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* 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.

He began 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.

In 1948, 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.

“All 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.”

Many 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.

“Between 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.”

Keïta 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.

Keïta’s 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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