Third World Eye
Seydou Keïta @ MOCA

On the map of Africa, Mali looks like a fallen kite, with a crumpled edge to the south where
it crashes into the Niger River. Mostly desert, its upper, mathematically straight borders
form a right angle in the middle of the Sahara. Mali declared its independence in 1960
after sixty-two years as the French Sudan, but long before that it was the land where the
fabled Timbuktu offered gold to weary caravansaries and, perched on the cliffs of the
Bandiagara Escarpment, the Dogon people made (and still make) some of the most eerily
beautiful ritual sculpture on the planet.

It’s far from the beaten track from nearly any point of view, but especially in art world
terms. An appreciation of third world cultures as something other than a subject for
anthropological study more or less stalled, early in the last century. In a creative reprise of
colonialist expansion Modernist appropriators made what they could of Dogon and other
(originally sacred) tribal manners and techniques. But it’s only in the past twenty years or
so that art historians, cultural theorists and, following in their wake, collectors, museums,
and commercial galleries have begun to redraw the map of art to seriously include
cultures beyond the familiar Western neighborhood.

The Malian photographer Seydou Keïta first gained recognition outside his native country
in a show titled Africa Explores at the Center for African Art in New York in 1991. Keïta was
a commercial photographer who worked for several decades in a small shop in Mali’s
capital city Bamako. Born around 1923, the largely self-taught photographer also
received some hands-on training and advice from Mali’s pioneering portrait
photographers Pierre Garnier and Mountaga Dembélé before opening his own studio in
1948. Soon it became fashionable in Bamako to pose for Keïta. It was a period of rapid
change in Mali, with agricultural populations emigrating en masse to the capital; there was
a demand for photos that could be sent home to relatives who remained in outlying
regions. They wanted to look up-to-date, moderne, and of course successful, so they
posed in their best clothes, sometimes with a Western, Parisian touch – a wristwatch, a
radio. Keïta photographed thousands of clients, filing the negatives according to pose and
gender. At first his subjects always stood or sat before a light colored tapestry (said to be
the photographer’s bedspread) out in the open air. Later he acquired several five
hundred watt bulbs and sometimes shot indoors. The work with which we are familiar
ended in 1962, when Keita was named official photographer for the Department of the
Interior under Mali’s new government. The photographs he took in that capacity remain
government property.

The seventeen black and white portraits on view at MOCA were taken between 1945 and
1960. These aren’t the album-sized and pocket-sized prints that Keïta produced in his
own dark room. The silver gelatin versions presented were made for inclusion in a
contemporary high-end gallery context – and of course for sale in a high-end western art
market; prices at a 1997 Gagosian Gallery showing of Keïta’s photos ran as high as
$20,000. At MOCA, some images are a relatively modest 24”/20”, while others are
positively majestic, running up to 66”/48. The photographer himself died in 2001, and all
the Keïta prints for sale at Sean Kelly Gallery, which now represents the Seydou Keïta
Association in New York and which supplied the works on view, were in fact produced with
the photographer’s consent by Charles Griffin, the world famous printer for the likes of
Cindy Sherman and Hiroshi Sugimoto. But this followed on a period of bitter controversy
between Keïta and the associates of the French collector Jean Pigozzi, who was the first
to champion the African photographer. Pigozzi originally engaged the printer Andre
Magnin to make the three prints exhibited in Africa Explores, later producing the much
larger versions seen at the Gagosian show. Disputes at that time centered around
allegations of forged signatures and the production of prints without the artist’s consent.

But leaving such issues to one side, the works – the eye and the hand and the life
indispensable to the creation of the images we see -- are indisputably Keïta’s, and the
power of his portraits is undeniable. Their formal sophistication is such that, from the
moment the photographs became known to Western critics, they elicited comparisons to
great European and American portraitists of the same period – Irving Penn, Hans Namuth,
Diane Arbus. Besides an acute eye for tonal values and dynamic composition, Keïto
shares with such canonical westerners an ability to convey penetrating psychological
nuances. His people seem almost to speak, confronting the viewer with a restrained
boldness that demands not only respect, but engagement. Whether it’s the theatrical
panache of their clothing or the subtle inflections readable in their facial expressions, they
seem very modern – contemporary, with thoughts and experiences at the tip of the mind
that might easily enrich our own; like friends, or at least peers.

Untitled #419 (1955-60) shows an attractive young couple standing together, their arms
clasped along the top of a large vintage radio. The woman is on our left and looks directly
at us – at Keïta, boldly, with a touch of defiance. We know what the photographer must
have looked like because a self portrait from around the same time is included in the
show: a slim, sensitive looking young man with gentle eyes and a long, shy smile. Her
bandana sits across her brow with an aplomb worthy of a major couturier; the end where it’
s tied on one side thrusts gently out like a leaf or an antelope’s ear, reaching across the
narrow space between them and just touching the hard edge of her partners long, stern
profile. His hand reaches around her back and rests on her shoulder. His white collar
spreads out across the lapels of his pale sports jacket. He wears a wrist watch, she wears
a wedding ring.

It remains to be seen what Keïta’s eventual ranking will be among the great portraitists (he
has been compared even to Rembrandt, and I’d say there’s a Goya-like glow to his best
work) in the annals of visual art. Perhaps his star will continue to rise, or it may be
eclipsed for a time by controversy. Either way, the sheer intelligence of his faces and worn
hands, the short, deep gaze and fluent expressions of gesture and pattern that make
Keïta’s photographs so engrossing, should continue to move new audiences.

[Free Times 3/7/07]