(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
But now you can't have parties, and it's not the Malians — it's people coming into Mali and imposing, like al-Qaida. They're cutting the hands off of musicians and other terrible things, and slowly, that's spreading toward the capital. Now is a really difficult time for Mali, and my heart sinks at the thought.
TR: I noticed you only interviewed men, with the exception of one man's wife. Was it tough to find the people Sidibé shot in the 1960s and 1970s?
CS: Yes, through photographs, I wanted to show Mali's postcolonial history by reconnecting Malick with some of the characters in his pictures who are interviewed in the film. We were looking back at photos of topless women and people having kind of a Western fun by going to discos and dancing in the spirit of the 1960s and 1970s. But the women didn't want to be interviewed because now they must wear a veil.
TR: What did you learn about relationships in Mali through your documentary?
CS: Dolce made me see a new perspective, like how a man can have four wives and present it all openly. I felt very nonjudgmental while filming because Malick seemed like a great man, full of compassion and generosity.
He was explaining that he had taken these wives because he was helping them financially, giving them a sense of security and trying to be very fair, though to us, polygamy was just extraordinary. The whole idea was totally different — he had 15 children and, like, 60 grandchildren, so that's a huge extended family.
TR: What do you hope the viewers take away from Dolce Vita Africana, since it is being screened for the first time in America?
CS: I hope they take away what has happened in Mali since the French left in 1960, as well as the sense of history and how things have changed. If you listen to the film's soundtrack, you realize the society was really looking west in the 1960s and 1970s, but in the 1980s and 1990s it began looking toward Arab societies, and it made me wonder why.
When I went into Mali in 1996 as a young student, I was surprised by how tolerant an Islamic society it was. It was about social responsibility and helping extending families, but when I returned in 2008, it was slowly becoming less about tolerance and social obligation and social responsibility and more about respecting certain laws, just in the space of 10 years. But I love how art can show you so much about a society through its traditions. Malick's photographs, the music of the time and the people's customs from the '60s to the present day all show the journey of the country and what it has experienced.
Dolce Vita Africana premieres on April 4 at 6 p.m. at the 20th New York African Film Festival and will be shown again on April 9. For a complete festival schedule, click here.
Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.