Portrait of a Lady
A photographer working in a commercial studio in West Africa in the 20th century had a straightforward task: to please his clients. In that sense, the Malian photographer Seydou Keïta was — like his father, who worked as a blacksmith, carpenter, mechanic and electrician, among other jobs — a craftsman. He was paid by the public to make pictures. But like his esteemed Malian compatriot Malick Sidibé, Mama Casset of Senegal and Joseph Moise Agbodjelou of Benin, he produced such fine work that we now consider him a great African artist. These master photographers gave us panoramas of life in Bamako, Dakar and Porto-Novo, a vivid record of individual people, largely shorn of their names and stories but irrepressibly alive. Here are good clothes gracefully cut, glowing skin, beautifully coifed hair, polished shoes: all the familiar markers of a person taking pride in his or her appearance. Here’s someone who looks witty, here’s another who looks querulous, another who’s modest, or vain, or sweet. There we see a renegade bra strap slipping off a shoulder, there a large laughing man with a baby, a woman in a bathing suit, youths partying at night with their Afros, bell-bottoms, precious LPs and endless reserves of cool.
These photographs are ripostes to the anthropological images of ‘‘natives’’ made by Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Those photographs, in which the subjects had no say in how they were seen, did much to shape the Western world’s idea of Africans. Something changed when Africans began to take photographs of one another: You can see it in the way they look at the camera, in the poses, the attitude. The difference between the images taken by colonialists or white adventurers and those made for the sitter’s personal use is especially striking in photographs of women. In the former, women are being looked at against their will, captive to a controlling gaze. In the latter, they look at themselves as in a mirror, an activity that always involves seriousness, levity and an element of wonder.
A portrait of this kind is a visual soliloquy. Consider, for instance, one of Keïta’s most famous pictures, now called the Odalisque. A woman reclines in a long dress with fine floral patterning on a bed with a checked bedspread. Her head scarf is polka-dotted. The bed is placed in front of a wall, which is draped with a paisley cloth. And even her face is marked with cicatrices. Then we notice, emerging from this swirling field — a profusion of pattern that brings to mind Matisse at his most inventive — her delicate hands and feet, dark but subtly shaded; the right arm on which she rests her head; her narrowed eyes. Her look is self-possessed rather than seductive. She’s looking ahead but not at the camera. It is the look of someone who is thinking about herself, simultaneously outward and inward. The image challenges and delights the viewer with its complicated two-dimensional game.
Keïta’s and Sidibé’s oeuvres make me think of August Sander’s record of German people in their various occupations in the years between the World Wars, or of Mike Disfarmer’s thousands of portraits taken in Heber Springs, Ark.: faces peering out of the past, unknown to us but as expressive and intense as those we love. Keïta was not directly influenced by these photographers, nor by any of the conventions of photography in the West. In an interview he gave the French gallerist André Magnin in the mid-’90s, he said: ‘‘I’ve heard that in your country you have old photographs that are like mine. Well, I’ve never met any foreign photographers, nor seen their photos.’’ By his own account, he was an original. Looking at the body of his work, we become conscious of implied community, customs and connections, a world that is perhaps now irretrievable.
Malick Sidibé — the younger of these two photographers — made many fine portraits as well, generally working with hipper, less formal poses than Keïta did and shooting more often at night and at parties. There’s one portrait of Sidibé’s in particular that I’m always drawn to. A woman stands alone in a sleeveless blouse and an ankle-length skirt. She has sandals on her feet, a pendulous earring in each ear and hair woven close to her scalp. Her address to the camera is direct. No, she’s not quite alone: A man’s shoulder and arm are visible just to her left. We also see his right shoe and half of his right leg. But the rest of him has been dodged away in the printing of the picture.
On the brown paper border that frames the photograph are written the words: “Je veux être seule. 1979 — Malick Sidibé.” On the right border are Sidibé’s signature and the date 2009. I suppose Sidibé signed this photograph in 2009 and wrote down what the woman told him 30 years earlier, before he had printed the photograph: “Je veux être seule” (‘‘I want to be alone’’). This young woman, like many others in Sidibé’s work, has decided her own image. The photo’s peculiarity is the mark of her authority.
I love the West African women in the photographs by Keïta and Sidibé, some of whom are of my mother’s generation and the generation just before, women to whom a university education was widely available, and for whom working outside the home was a given. In West African photography of this period, there are many photographs of friendship among women, many photographs of women with their families, many of young women with their young men. And there are photos of women alone, some of whom perhaps might also have told the photographer, “Je veux être seule.”
The confidence visible in photographs like Keïta’s and Sidibé’s can be evoked even when we don’t see the sitters’ faces. J. D. ’Okhai Ojeikere, who was born in Nigeria in 1930 and did most of his work there, understood the expressive possibilities of women’s heads, particularly those crowned with the marvelous array of hairstyles common to many Nigerian ethnic groups. These photographs, made in the years following the country’s independence from Britain in 1960, record evanescent sculptures that are both performance art and temporary body modification. Most of these heads are turned away from us. Has the back of a head ever been more evocative than in these photographs? Ojeikere made hundreds of them, and each head seems to convey an attitude, and even a glance. On the streets of Lagos today, such heads, necks, hairstyles and elaborately constructed and tied head wraps can still be seen, tableaux vivants of assertive elegance.
Photographs by Keïta, Sidibé, Agbodjelou and Ojeikere are united by the period in which they were made as well as by geographical and cultural proximity to one another. There seems to me a correspondence between the energy of these pictures and the optimism and determination of the West African independence movements of the ’50s and ’60s. The photographs’ legacies have had a powerful effect on 21st-century African portraiture, but the contemporary work that most reminds me of them is from farther away on the continent, and made in very different circumstances. Zanele Muholi, one of the most prominent contemporary African photographers, who started working only a few years after the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994, is in a sense a ‘‘postindependence’’ artist. She has tried to document a specific aspect of the country’s new political, social and economic terrain. One of Muholi’s long-term projects, called ‘‘Faces and Phases,’’ focuses on the portraiture of black lesbian and transgender people, most of them in South Africa. Like her West African forebears, she shows people as they wish to be seen.
South Africa is one of the few countries whose constitution protects its citizens from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But persistent prejudice remains a reality for many black South African lesbians and transgender people, many of whom have been raped and even murdered. Muholi’s work is an answer to those who want to wish them away or intimidate them into invisibility. To look at their faces, in portrait after portrait, is to become newly aware of the power of portraiture in a gifted artist’s hands. Muholi doesn’t grant her sitters independence — they are independent — but she makes their independence visible. ‘‘Faces and Phases,’’ currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum as part of a show of Muholi’s work, is a complete world.
The work of Keïta and Sidibé, too, makes us aware of an entire world of experiences, one in which men are sometimes secondary. Keïta did well enough from his photo studio that, in the early 1950s, he was able to buy a Peugeot 203. Here is that car, used as a background prop for a group portrait made around 1956, featuring two women and a girl. The women’s dark foreheads and cheekbones are echoed in the Peugeot’s sinuous lines. And way off to the right, touching the hood of the car, is a man’s hand. He has been sidelined, just as the man in “Je veux être seule” was. But a closer look reveals another man in the picture. He can be seen in the front wheel well of the car, in the glimmer of its reflective shine. This second man, dressed in white, is stooped over something. He is the photographer, Seydou Keïta himself, in his limited role, collaborating with the true authors of the image: the women.