Malick Sidibé’s Work Reveals a Hidden Africa: It Loves to Party

The renowned Malian musician Boubacar Traoré — whose hypnotic song “Mali Twist” gives the exhibition at the Cartier Foundation its name — also grew up on the scene. He and his friends pooled money to host semi-legal “surprise parties,” jiving to James Brown, Otis Redding and the Beatles, as well as salsa and European music. “The nights were magnificent,” he said in an interview. “It was a time without worries. Everybody was happy.”

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Sidibé’s night-life photos don’t just show the dance floor — they also show the painstaking preparations for a night out. Credit Malick Sidibé/The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva

For a roving photographer like Sidibé, keeping up with this hectic night life wasn’t easy: After long days at the studio, he spent much of the 1960s and early ’70s racing between these parties, sometimes as many as four a night. He would announce his arrival by setting off a flash gun, then take hundreds of snaps of people cavorting, before heading back to the studio to develop negatives, then put prints on display for sale.

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“Nuit de Noël (Happy-Club),” taken on Christmas Eve 1963, is probably Sidibé’s most famous photograph. Credit Malick Sidibé/Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris

One of Sidibé’s photographs has become deservedly famous: “Nuit de Noël (Happy-Club)” from 1963. It portrays a brother and sister dancing, he in a tie and flawless safari suit, she barefoot but in a full-skirted dress. The pair are concentrating hard, but have radiant half-smiles. “You can see from their eyes how happy they were,” Mr. Magnin said. “All these pictures are full of tenderness, full of love.”

Yet there is more to Sidibé’s photographs than straightforward joy, Mr. Diawara emphasized: They capture a fragile moment in Malian history, when the country was still in the first flush of independence from French colonial rule. “There was so much confidence in these pictures,” he said. “We honestly believed in the image we were projecting. There was so much power.”

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Bamako’s clubs in the 1960s and ’70s featured an eclectic mix of American, French and British pop music, as well as other styles. Credit Malick Sidibé/Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris

After the socialist ruler Modibo Keïta was toppled by a military coup in 1969, the atmosphere became more repressive. Mr. Diawara said that he found looking at Sidibé’s images both “sweet and bitter;” the life they portrayed was gone, swept away by worsening economic problems (United Nations data now ranks Mali one of the poorest countries in the world) and the rise of Islamist extremism.

“Many of my friends are — I don’t know a gentler way to put this — orthodox religious men,” Mr. Diawara said. “They no longer tolerate their children to dress the way they used to dress.”

For Sidibé’s work itself, the future is uncertain. This is the second retrospective since the photographer’s death, created from a selection of around 10,000 negatives and prints kept in Paris by Mr. Magnin, on loan from the Sidibé family. Yet a majority of the archive — perhaps more than 300,000 frames in negative, as well as many vintage prints — remains piled in cardboard boxes in Bamako. Most of the images have barely been examined, and there are fears that some have gone missing. Photographs that once sold for a handful of Malian francs now go for thousands of dollars. The fact that Sidibé’s survivors include more than a dozen children and three wives makes administering the estate even more complicated.

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It was a rite of passage for young people to pass through Sidibé’s studio. The pictures taken in it were then available for sale. Credit Malick Sidibé/The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva

Mr. Magnin’s hope was that a major photography foundation, perhaps an African one, would step in. “I would be happy for that,” he said. “But I’m not sure what the family wants, it’s too difficult. They are afraid.”

After talking, we headed upstairs so that Mr. Magnin could sneak a cigarette. As we stood by the entrance, a willowy teenager threw a flamboyant, hip-thrusting pose for his friend, playfully impersonating one of the pictures in the gallery.

“I am sorry Malick is not still here,” Mr. Magnin said. “He would have enjoyed it, every minute.”

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