Malian photographer Malick Sidibé died at 80 years old…ish – he could never remember whether he was born in 1935 or ’36.  Born into a shepherding family in Soloba, he showed an early talent for art, but it wasn’t until he was 10 years old that he began an education – when the family could release him from watching goats, presumably because a younger sibling could to take his place!  His home was colonial French Sudan, and by 16 he’d earned a spot at the École des Artisans Soudanaise Bamako, the capital.  By the late 1950s, he apprenticed with society portrait photographer Gérard Guillat (in his Photo Service Boutique), bicycling between night clubs and hot spots in the evenings with a Kodak Brownie camera.  Such was his gift, by 1962 he’d set up his own photographic studio, gaining the nickname ‘the eye of Bamako’ for his compelling portraits of Malian hipster nightlife.  The dandies, the discos, the families with their treasured motorcycles, brimmed with life after Mali gained independence from France in 1960, and Sidibé captured the vibe.

1962 – a well-off Malian couple shows off their Honda CA72 Dream. (c.Malick Sidibé)

His work was ‘discovered’ by the Anglo/European gallery and museum cabal in the late 1990s, and a flood of solo exhibitions and retrospectives quickly followed; first at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago –  1996), then the  Centre d’Art Contemporain (Geneva- 2000), Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna (Rome – 2001), etc.  In the 20 years since that first Chicago exhibit, at least 9 books were published on his decades of photography, and his work can be found on postcards and Pinterest sites. The exposure doesn’t detract from the magic of his work, which sympathetically captures the vibrant energy and aesthetic genius of the Malian people.  It was the mopeds, motorcycles, and scooters that caught my eye of course – “there’s always a motorcycle” should be my website footer – but it’s the two wheels in context that matters, with snappy young gents, courting lovers, or families posing with this important, treasured possession, the real and symbolic statement of Mobility, as Africa took over the reins to its own future.

A recent photo of Malick Sidibé. (c.Jennifer Morgan Davis)

In 2010, Sidibé told London’s Guardian that a good photographer required “talent to observe, and to know what you want,” but equally to be approachable and friendly. “I believe with my heart and soul in the power of the image, but you also have to be sociable. I’m lucky. It’s in my nature. It’s a world, someone’s face. When I capture it, I see the future of the world.”   Vale, Malick.

Three Malian ‘sapeurs’ (fashionable young gents) with their chic late-’50s Motobecane Mobylette mopeds, c.1962 (c.Malick Sidibé)
The fabrics! Three youngsters with an East German Simson SR-2 ‘Star’ 50cc motorcycle (c.Malick Sidibé)
As the ’60s moved into the ’70s, you bet those flares got wider, and I see platform shoes peeking out…(c.Malick Sidibé)
An early 1970s Vespa with a familiar backdrop of locally-produced cloth. While these shots are in black/white, no doubt the fabric included the vibrant oranges, blues, and greens typical of Mali. (c.Malick Sidibé)
One of my favorites; traditional garb and the all-important 1980s boom box…(c.Malick Sidibé)
A young couple dancing at a nightclub in Bamako, Mali, c.1962. (c.Malick Sidibé)