June/July/Aug 2008

Chemises

Nicole Rudick


Are the changing fortunes of a nation always visible on the faces of its citizens? The first set of photographs of young Malians in Malick Sidibé’s Chemises dates from March 1962, less than two years after Mali gained its independence. The new president, Modibo Keita, pursued a socialist policy, aligning the country with the Communist bloc. Midway through the book, we find pictures taken on November 2, 1968, days before a bloodless military coup. Some of the book’s last images date from 1976, two years after the end of a devastating drought and shortly before the start of student protests against the regime. Yet there’s little, if any, indication of these shifting political tides in Sidibé’s photographs. Instead, his black-and-white snapshots of young party­goers reflect an atmosphere of spontaneity and joy. The photo­grapher chronicled Christmas celebrations, post-football-match parties, weddings, and baptisms and ventured into Bamako’s new social clubs, whose names—Les Chats Sauvage, Les Monkees, Les Las Vegas—signaled the African nation’s fascination with the West, as did the intriguing blend of fashions: fedoras, bell-bottoms, and wide ties alongside pagne, head ties, and batiks. Sidibé affixed his prints to administrative folders and posted these “chemises” on the walls of his studio, for perusal by customers. This volume offers a facsimile of the work, reproducing the haphazard grids of photographs, faded pastel folders, and tacky smudges of dried glue. In his brief postscript, photographer Jérôme Sother remarks that during his last visit to Sidibé’s studio, he counted some one thousand folders. So many exuberant faces and carefree poses spark a celebratory response that belies Mali’s troubled history.

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