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Time to tune in: Seydou Keïta’s Untitled.

Mali’s Changing Faces
By David Brickman

You Look Beautiful Like That: The Portrait Photographs of Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé
Williams 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 wall painting.

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).

Radio days: Malick Sidibé’s Les juenes bergers Peuhls (Young Peul Shepherds).

One 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.

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