Seydou Keïta (1921-2001) was a professional portrait photographer who found fame late in life. His archive of over 10,000 negatives was brought to light in the early 1990s, when André Magnin (at that point curator of contemporary African art for Jean Pigozzi) facilitated international recognition of these precise and insightful images. Working with a large-format camera, Keïta was able to capture an extraordinary range of detail, making for an intimate portrayal of Malian society.
A selection of this vast oeuvre is now on show at Foam, Amsterdam, under the title Bamako Portraits. Named after the capital city where Keïta lived and worked, it captures an extraordinary period in African history. During the 1950s and 1960s, it went from being part of a French colony to the capital of a proudly independent country. These sentiments seem to be evoked in the pieces exhibited here: we see exquisite textiles used as backdrops, along with traditional dress, jewellery and headgear, but also modern technology such as radios, motorcycles and even a Vespa, posed next to with pride. These were usually existing studio props: customers chose from them, and they were replaced every few years, giving a clear chronological progression.
By capturing the everyday, albeit an arranged version, this series forms part of a broader, growing appreciation of vernacular photography. Whilst it has long been of value to social historians for the insights it offers into ordinary life, this genre has only been accepted as a veritable artistic pursuit in relatively recent decades. This joyful collection’s natural home seems to be on a gallery wall, not hidden in an archive, and the increasing recognition of such an important body of work is certainly to be applauded.
Seydou Keïta: Bamako Portraits is at Foam, Amsterdam, until 20 June. Find out more here.
1. Untitled, 1949/51 © Seydou Keïta / SKPEAC/ photo courtesy of CAAC – The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva.