Sidibé captures ’60s Malian new Africanism in Loeb exhibit

The “Chemises” photography exhibit explores ‘new Africanism’ through the intersections of fashion, tradition and modernity in 1960s Mali. The portraits will be on display at the Loeb until March 30. Photo By: Jennifer Davis
The “Chemises” photography exhibit explores ‘new Africanism’ through the intersections of fashion, tradition and modernity in 1960s Mali. The portraits will be on display at the Loeb until March 30. Photo By: Jennifer Davis
The “Chemises” photography exhibit explores ‘new Africanism’ through the intersections of fashion,
tradition and modernity in 1960s Mali. The portraits will be on display at the Loeb until March 30. Photo By: Jennifer Davis

Entering the exhibition space at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center (FLLAC), the viewer immediately confronts a wall teeming with photographs encased in a variety of painted frames that shimmer from the stark white walls. The viewer then begins to notice the black and white portraits that line the side walls of the exhibition. This installation, titled “Malick Sidibé: Chemises,” showcases photographs of people of Malí from 1950-the mid-1970s. The Lombino’s work on this specific exhibition began three or four years ago with the purchase of two pieces by Malick Sidibé in 2011. “It has been an interest of mine for a long time, but deciding what aspect of African photography that I wanted to highlight took a while,” said Lombino. “Once we acquired those two works in 2011 it became clear that that might be something that would appeal to Vassar students and the community here for a number of reasons. Much of it has to do with the sort of party pictures and the capturing of the youth photos.”

From the party culture to the academic sphere, Lombino’s exhibition spoke to many groups on campus. “I knew that because of our Africana Studies program here, which is so strong and has been here for so long, and because of some of the other departments I knew had an interest in African artists and African American artists that there would be a lot of faculty interest,” said Lombino. Last year we purchased works by Zanele Muholi, she did a wonderful series titled ‘Faces and Phases’ which are a series of photographs of lesbian women throughout South Africa.”

Sidibé is a photographer from Malí who grew up as a farmer. After receiving schooling and art training, he worked in a photography studio and was eventually able to purchase his own camera and began to photograph the people of Malí and the parties they attended. The pieces in the exhibit follow the liberation of Malí from the French. The photographs depict Malían people in a mixture of Western fashion, such as bellbottom pants, as well as traditional African patterns and accessories. In some scenes couples ride on motorcycles. In others, groups act out scenes like the sport of boxing.

Lombino commented on the fashion and objects within the photos. He said, “It may be a matter of semantics, but I do not think the people in the photographs thought of themselves as being Western. I think they thought of themselves as being cosmopolitan and modern… Because this was shortly after they gained their independence in Malí and they had recently been freed from the colonial structure, they might not have wanted to be more Western. They might have just wanted to be understood as modern. While we as Westerners will recognize these as influences from our own culture, I think they thought of it as the new African.”

In the fall of 2013, Dan Leers, an independent curator based in New York City, joined Vassar’s Art History Department. His focus is in Contemporary African Art, which led him to Malí where he became personally acquainted with Sidibé.

Leers wrote in an emailed response, “I first met Sidibé in 2007 while living and working in Bamako…Sidibé takes his job very seriously and is quite demanding in a portrait session. He instructs his sitters to pose in a number of different ways…and also has them try on new clothes and hold different props. There is not a lot of dialogue as Sidibé intently looks through the camera, giving direct instructions and waiting for the right moment to snap the photo. There are moments of levity… Sidibé will crack a joke to make you smile or have you turn your back to the camera. He is a very open and generous man. I think that openness come[s] across in his portraits. Any good portrait session is a successful collaboration between the photographer and the sitter… Sidibé is a master of balancing of his own artistic voice with the identity of his subject.”

“Malick Sidibé: Chemises” is another way in which the FLLAC is bringing diversity to campus through the instruction and articulation of this cultural period in West Africa. This particular show also found a place on campus among the ModFest activities. “It speaks to an interest in fashion and music and modernity [and] is perfect for Modfest this year. We were really excited to have that synergy this year,” said Lombino. Among these events, Michelle Lamurière ’88 held a lecture on January 24th to inaugurate the opening of the gallery. There was also a film screening of the documentary on Malick Sidibé’s life and work, “Dolce vita africana” (2008) on Sunday Jan. 26. The gallery will be the focus of an Artful Dodger at the Loeb on Feb. 6 at 5 p.m., as well as a gallery talk by the curator on February 26 at 4 p.m.

Ryan Holguin ’17, who attended the lecture and opening said, “I thought it gave a new perspective on posed photography, which was rarer in that time due to different subjects of photography emerging.”

This response to the exhibit was echoed in Leers’ emailed response. He said, “As for the exhibition at the Loeb, I think it is a fantastic opportunity to have it here at the Vassar campus. It coincides nicely with the African art history class I am currently teaching. It also exposes students and faculty to work from a region they probably are not used to seeing. In fact, I have noticed a recent trend in the art world to expand the canon of modern art and explore art-making in places outside of Europe and the U.S. By hosting this exhibition, the Loeb is placing itself at the forefront of this broadening of the artistic scope.”

This exploration into other realms of modern art and the art of cultures across the globe is one that Lombino has been eager to continue. “It is an interest of mine to make our collection more diverse, to encompass more continents, and non-western work,” Lombino said. “Buying these works by African photographers is one of the ways in which I am fulfilling that need…in our collection.”

The show is on display through March 30.

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