Malick Sidibé (1935-2016), Spanish Friends, 1968, printed 1990s. Gelatin Silver Print, 9-3/4 x 7 in. Signed in ink and stamped on recto (Inv# 76956). Image courtesy of Throckmorton Fine Art.

Malick Sidibé — Dance Halls, Studio & Soirées

At Throckmorton Fine Art, 145 East 57th Street, New York
Through September 10, 2022

By Benjamin Genocchio 

It is often forgotten or conveniently overlooked, that the current market enthusiasm for figurative painting by African and African American artists finds its historical roots in traditions of studio portraiture, specifically the work of the acclaimed documentary photographer Malik Sidibé now showing at Throckmorton Fine Art in New York. 

Sidibé is a legendary figure in the world of photography — born in rural Mali in 1937, he rose in fame and prominence to receive at age 70 a Golden Lion Award at the 2007 Venice Biennale, becoming the first photographer and also the first African to achieve this accolade. His photographs are held in most major museums worldwide and any exhibition of his increasingly scarce imagery counts as a pretty big deal.

Malick Sidibé (1935-2016), Portrait of Two Women, 1979. Gelatin Silver Print, 12 x 9-1/2 in. Signed and stamped on recto (Inv# 77266-C). Image courtesy of Throckmorton Fine Art.

Malick Sidibé (1935-2016), Couple on Motor Bike, Bamako, 1970. Gelatin Silver Print, 9-3/8 x 7 in. Signed and stamped on recto (Inv# 77267-C). Image courtesy of Throckmorton Fine Art.

Spencer Throckmorton has been collecting Sidibé’s work for decades. During that time he assembled 55 photographs, most of which are included in the present exhibition at his gallery. Portraits predominate, with several important images from the 1950s and early 1960s part of the display, rounded out with an impressive selection of studio portrait photographs from the late 1960s and 1970s. Sibide was less active in the 1980s and until his death in 2016 spent much of his time repairing old cameras. 

Portraiture was understood as a dynamic genre for Sidibé, who captured his subjects in everything from formal wedding photographs to various utterly charming informal portraits of groups of friends and family sitting, standing, astride bicycles or motorbikes. There are also a handful of delightful images of couples dancing such as Soirée Dansante from 1962, a silver gelatin print that elegantly captures movement at an awkward moment when a woman looks to catch the beat with her partner.  

Left: Malick Sidibé (1935-2016), Les Deux Boxeurs, 1966, Gelatin Silver Print, 11 x 14 in. Signed in ink and stamped on recto (Inv# 77787). Right: Malick Sidibé (1935-2016), Moss des Officiers, 1962. Gelatin Silver Print, 11 x 14 in. Stamped on verso and Signed in ink on recto (Inv# 77788). Images courtesy of Throckmorton Fine Art.

Left: Malick Sidibé (1935-2016), Woman pointing to watch, 1970s. Gelatin Silver Print, 11 x 14 in. Stamped on recto (Inv# 77544). Right: Malick Sidibé (1935-2016), Portrait of Three young Boys, 1971, printed 2005. Gelatin Silver Print, 15-3/8 in. x 11-3/4 in. Stamped on recto (Inv# 77663). Images courtesy of Throckmorton Fine Art.  

Sidibé’s earliest images were of youth culture in the streets of Bamako, the capital of Mali, documentary images taken while working as an assistant for the French photographer Gerard Guillat. Mali achieved independence from France in 1960 and this led to an outpouring of nationalist spirit in the country, which subsequently was captured by Sidibe in images of sporting events, dancing, nightclubs, outdoor concerts. All display a keen attention to details of period clothing and hairstyles.

Perhaps the most interesting component of this exhibition are a handful of contact sheets from the artist’s archives. Rarely seen or exhibited (the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York had one on display recently) they present the multiple images in a series thus enabling us to see how the artist edited his own work — in short, we can see what qualities he was looking for in a photograph, which very often was a sense of symmetry coupled with a casual naturalness on the part of his subjects. 

Sidibé was a realist, a naturalist even, but his version of reality was of course heavily edited, cropped and contrived to suit the demands of his subjects along with his own aesthetic as well as occasional social, cultural or personal objectives. The pictures of men and women on motorcycles, often wearing fashionable western office work attire (suits, ties and blouses) seem designed to present Mali as a progressive modern society in which women worked alongside men as equals and enjoyed mobility.

Left: Malick Sidibé (1935-2016), Family Portrait, 1960s. Gelatin Silver Print, Vintage, 3-1/2 x 4-3/4 in. Stamped on verso (Inv# 77732). Right: Malick Sidibé (1935-2016), Mariage, Abdoulaye Cheif & Hauiam Bah, Portofolio of 23 Images, 01/11/69. Gelatin Silver Print, Vintage, 2 x 3 in. approximate. Signed on recto and Stamped on verso (Inv# 85581-C). Images courtesy of Throckmorton Fine Art. 

Hair, clothing, jewelry and accessories remain the most defining, memorable features of all Sidibé’s portraits — reflective of time, place and frequently social status. Spanish Friends, 1968, shows four young men dressed fashionably, one with a sombrero and oversized sunglasses with a medallion around his neck. It is a fun studio portrait, staged, contrived, playful, aspirational even as the figures pose happily, complicitly for the camera as if aware of the artifice and yet nonetheless loving every bit of it.  

This is a noteworthy exhibition not only because of the importance of the artist, rarity of the imagery and timeliness of the subject matter. It is equally important insofar as it reminds us of the power of photography to transport us to another time and place in an instant. Painting and sculpture can move us emotionally but photography, and only photography, can fully immerse us in another world, even a world long gone. 

Discover Malick Sidibé at Throckmorton Fine Art on Incollect