to tune in: Seydou Keïtas Untitled.
By David Brickman
Look Beautiful Like That: The Portrait Photographs of Seydou
Keïta and Malick Sidibé
College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Mass., through Aug. 31
In the dazzling crown that is the Capital Region’s art museums,
the Williams College Museum of Art is perhaps the most underappreciated
gem. Overshadowed by its close neighbor to the east, MASS
MoCA, and by the Clark Art Institute merely a home run away,
it is a treasure not to be overlooked.
If you think I’m exaggerating, check this: The WCMA is currently
hosting a large exhibition of Tibetan artifacts; a marvelous
show of cartoon and satirical art from the collection; a display
of important recently acquired works on paper (including a
series of Kara Walker watercolors); a moving selection of
contemporary work by late sculptor Libby Barker Gardner; and
the just-opened show of Mali portrait photographs reviewed
below. Set to open soon are three more exhibitions featuring
an installation by Nicole Cohen, portfolios by El Lissitzky,
and Kara Walker’s mini-retrospective Narratives of a Negress.
That’s in addition to five ongoing shows that span the collection’s
immense holdings from stones of ancient Assyria to a Sol Lewitt
And admission is free. That’s right, gratis.
Which means you have no excuse not to run there now and see
You Look Beautiful Like That: The Portrait Photographs
of Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé. Drawn from a contemporary
African art collection in Geneva, Switzerland, and organized
by Michelle Lamuniere, a curatorial associate at Harvard’s
Fogg Art Museum, You Look Beautiful functions on many
levels at once.
The expertly installed and annotated exhibition is a historical
artifact of the transformation of the face of Mali through
political progress; a fascinating comparison of similar yet
contrasting styles of photographic portraiture; and a rare
exploration of the African point of view as expressed by these
two excellent photographers and their extraordinary sitters.
It is also an intriguing example of popular commercial work
that was not intended to be art at all when it was created,
but is nevertheless first-rate art as presented here.
Keïta and Sidibé operated commercial studios in the Mali capital
city of Bamako beginning in the early 1950s and early 1960s
respectively. Each made it his business to portray sitters
in the way they wished to be seen, and both were very successful.
The 44 modern enlargements on display were made from negatives
that straddle the moment of Mali’s independence from France
(1960) and continue into the ’80s.
Most notable in the installation of these beautifully made
prints is the wealth of detail they provide and the fascinatingly
subtle differences between Keïta’s and Sidibé’s styles. Throughout
the show, related images by the two photographers are juxtaposed,
making it easy and fun to compare them; accompanying explanatory
notes add to the insights one can gain by observation, without
becoming overly academic (i.e. boring).
days: Malick Sidibés Les juenes bergers
Peuhls (Young Peul Shepherds).
such bit of gallery text encapsulates how changing times factored
into creating these differences: “Keïta, working before independence,
adapted the formulas of portrait photography, making unique
images that reflect a combination of self consciousness and
pride of presentation in the subjects. In the 1960s and 1970s,
as portrait conventions became more flexible, Sidibé developed
his own expressive style for a new generation of clients,
who took a more active part in constructing the images they
wanted to convey.”
So a tightly composed, untitled 1956 portrait by Keïta of
two traditionally dressed and elaborately adorned women sitting
crosslegged with their babies in their laps (and one toddler
peeking out from between them), their gazes serious, their
poses stiff, makes a perfect foil for a Sidibé family portrait
from just six years later (titled The whole family on a
motorcycle), in which a man, woman and child are piled
onto a big motorcycle, the man’s sunglasses shining as brightly
as the bike’s chrome, the woman’s broad, gap-toothed grin
and alphabet-soup-patterned dress declaring liberation (if
not yet equality).
There are similarly revealing comparisons throughout the show,
as Keïta’s sitters feature modest accouterments like bicycles
and radios, along with serious expressions, and Sidibé’s are
more playful in demeanor and adventurous with props. But it
is as much the similarities as the differences that fascinate,
as both are subject to a specifically African code, “embedded
in jewelry, scarifications, textile patterns, hairstyle, clothing
style and props.”
But let’s not get too bogged down in interpretation—it’s a
pleasure just to look at these pictures, as all of them are
technically accomplished, rich visual feasts. Both photographers
used large formats (Keïta a 5-by-7-inch view camera with glass
plates and Sidibé a 6-by-6-centimeter roll-film camera) which
provide lush detail and a lovely range of tones, and their
subjects are simply magnificent.
So, if you’re planning perhaps to catch the summer’s blockbuster
Turner exhibition at the Clark (and you should, of course),
you may want to budget an extra hour to stop by the WCMA and
enjoy this unique photographic experience. Then again, if
you’d like to see everything Williams College is offering,
you may just need to give Turner a miss.
Michelle Lamuniere, curator of You Look Beautiful Like
That, will give a gallery talk at 3 PM on Saturday, Aug.
16. The museum is also offering free gallery tours led by
WCMA’s museum associates at 3 PM every Wednesday and Sunday
through Aug. 24.