Malian Photographer’s Story Debuts in US

The director of the documentary about Malick Sidibé talks to us about the artist's influential work.

Portrait d une Femme Attougee, 1969, by Malick Sidibé, courtesy of the New York African Film Festival

(The Root) — While many photography fans are familiar with images of sharply dressed Malians during the 1960s and 1970s, casual art lovers might not know about the man behind the lens, Malick Sidibé. However, this will change when a documentary about Sidibé’s life and work — Dolce Vita Africana, released originally in 2008 — debuts stateside during the New York African Film Festival at Lincoln Center.

Born in Mali in 1936, Sidibé attended the School for Sudanese Arts, now called the National Institute of Art, graduating in 1955. Later he held an apprenticeship with French photographer Gérard Guillat and began taking portraits. He eventually opened his own shop, Studio Malick in Bamako, Mali, during the 1960s. There he documented his country’s culture by photographing social events and portraits. Sidibé’s first major international retrospective was held in Paris in 1995 at the Fondation Cartier, and since then his work has been shown around the world in major art museums and galleries.

Dolce Vita Africana, helmed by London-based director Cosima Spender, presents how Sidibé captured the height of his country’s postcolonial society through dance parties and youth culture. And although his work has influenced American sartorial photography, Spender tells The Root that Sidibé’s photos most importantly reflect how much Mali’s culture of tolerance has shifted under contemporary Islamist law.

The Root: What drew you to Malick Sidibé’s story?

Cosima Spender: I’d been traveling to Mali since 1996 at least once every two years with ethnomusicologists to do research as an assistant for a documentary on a local musician called Toumani Diabate. One of the documentary’s scenes was shot at Malick’s photo studio because he’s such a big figure in Bamako, Mali’s capital city.

When I met Malick he was incredible, and I thought I should make a film about him because I’ve always loved his photographs. After I found funding through the BBC as well as French and Swedish donors, we began filming about a year and a half later.

TR: What was most surprising about making Dolce Vita Africana?

CS: I thought I was making a film about Malick’s past, but I ended up also making a film about Mali’s present at that time in 2008. Looking back, you notice how the country’s changed from the 1960s until today. For instance, back then Malick was able to take photos of women topless by the river at Sotuba Beach, which we return to in the film. But when I filmed there in 2008, women certainly were not going topless, so you see that in the 1960s, Mali was a much more open society than in 2008.

And since I filmed my documentary, fundamentalist Islamic practices have become more pervasive. Now al-Qaida is in Mali and wrecking the country, but in 2008 they were already infiltrating and putting pressure on citizens to embrace a more fundamental side of Islam, mostly in the north. I could see the change from my first trip to Mali in 1996, 12 years before I made the film. In the 1960s, the country was even more liberal, and Malians were dressing in Western clothes and listening to Cuban music. Now it’s a very different situation.

Nuit de Noel, 1963, by Malick Sidibé, courtesy of the New York African Film Festival