Seydou Keïta, Portraits of Bamako

Discover the life and work of a pioneer of African photography

Contemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Self-portrait (1955) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

“It's easy to take a photo, but what really made a difference was that I always knew how to find the right position, and I never was wrong. Their head slightly turned, a serious face, the position of the hands...I was capable of making someone look really good. The photos were always very good. That's why I always say that
it's a real art.”

Seydou Keïta, Bamako, 1995/1996
© André Magnin

Seydou Keîta in Paris, in front of Picto Laboratories (1994) by Jean PigozziContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

In May 1991, the exhibition “Africa Explores: Twentieth Century African Arts” opened at the Center for African Arts in New York. In this exhibition, which mixed traditional, folk and contemporary African art, the art historian Susan Vogel, curator of the exhibition, presented some contact prints made from negatives she’d brought back from her travels in West Africa in the 1970s. These images included seven photographs by Seydou Keïta, credited to “Anonymous photographer, Bamako”.

Jean Pigozzi – collector of contemporary African art, and photographer – visited the exhibition and was struck by the beauty of these photos. He asked André Magnin, the curator of his collection, to track down this photographer. Magnin went to Bamako few months later and met Keïta, who showed him his negatives, mostly well preserved. This launched a long collaboration.

Untitled (1959/1960) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Seydou Keïta is unanimously regarded today as the most famous African studio photographer of the 20th century. Discovered in the West in the early 1990s, his work, composed essentially of black and white portraits made in his studio in Bamako from 1948 to 1962, has since been exhibited in major museums and written about in numerous publications.

But before his talent was recognized worldwide, Keïta was initially a “studiotiste” who was very famous in Mali and throughout West Africa, thanks to his understanding of the pose, the quality of his prints, the staging of his portraits and the accessories and clothes he offered his clients.

Untitled (1952/1955) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

In addition to his mastery of photographical technique, Keïta always strived to make his clients look great. By studying the position of the body, face and hands, by adjusting clothes and choosing frames carefully, he created a strong portrait esthetic, without following any master.

Untitled (1956/1959) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

In his very simple studio, especially in the patio where he shot many portraits using natural light, there were no painted decors, like in some occidental studios at the time.Keïta chose instead to use a simple curtain, or fabrics he bought in local markets. The play between the patterns of the dresses and the backgrounds created very graphic compositions.

The accessories or occidental costumes suggested by Keïta produce a magnified image of his clients - real or imaginary - in a true “mise en scène” that highlights the links to modernity and social aspirations.

Untitled (1952/1955) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Freed from the clichés of colonial photography that ignored the identity of African subjects, Keïta portraits unveil his models’ singularity. The 7, 000 negatives that are preserved serve as a unique testimony of the Malian society as it underwent decolonization up to the independence in 1960. His work is part of the canon of great portraitists of the twentieth century.

Untitled (1948/1954) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Seydou Keïta rarely knew the identify of the clients who had their portraits done in his studio, but “that big man there, that’s Billaly. In Bamako, they called him the Giant.”

” Besides his exceptional physical stature, he was a prominent citizen of Bamako. Here he wears a “grand boubou complet”—an ensemble of trousers, tunic and robe—made of bazin, a popular imported damask fabric, and a felt chechia on his head in the Muslim tradition. He holds his granddaughter proudly on his lap.

Keïta's stamp by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Keïta did not sign his portraits, but stamped the back of his prints indicating the location of his studio in the new African neighborhood of Bamako - Courra (new Bamako). When he first opened his studio, he sent young people to fetch clients from the train station were travellers of the famous DN “Dakar-Niger” line arrived. Inaugurated in 1924, it connected Dakar to Koulikoro, a harbour located on the Niger river in Mali.

Untitled (1948/1954) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Keïta did most of his portraits using a view camera in the 13x18 format, which he developed from contacts without an enlarger. This “card” format was very successful at the time. Keïta’s framer could also paint on demand to colorize the nails, jewelry or women’s headscarves. Keïta did not keep vintage prints at his home, but some were found at his framer’s office, not picked up by clients. With the growing interest in African studio photography, some portraits were found in families and sold to collectors. But whereas Keïta took great care of his negatives, vintage prints have often been damaged by heat, humidity and dust.

Untitled (1948/1954) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Keïta’s studio was composed of a small room, in which he shot interior portraits, mostly by night, and made prints, and of a patio where his most beautiful portraits were taken. Natural light was Keïta’s favourite light source. On the studio walls hung a series of photographs clients used to pick their pose from: standing, sitting, reclined, upper-body or full-body, facing the camera, at an angle...

Untitled (1948/1954) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Portraying women

Untitled (1953/1957) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

This reclining woman, nicknamed “the odalisque”, has become one of Keïta’s “icons.” According to the photographer, it was only women who requested this pose. Although it seems casual, it is in fact entirely studied: the placement of the hands and feet, the folds of the garment, and the carnelian necklace compose a particularly opulent picture, against Keïta’s signature background of fabrics and patterns.

Untitled (1948/1954) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

This young woman leaning on a radio, one of the many accessories that Keïta’s studio could furnish, wears a silver pendant representing the head of a Fulani woman from the Fouta region in Guinea, “the water tower of West Africa.”

Untitled (1948/1954) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Three young girls wearing rich peul head-dress. People often wore similar clothes to indicate they belonged to the same family or group of friends. These dresses are taking inspiration from western models. The were made from cotton fabric in Europe, most notably Manchester, especially for the African market, where they were very popular.


The girls are posing in front of Keïta's first fabric background - it's actually his own bedspread

Untitled (1948/1954) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

The Vespa, symbol of modernity and affluence, was one of the accessories Keïta made available to his clients and photographed in his courtyard. Here, two young women show off their urban- casual chic style. Modernity is accentuated by the absence of a patterned backdrop, the photographer preferring the raw appearance of the banco wall, the traditional mudbrick construction material used in Mali.

Untitled (1953/1957) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Keïta remembered these two majestic ladies, dressed in identical boubou robes, the patterns of which merged harmoniously with those of the backdrop. They were co-wives, and the photographer has carefully devised the placement of the hands and arms, a skill at which he excelled, to signify this relationship. They were also famous in Bamako as leaders of neighborhood associations.

Untitled (1958/1959) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

This young woman’s style displays a particularly “Western” elegance. Keïta always said he had no masters and never consulted photography books. He has nonetheless been compared here to one of his contemporaries, photographer Richard Avedon (1923–2004).

Untitled (1952/1955) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

A young woman with a distinctly modern look, and one of the few clients of the Keïta studio to show cleavage. Various events at the time were advancing women’s liberation, such as the first girls’ high school opening in Bamako, and women being granted the right to vote in 1951.

Untitled (1948/1954) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

“I would pose these ladies and then spread out the dress. Sometimes they came with several different outfits that might inspire the pose I gave them.”

Untitled (1952/1955) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Young people in front of the camera

Untitled (1948/1954) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Keïta’s young urban clients appreciated his clear prints, their high quality all the more remarkable because he only did one take per photograph. The young woman wears a camisole with ruffles adorned with English lace and a beautiful necklace made of Bakelite, a studio accessory. Her hairstyle, known as “portmanteau” consists of braids codified according to ethnic affiliation (here, Bambara) or according to the stages of a woman’s life. Her companion has gone for a Western “sport” look. He may have bought the outfit in a thrift shop that sold second-hand clothes imported from Europe.

Untitled (1952/1955) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Two young couples who are friends, in their Sunday best. The women are wearing the same cotton print dress. Women friends and members of the same family often had identical clothing made to indicate their bond.

Untitled (1959/1960) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Two couples of in-fashion urbanites, immortalized by Keïta under artificial lighting. The photographer said a lot of young people liked it because it made faces appear lighter.

Untitled (1953/1957) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Young couple dressed in traditional garb. Decolonization is already at work in the French Sudan, but the colonial helmet is still in fashion.

Untitled (1954/1960) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Seydou Keita has staged a very theatrical pose for this very chic young couple dressed in Western style. They have perhaps come to be photographed before going out to a soirée, of which there were more and more in Bamako.

“Young people in Bamako got together in clubs. The clubs’ names were borrowed from their showbusiness idols: the Spoutniks, Chats sauvages, Beatles, Chaussettes Noires, or from the Cinémonde weekly that came from France. The groupe des As, the Aces group, came from there. All big bosses! There were a multitude of clubs. The names of the clubs could change depending on the fashion and music of the moment.”

Malick Sidibé in André Magnin, Malick Sidibé (Zurich: Scalo, 1998), 36.

Untitled (1959) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Seydou Keïta with his second wife, Mariame Sy. They married in Bougouni, a town southeast of Bamako, to which he had driven in his Simca Versailles. The photographer loved cars and was one of few Bamako residents who could buy one new, thanks to the income he got from his studio. It was on this occasion that Malick Sidibé, another Malian photographer who became famous, met his elder Keïta for the first time. Keïta had six wives in all and twenty-one children.

Untitled (1958/1959) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

This famous photo by Keïta, dubbed “the man with the flower”, was often wrongly seen as a self-portrait. Keïta, who most often did not recall the names of his clients, did remember this young man, Mr. Sissoko. White jacket, tie, glasses (without lenses), pen, and flower were among the accessories the studio provided. The Western elegance illustrated here was the style
of young urban civil servants working for the colonial administration.

Untitled (1952/1955) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

This well-known accordionist performed at many neighborhood dances. In Bamako, there were many occasions to dance, organized by both the colonial community and the African elite. In the working-class districts they had “bals poussières,” or balani, street dances where young people danced until dawn.

Untitled (1950/1951) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Seydou Keïta came out of his studio to capture this group of boxers pretending to fight, with and without gloves. French Sudan had many sports clubs. At first encouraged by the colonial powers, they began to proliferate in 1946, when the discriminatory laws of the code de l’indigénat were abolished, and citizens were again allowed to mingle freely.

Untitled (1952/1955) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Seydou Keïta was much admired for the modern style of his photographs, an effect created largely with clothing, poses, expressions, and accessories: belts, cigarette holder, watches, hats, etc. These three “casual” young men are wearing Western dress. They are probably inspired by actors seen in French or American B-movies, which were shown at the Rex or Soudan Cinema, not far from the Keïta studio. The Franco-American actor Eddie Constantine, who played FBI agent Lemmy Caution on the screen, was often imitated by the young men of Bamako.

Untitled (1952/1955) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Three young soldiers skillfully posed by Seydou Keïta. They belong to the marine forces that have been part of the French colonial troops since 1900 and fought for France in both World Wars.

Untitled (1953/1957) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Family portraits

Untitled (1952/1955) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

This young mother is wearing a camisole dress made of wax, a fabric inspired by Javanese batiks. Imported from Europe and found all over West Africa, it comes in an infinite variety of colors and patterns that convey all sorts of social, historical, or emotional messages. The very popular wax in this photo is called “the eye of my rival” or “the eye of my co-wife dark with jealousy.”

Untitled (1948/1954) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

This little Bamako boy, dressed like a Parisian child with a Basque beret on his head, is proudly posing with his bicycle, which he has brought along for the photo. African schoolchildren in the French colonies learned to recite in history class “our ancestors the Gauls.” And indigenous elected officials insisted on having the same textbooks as in France.

Untitled (1954/1960) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Colonial civil servant surrounded by his family. Their serious expressions reveal the apprehension that many clients still feel facing the camera. The wife wears a headscarf—called Moussoro in Bambara, probably derived from mouchoir, the French word for handkerchief—that traditionally takes a prominent role in Malian women’s dress, even before the arrival of Islam. The scarf has long marked the difference between girls and married women. Depending on how it is tied—and there are more than one hundred ways—it takes on many meanings, in addition to being a means of seduction and a sign of elegance. “My husband is capable” is one of the most popular ties.

Untitled (1953/1957) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Imposing patriarch wearing a “grand boubou,” traditional robe, surrounded by his children.

“To be photographed was a major event. You had to make sure you gave the person the best possible image. Often they looked serious, but I think it was also because they were intimidated by the camera, it was a novelty. I would tell them to be less tense. ‘All right, look this way, try to smile, not too much.’ At the end, they were pleased. It wasn’t supposed to take more than ten minutes.”

Seydou Keïta in André Magnin, Seydou Keïta (Zurich: Scalo 1997), 11.

Untitled (1954/1960) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Two Bamako high society ladies dressed in voluminous camisoles and a little girl pose in front of Seydou Keïta’s gleaming Peugeot 203. A car enthusiast, he was one of the few Bamako citizens who could afford to buy a new one with the income from his studio. He later acquired a Simca Versailles. The male figure on the right, cut from the photo, adds a touch of mystery. As for the photographer, he and his camera are clearly visible in the reflection on the Peugeot’s right front fender.

Untitled (1953/1957) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Twin girls in their Western dress Sunday best.
Babies are baptized on the seventh day after their birth and their head is shaved for the first time. On the fortieth day, their hair is styled to indicate their clan. But here the two babies are wearing synthetic wool bonnets.

Untitled (1953/1957) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

“Group of children. The smallest girl is in a tub with cloth wrapped around her, as mothers would do in the past when they were busy working and put their babies in calabashes. Note the jewels and the camisole worn by the girl on the right, as well as the hair across the forehead of the boy standing next to her.”

Youssouf Tata Cissé in André Magnin, Seydou Keïta (Zurich: Scalo, 1997), 281

Self-portrait (1955) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Chronology

Untitled (1948/1954) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Circa 1921 Birth of Seydou Keïta in Bamako, the capital of French Sudan. His ancestors were members of the same clan as Soundyata Keïta, founder of the Mali Empire in the 13th century.

1928 At the age of seven, Keïta, who did not go to school, becomes an apprentice carpenter to his father.

1935 He develops an interest in photography after his uncle gives him a Kodak Brownie, which he bought on a trip to Senegal. Keïta will become passionate about photography.

1939 Keïta teaches himself how to use a camera and works as both a photographer and a carpenter. He had his films developed at the Sudanese Photo Hall, the first camera equipment shop in Bamako, opened by a Frenchman, Pierre Garnier, who gave him a few tips on technique.

Untitled (1948/1954) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Circa 1945 He buys a folding view camera and masters printing with help from photographer and teacher Mountaga Dembélé.

1948 Keïta marries his first wife Nassira Soucko. He goes on to have six wives and twenty-one children.

1948 When he opens his studio in the lively new neighbourhood of Bamako-Coura, Keïta is an instant success, especially with a younger, more liberated clientele.

22 September 1960 French Sudan gains its independence and becomes the Republic of Mali. The socialist Modibo Keïta is elected president.

1962 Appointed the government’s official photographer, Keïta closes his studio.

Untitled (1948/1954) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

1977 After he retires, Keïta devotes his time to one of his passions: mechanics.

1991 Keïta’s work gains recognition in the West. His negatives are mostly well-conserved.

Oct./Nov. 1994 His first solo exhibition at the Cartier Foundation in Paris presents his modern prints. It travels to several countries

Dec. 1994 The first Recontres de la Photographie is held in Bamako. The event paid tribute to Malian photogaphers Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé.

Untitled (1952/1955) by Seydou KeïtaContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

1997 The first monograph of Keïta’s work is published by Scalo. He visits New York for an exhibition of his work at the Gagosian gallery.

Studio photo session in Paris for the 50th anniversary of department store Tati. The photographs are presented the following year at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.

1998 Photo session in Bamako for Harper’s Bazaar.

2001 Death in Paris.

2016 First broad retrospective exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris.

Seydou Keïta in New York (1997) by Jean PigozziContemporary African Art Collection - The Jean Pigozzi Collection

Seydou Keïta in New York in front of one of his prints. He had travelled there to attend the opening of his show at the Gagosian Gallery in 1997, which showed for the first time modern prints in a 120 x 180 cm format.

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