West African studio photography has a look and feel specific to the country. With its depiction of vibrant costumes, the varying swagger and intimacy of its sitters, the imagery could come from nowhere else.
The best of it, made by such masters as Seydou Keita, Malick Sidibe, and Hamidou Maiga elevates the work beyond its original use and intention. With the death of Sidibe in April, Hamidou Maiga (born 1932 in Burkina Faso and now based in Bamako, Mali) is the last of the greats. His work is now regarded, along with much African photography from the 1950s to 1970s period, as increasingly important. For all their artfulness and talent, their primary intention was not to create art, but simply to record their subjects. In any case, these precious photographs capture a time and geography that has since disappeared.
At first glance, his photography resembles 19th century portraiture deriving from the Colonial era, but on closer examination it is vastly different. What makes these works so special is that they capture people coming of age. They record, through specific characters in Western or African dress, Mali’s independence movement. The work exudes this optimism and excitement.
Maiga first picked up a camera in the late 50s when he began travelling to the villages and towns around the Niger River. Often his subjects had never been photographed before. The work from this period has a contrasting feeling of both formality and informality, with a casual playfulness derived from the sitter and the improvised backdrop. The more serious element comes of course from the fact that taking photographs and indeed sitting for a portrait was a rare and special event.
Jack Bell, the London-based art dealer who has made contemporary African art his specialty, has played a pivotal role in bringing Maiga’s work to wider attention. ‘I was travelling in Mali in 2009 looking at art and doing studio visits. When I was in Timbuktu I came across Hamidou’s work. I then went to Bamako to visit him. I saw this amazing body of work that hadn’t been seen. It was a really exciting moment. Things just kind of developed from there. It’s been an amazing journey for the artist and one I have been able to witness.’
‘La ruta del Níger: de Mopti a Tombuctu’, which closed at MATE on October 2nd was the first exhibition in Latin America to examine his work. The catalogue of the show, the third in MATE’s ‘Masters of Photography’ series will become available this week. Of Maiga, Mario Testino says, ‘I am always fascinated by anyone that can make me learn something, and if it’s about photography even better. Hamidou introduced to me a society of people through his portraits that had been unknown to me. And through his work I now feel I know them a little. That’s the best kind of photograph. In them I see a sense of contemplation.’
Mario Testino’s museum MATE was a fitting home for an exhibition like this one, connecting as it does to indigenous ethnographic art and costume, with traditional photography. Fashion is an essential ingredient in Hamidou Maiga’s work, through not only the patterns but also the colours of the West African textiles, depicted in monochrome. These black and white images invite us to witness a chapter of African history.
Hamidou Maiga’s catalogue is available for viewing here.
Photographs © Hamidou Maiga