Seydou Keïta

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July 22, 2003
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Picturing Mali

Seydou Keïta was born in 1921 in Bamako, the capital of Mali in West Africa. He has become known as one of the most prolific and inventive portrait photographers in colonial and post-colonial Mali. His works, which number in the ten-thousands, present a historic slice of the burgeoning bourgeoisie and are at the same time exquisitely composed inventions of the sitter’s desired individualities. Seydou Keïta passed away in 2001.
Originally working in his father’s wood workshop, Seydou Keïta received his first camera, a Kodak Brownie, when he was about twelve years old, and began taking photographs without any formal education. Having trained himself in everything, from taking pictures to developing, he opened a studio for portrait photography in Bamako in 1948 and became one of the most prolific and inventive photographers in Mali. In 1962, two years after Mali’s independence from France, the then socialist government under president Modibo Keïta, a relative of Seydou, asked Keïta to become the official government photographer of Mali, and in 1963 he closed his studio to work exclusively for the government. He retired from that position in 1977 and stopped working as a portrait photographer after that time. Shot exclusively in black and white and usually printed as contact prints from the negatives, his photographs were first enlarged only for the exhibitions that occurred late in his life. His works were first exhibited in a small group exhibition at the African Arts Centre in New York in 1991, and in 1993 the French curator André Magnin visited Keïta in Mali and began exhibiting his work abroad and securing and archiving the negatives. Since then, Keïta’s photographs have been presented in many countries internationally and have entered public and private collections both in Africa and elsewhere.

Keïta’s portraits were commissioned by the sitters. Numbering in the tens of thousands by the time Keïta closed his studio in 1963, they document the vital period of modernization and independence in Mali and thus cast a unique light onto the sociological development of Mali’s burgeoning middle class. They trace the gradual change in dress from traditional, multicolored and lavishly ornamented dresses in the early photographs to sleek and hypermodern Western suits and dresses worn by some in later images. But they defy a simple documentary approach, as they are as constructed as they are indicative of a time and place. The role of a portrait photographer is to “make the sitter look beautiful,” and Keïta had a broad array of dresses, costumes, props, and accessories to make everyone look their best. Bicycles and scooters, glasses and watches, pens and flowers all enabled the sitters to imagine and construct a persona they would become for the duration of the shoot and then remain for the rest of their lives in the photograph.

It was Keïta’s talent in staging his sitters, as much as his photographic skills, that made him one of the most popular portraitists in Bamako, and the striking quality of his photographs attests to that. Keïta placed his subjects against a simple fabric backdrop (which changed every few years and now is one of the main clues in dating the individual images), and let them acquire a pose they thought would be most advantageous. Some women lay relaxed on a chaise longue, while others are portrayed close up, in semi-profile or seated at a café house table, as if they were modern city dwellers. Men are shown on a Vespa, on a bicycle, or with a radio in their hands in order to show off their modern possessions. Some portraits also display the entire family, standing in a row or seated in a semi-circle, as a modest memory or to be sent to relatives far away. Almost all of his subject’s have an air of proud austerity, and seem effortlessly at home both in traditional African dresses and settings and in Westernized clothes and modern technologies.

One of his most iconic photographs, taken in the late 1950s, shows a young man with heavy-rimmed glasses holding a flower in his left hand. He is wearing an elegant white Western suit, complete with shirt, tie, wristwatch and fountain pen. The image speaks of the sitter’s pride and sensibility, presenting him both as keenly aware of the most modern fashion and of the intellectual delectations of the moment. Looking at Keïta’s photography today, it characterizes the time and atmosphere briefly before the country’s independence, a time with was laden with expectation, possibilities, and dreams. His work also conveys a good sense of how to bring together the past and the future.
Author: Christian Rattemeyer


Born in Bamako, Mali
Resided in Bamako, Mali


Selected Group Exhibitions

Exhibition / Installation,
2002 Portraits of Pride – Seydou Keïta, Malick Sidibé and Samuel Fosso, Galleri Enkehuset, Stockholm The Short Century: Liberation and Independence Movements in Africa, 1945-1994, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City, NY You Look Beautiful Like That: The Portrait Photographs of Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, UCLA Armand Hammer Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California 2001 You Look Beautiful Like That: The Portrait Photographs of Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, The Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, MA XVI International Video and Multimedia Arts Festival, Musée d’art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris, France 2000 Africa: Past-Present: Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keita, P.K. Apagya, Depara, C.A. Azaglo and Ojeikere, Fifty One Fine Art Photography, Antwerp, Belgium 1999 L’Afrique Independente, Partobject Gallery, Carrboro, North Carolina 1998 Roteiros, Roteiros, Roteiros, Roteiros, Roteiros, XXIV Bienal de São Paolo, São Paolo, Brazil 1997 Seydou Keïta and Malik Sidibé, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland Trade Routes: History and Geography: 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, Johannesburg, South Africa 1996 In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1995 Big City Artists from Africa, Serpentine Gallery, London Counter Cultures: Photography and Image Formation in a Multicultural Society, The Netherlands Photography Institute, Rotterdam, The Netherlands Self Evident, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, England. Rimes et regards, Espace Alain Affelou, Paris, France 1994 Premières Rencontres de la Photographie Africainne, Bamako, Mali 1993 24th Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie, Arles, France Images of Africa, Copenhagen, Denmark

Selected Solo Exhibitions

Exhibition / Installation,
2001 Seydou Keïta, Sean Kelly Gallery, New York Seydou Keïta: Portraits from Mali, Presentation House Gallery, North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada 1996 Seydou Keïta, photographer: Portraits from Bamako, Mali. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. 1995 Seydou Keïta, Centre Nationale de la Photographie, Paris, France 1994 Seydou Keïta: Portraits de 1949 à 1964, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, France


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.

The Short Century

Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa

(18 May 01 - 29 July 01)