Every now and then there comes out of Africa a book that tells about something really new. Not very often, as we know, because books about Africa seem all too easily to sink into a rut of repeating what we have known already. But here is one that leaps out of that dismal fate and, again remarkably, does this not in words but in photographs. Again remarkably, these are not photographs of astonishing animals and weird scenarios but of everyday people in their Sunday best and strongly determined to look like it. For the maker of these photographs, splendidly reproduced here and more than 200 in number, is a professional photographer whose portraits are of men and women in moments of personal or family celebration. Nothing could be less exciting or attractive? Yet Seydou Keita’s work remains memorable.
Probably it is only in America that Keita’s achievement could be received with the admiration it deserves. This may sound ungenerous in the context of this album, for we owe its notable assembly of photographs largely to Andre Magnin, a curator of the Paris Collection of Contemporary African Art. Yet Seydou’s principles and practice take you back to the unsurpassed skills and vision of Paul Strand and his circle of American photographers who first placed their work on a level needing no apologies for claims to artistic greatness. That is high praise for a practically unknown African artist. But it seems to me in no way excessive, and it can be no surprise that Keita’s work should have been exhibited at the Guggenheim and the Smithsonian. These portraits are carefully posed, just as I well recall Strand’s from my years of working with him, but the camera, an unwieldy box-like affair (as it was in Keita’s case and often in Strand’s), never comes between you and the people photographed. It is a kind of magic and rare.
If Keita is entirely unexpected in his work and its distinction, so is the rest of the story from which he has emerged. To begin with, the now sorely impoverished capital of Bamako in the republic of Mali is not at all the kind of place that could be expected to produce him. Although a fairly ancient trading city on the banks of the immense river Niger, where it flows out of remote savannas and embarks on its long journey to the ocean, Bamako has nothing that can offer fame and beauty: nothing to compare with the haunting attraction of the much older city of Jenne with its crumbling walls and tales of long ago or the crowding river traffic of Mopti with its 50-foot river boats run by Bozo mariners who have long equipped their craft with powerful outboard engines and yet still retain the call and rumor of old Mali of the Middle Ages.
Yet Bamako, even with its somehow-housed population pushing now to the million mark and long submerged in urban squalor, is nonetheless a place to visit for those who want to experience Africa “beyond the tourist veil.” I first went there as long ago as 1952 to meet the leaders of a then-rising movement of West African anticolonial nationalism, a quest regarded by colonial authorities (French, in this case) as a wickedly subversive thing to want to do. But luck favored me, and I had time before being hustled out of the territory to find the men I went to see, notably the future republican president, Mamadou Konate. With more time I could surely have met Seydou the Photographer, for we read in his book that he had just opened a studio that same year--1952--on a piece of land in Bamako given him by his father. The place he chose for his studio was “just beside the main prison” and thus exactly where you would have expected to find it in colonial times, prisons then being leading venues of popular if involuntary resort.
Besides, Keita had other reasons for this choice of residence. It was a place, he tells us, “where no one wanted to live because of its disadvantage of housing spirits that threw stones in the night. Even today, if you sleep in that house and turn off the light, a great gleaming white horse might appear: You can often hear him galloping by or see him shining in the night.” The trick for dealing with this boisterous phantom was to keep the light on, and then “you never had problems.” All of which helps to confirm that Keita was and remains a true son of ancestral Mali who, as Youssef Tata Cisse explains in a useful sketch in this book about offbeat Mali, “knows that one should always respect the improbable, if people believe in it.”
For Mali is rich in echoes of an improbable past, and Keita himself is not for nothing a distant descendant of the numerous Keita lineage whose founding ancestor was the great and unforgotten Sundiata, victor in about AD 1250 of the famous battle fought at Kirina, a place that has long since disappeared from the map but was situated, in good ancestral memory, near the modern village of Kulikoro. That was when Sundiata called upon his spirit guardians to overthrow the magic of the feared and formidable Sumanguru and managed to prevail even though his own warriors had fled in terror. Whereupon, say the memories, Sumanguru was struck with an arrow bearing the spur of a white cock fatal to his magical power, and Sundiata became the master of the new empire of Mali.
Being aware of such “improbabilities” that people believe in, Seydou the Photographer remains bone and sinew of the people that he portrays, but at the same time success in showing and selling his work has added new dimensions. His portraits have become well known and enjoy many visitors. He stays faithful to his calling and his skills. His task is to portray Mali in the dimensions of its memories and traditions. “What I would like to do now,” he has told Magnin, “is to take pictures of our rural people during harvest time, and the ritual ceremonies that go about then. That is where the essence of Mali comes out.” Welcoming his book, one can greatly believe that he will carry out this wish. For we can see now that the magic of his traditions is also the magic of a humanism capable of reminding a skeptical world that today’s perverse caricature, truly a neocolonial artifact, of what Africa has been is only the product of latter-day dereliction and despair. Let us hope that the glowing horse-spirit, the djinne so, will be galloping again.