Rakish Icons: Malick Sidibé
Malick Sidibé is an icon because of the art he made—the black-and-white photographic studies of swinging sixties Bamako. Since then, his work has become renowned on a global scale, inspiring creatives in Los Angeles and London and earning him numerous awards, like the Golden Lion at Venice Biennale.
Malick Sidibé is an icon because of the art he made—the black-and-white photographic studies of swinging sixties Bamako. Since then, his work has become renowned on a global scale, inspiring creatives in Los Angeles and London and earning him numerous awards, like the Golden Lion at Venice Biennale (the first African to do so) and the Hasselblad award. Indeed, his best images are there to be admired in Manhattan’s MoMA, with the other iconic photographers of the twentieth-century, like Diane Arbus, Peter Lindbergh, and Paolo Roversi.
Sidibé sadly passed away in 2016, but his legacy continues to grow. What is striking about his work is the personality that grabs you from beyond the frame. His subject-work is strikingly contemporary, suited, fashionable, and swaggering—between the candid nature of each person and the masterfully organised backdrops and props. They emphasise the spirit of the Bamakoise. This is famously evident in his 1978 photograph Un jeune gentleman, which makes use of a wooden stool for the subject to lean on. This figure has attitude and power… the photograph fizzes with happy youth and freedom-of-expression. Sibidé knew Bamako and its people better than anyone, not least because he photographed them. But over the decades, he kept a finger on what was happening in the streets and at the clubs. “I would be in my studio until 11 at night,” he once said, “because nightlife started late. Then I would go off to the clubs with my bike, and stay until 5 in the morning.” At each stop, he would announce his arrival by letting off a flash, and the revellers swarmed around to have their photograph taken by a famous artist. These shots are full of humour. His Fans of James Brown (1965) and Les faux agents du FBI (1974) shot outside one of these clubs, captures a very specific time in Bamako; a moment that was in many ways characterised by the popularity of African-American music and fashions.
Perhaps the most famous of them all is Nuit de Noel. Shot in 1963, it shows us two teenage dancers. It is named one of the 100 most influential images by Time Magazine, and like all of Sibidé street-photography, was the product of serendipity. “His work counted on presence and immortalised moments. Nuit de Noel, with its infinite softness and gentleness, in an instant snatched from time,” wrote his biographer André Magnin. Late in his life, his subject-work and street photography attracted further global interest. A documentary was produced in 2006, showing Sidibé in his studio, and speaking to him about his work. It was a fitting homage to a man who simply loved to chronicle the people of his beloved Bamako—no pretences of glory or money, simply art for art’s sake. And that’s more than enough reason to be immortalised as an icon.