* Featured in African Portraits, 6 October - 19th November 2016
*Online preview here
Born in 1921, initially,
Seydou Keïta trained as a carpenter and by the age of
ten, he was working with his uncle as a furniture maker. In
1935, his uncle went on a trip to Senegal and returned with
a camera. Having been given the camera by his uncle, Keïta
decided he wanted to become a photographer. For the next 10
years he worked both as a photographer and a carpenter.
by taking pictures of his family, but he would walk in the
street with his camera and often be stopped and asked to take
people’s portraits. News of his work reached Mountaga,
a successful photographer in the next town and, having learnt
to develop and print his own work, Keïta would travel
to Mountaga’s house every evening to use his dark room.
Keïta’s father gave him some land with a house,
‘behind the main prison’ and Keïta opened
his own studio. There were several other photographers working
in there in Bamako at that time, but Keïta was considered
to be the best. The location of his studio, next to the central
station with people converging from the Ivory Coast, Burkina
Faso and the Niger, also helped to attract many customers.
the elite in Bamako came to be photographed by me: government
workers, shop owners, politicians. Everyone passed through
my studio at one time or another.”
of the men living and working in the city were being influenced
by European culture and liked to have their photographs taken
wearing stylish and fashionable clothes. However, clothing
styles for women were still traditional and they often wore
impressive rings, hair ornaments and bracelets or elaborate
make-up. It was very important to show off external signs
of wealth, beauty and elegance, and Keïta had to find
appropriate positions that they liked. Having your photo taken
was an important event. The person had to be made to look
his or her best.
1949 and 1952, I used my fringed bedspread as my first backdrop.
Then I changed the background every 2 or 3 years. That’s
how I remember more or less the dates of the shots.”
continued as a private portrait photographer until 1962 when,
just after independence, he was asked to be the official photographer
for the Malian government. It was considered prestigious to
be asked to work as a government employee but Keïta wanted
to keep working in his studio. So he kept it open after office
hours until 1963 when the government asked him to close it
down completely. He should then concentrate on his role as
the official photographer for Mali, a position he held until
his retirement in 1977.
work has been exhibited outside Africa since he was ‘discovered’
by Andre Magnin in 1991, with exhibitions throughout Europe,
Japan and the United States. As such he enjoyed a great measure
of international success and recognition in laterlife, and
continues to be celebrated and exhibited since his death in
2001.His latest public solo exhibition was at the Grand Palais, Paris in 2016:
"Seydou Keïta’s photographs always tell a story: the one of a country, a society, a couple or a family. In his studio, from 1948 to 1962, Malians posed in front of his camera. For the purpose of making his models freeze, the photographer had a magical formula: "I KA NYÈ TAN" (you're beautiful like that). These are the photographs displayed by Le Grand Palais in this exceptional retrospective exhibition"
There are many wonderful films about this exhibition, and of Seydou himself, on the YouTube channel for the Grand Palais, which you can access here
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