionable, more new.

LUCAS: In a lot of your photographs, people are holding record covers — we can see James Brown, Franoise Hardy, Ray Charles, the Beatles ...
AM: But in that period, it wasn't everybody who owned records. It was very rare.

LUCAS: To have a record collection?
MALICK: Yes. It was very expensive. When younger generations in Mali would see images of stars on record covers, in pictures, in magazines or on posters, it gave them a certain idea of possibility. And there were record players ... boxes which boys used to attract girls. They would get close to each other through the music they played. The parents would literally try to break their boxes. But the young generation always won because they had to work in the field, and if there was no music they would say, "We're not going to work." So they got to keep their music.

LUCAS: And they had the clubs at night.
MALICK: Because the young people couldn't get close together in front of the older people, they created their own clubs outside their small towns ... where the older people wouldn't see them. By '70 or '71, the older people would come and they would sit around the younger people who would be dancing. So everybody in the place would profit from the joy of the party.

LUCAS: You can really see that everybody is having a great time in your photographs. Were people doing drugs in Bamako in the '60s?
MALICK: No, people weren't even drinking alcohol in the '60s. But music is a drug. Even for the old, they become young when they enjoy it so much.

LUCAS: You wrote in your book that one shouldn't worry about being the eldest, about having younger friends ...
MALICK: Now, when I see the people that I took pictures of in the '60s, grown men doing the things that they do, going to have coffee in a cafe or something like that, it's very gratifying to me. In our metier it's important to be around the young people that are coming up. Because the young are the ones that have that need to be photographed.

LUCAS: That's absolutely true. When I was younger, I used to take photographs of myself. And now I photograph other people.
[everyone laughs]

LUCAS: The people in your photographs seem to be so giving. They want to show so much of themselves to the camera. I don't know how easy it would be to do that here. I mean, a lot of people here are either overtly exhibitionist or much more guarded.
MALICK: People get very interested in the actual machine, the camera. That can also depend on my own approach. I have to pay attention to what the dynamic is between people. And often when there is a man and a woman, the relationship between them in the picture depends a lot on how they relate to me and my camera — a crucial moment, which the photographer fixes in time, so they have to really pay attention to the photographer. But in Mali, men and women are apart. They still don't get together. So the influence of Occidental music is that men and women are together when they dance, they come together, they actually take each other in their arms.

LUCAS: To me it's very interesting in photographs when you can see that there's a relationship between the subject and the photographer.
AndrŽ Magnin: I want to say something about it, because I know that in Bamako everybody loves Malick because he was so kind, so generous. That's why he can take these pictures. Because the people love him.

MALICK: Photography is a very social art form. Whether it's old or young people, everybody knows me. Even now, I still do studio portraits, and when people come for pictures, I tell my children — who are also photographers — to take the picture. I have two boys, eighteen and nineteen ...

LUCAS: But I thought you had a much larger family?
MALICK: Yes. Sixteen. But grandchildren, many more ... fifty people living together. Everybody comes to my house.

LUCAS: There are fifty people living in your house?
MALICK: Everybody has come to my new house to stay there — my cousins and the brothers of wives and their children. When people know you earn money, everybody is your friend. In front of the studio, it's also the same, everybody keeps coming.

LUCAS: And you were saying that when they come for pictures ...
MALICK: They don't want someone younger. The clients say, "No, no, no. We want Malick to take the picture." Those young people who are taking pictures don't arrange the subject. They don't compose the subject. They are more like photojournalists or something, and they don't take care to figure out exactly how the scene should be set up. So people come to me because they know that I will compose it properly and make sure that it's right. Young people don't know that when a photo is successful it's not because of the camera, it's because of the photographer.

LUCAS: I know that you have a background as a draftsman. Has that affected your vision as a photographer?
MALICK: Yes, very much. Before I knew the camera, I knew about images. It's all about trying to make light with a pencil or with a crayon. It really helped me in the beginning, because I understood how light and shadow were working on an image.

LUCAS: That explains how your work, even though it's not posed, is so perfectly composed.
MALICK: When people are dancing in parties, the photographer doesn't have very much effect on what's happening. He doesn't have very much control. In the studio, you're really dealing with the subject. And outside, it's all the ambiance and the atmosphere, the music. Even when there are subjects that come to my place, that maybe are a little bit timid, I try to create the ambiance that I feel in parties and dances, so that you can get the best kind of physiognomy out of them, the best images of their faces.

LUCAS: Do you play records in your studio?
MALICK: Sure. For little kids, we have these noisemakers so that they'll look at the camera, but that's it.

LUCAS: What's the difference between when people are in the studio and when they're outside?
MALICK: That's also what's amazing. That people in a studio situation or in a party situation seem to be as much into the camera — no more, no less. A young person wants to be very alive in a pose. So I will put him in a position that's much more alive than what is in his nature. I don't like stiff positions for the subject.

LUCAS: So the poses are made by you?
MALICK: In a party, I will actually pose some people, but then other times they pose themselves. So it plays in different ways.

LUCAS: I think that the act of taking a photograph of someone can be selfish. So I believe that when you take a photograph of somebody, you have to give something of yourself back. And that comes across in your work.
MALICK: The country where I work is characterized by a great joy, a great deep-seated joy that pervades everything and that existed even in colonial times. That is something that comes through in the work, because there is a very rich culture.

LUCAS: Is Bamako a very international city?
MALICK: In the sense that there are businessmen and there's a lot of tourism, yes.

LUCAS: When I think of Mali, I immediately think of Timbuktu. Why do you think that Timbuktu registers so strongly in the Western imagination?
MALICK: Before all of this globalization, its history made it a very mysterious place. There were a lot of sects and religious groups in Timbuktu. Under the Moroccans, it was colonized a very, very long time ago. So it was always on the radar screen of a lot of civilizations as it developed through history, because it was always part of this colonial problem.

LUCAS: And the people in your photographs, are they mostly local or from other places?
MALICK: There's a large number of international people. French speaking people come for studies. So at the end of the year when there are big parties, there are all these people from all over the world, different races and nationalities.

LUCAS: Do the clubs of Bamako still exist?
MALICK: Not since '84, '85. From the point of view of the social structure of the place, now Africa is copying the Occidental ways. Before '76, the people liked to be together, like in a collective, communal way. But since '76, the problem for me and for many people is individualism ... it has become an important influence. And this is Occidental.

LUCAS: That must be devastating for a whole community, in which cultural survival depends on its community spirit.
MALICK: In that sense, there's an economic problem as well. You are no longer given the opportunity to see a man and a woman together alone in this place, without a family. In the '60s, people liked to live together — with their lover, with their fiancŽ, with friends. People lived together. So this tendency for people to live together sort of dissipated, and you didn't see people in living situations like that. And only now that's beginning to break down again, and people are beginning to form groups once more. So there's strength in numbers. In the last ten years, they became aware that in groups you have strength and you can profit from that.

LUCAS: So in '68, when you had the coup d'Žtat, things obviously changed for the worse.
MALICK: At the beginning of the '60s, independence was the energizing influence of young culture in my country. People went out and enjoyed themselves and had a lot of fun, and it was a very energetic place. But as the development of a socialist system took hold, imposing a police force that was in charge of taking care that people couldn't be out during the day and all that, this energy became much more constrained. So after '68, it was forbidden, for example, that women wear miniskirts. There were surveillance police who oversaw what the young people were doing. There were even times when people couldn't go out and take a walk.

LUCAS: So in a way, '60s radicality made the gap between Mali and the Occidental world bigger than ever, because things in Europe and America became more liberal at that time.
MALICK: We became aligned with the Communist bloc. Mali became a Communist aligned state at the height of the Cold War. Students left Mali and went to study in places like Cuba, Hungary and Moscow.

LUCAS: Did you do any traveling in the Eastern bloc after '68?
MALICK: No. All of my photographs were taken in Bamako, in Mali in general, and that's it.

LUCAS: How do you like taking pictures outside of Mali?
MALICK: Very much.

LUCAS: Do you find that it's very different?
MALICK: It's all the same. It's the same face. We always look for an idea, for the same face, for the same position. There is no such thing as a "European" or an "African photography." It's all the same thing.

LUCAS: I see your work as very much ahead of the times. Much of what's been happening here, in terms of style and approach, you have been doing for many years already.
MALICK: I've discovered, through all the exhibitions around the world, like the ones organized by AndrŽ Magnin, that my work is not old, is not late in arrival. It is absolutely contemporary. I've seen many exhibitions, many books, and I'm not so late. [laughs] And you know, in Mali, we liked European photography before they became interested in our African photography.

LUCAS: And now it's come full circle.
MALICK: That's right. Now everybody is interested in everything. Everybody all over the world is interested in the work that other people are doing.

LUCAS: How do you feel when you see your work in galleries or museums?
MALICK: I am very proud of that. It shows me that all those years I wasn't working for nothing. [laughs]
© index magazinegelatin1
Malick Sidibé by Lucas Michael, 1999

 
 

 

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All photos by index photographers: Leeta Harding, Richard Kern, David Ortega, Ryan McGinley, Terry Richardson, and Juergen Teller