Press release | 23 February 2018
Foam is proud to present Bamako Portraits: the first-ever retrospective of the studio photography by Seydou Keïta (c. 1921 – 2001, Mali) in the Netherlands. His oeuvre reflects a portrait of an era that captures Bamako’s transition from a cosmopolitan city in a French colony to the proud capital of independent Mali. Seydou Keïta portrayed his fellow citizens in a way not seen by the outside world before. People came to his studio to have their picture taken at their best: wearing extravagant dresses made of wonderful textiles with splendidly formed headdress; or posing in a modern western suit with a bow tie, casually leaning against a motorcycle, or with a radio tucked under their arm. Keïta’s portraiture developed entirely independently of western photographic traditions, and shows how the citizens of Bamako saw themselves, and how they wished to be seen by others.
As a youth, Keïta was trained to be a carpenter by his father. His future took quite a turn when his uncle gave him a camera in 1935 – a Kodak Brownie Flash – causing him to pursue the career of a photographer instead. During his adolescence, he taught himself the technical skills of taking and printing photographs. He opened his portrait studio in the lively neighbourhood of Bamako-Coura in 1948. Soon enough he ran a flourishing studio, where he developed his unique aesthetical approach. He kept an array of props in his studio, ranging from western dress items to accessories such as radios, paper flowers, and even Vespa scooters. The background also plays a typical role in Keïta’s portraits. Although he tended to use the same background cloth for many years on end, the graphic designs often created a fascinating aesthetical interaction with how his models were dressed.
As customers often returned for more copies of their portrait, Keïta was careful to save the negatives. However, since he did not save them based on personal name but on date and type of photo (singles, couples, portraits at shoulder height or full-length, and so on), we can no longer identify the people in the pictures. Keïta’s archive of more than 10,000 negatives came to light in 1992 thanks to André Magnin, the then-curator of Jean Pigozzi’s Contemporary African Art Collection (CAAC). New prints were made of Keïta’s negatives, printed under Keïta’s supervision and signed by him, allowing his work to be introduced in the art world. International fame quickly followed. These modern prints form a strong contrast with the vintage prints that have been rediscovered since then. By displaying both types of prints, the exhibition highlights various aspects of Keïta’s artistic achievement.
Seydou Keïta - Bamako Portraits is part of an exhibition series about photo studios, presented by Foam in recent years. This series is based on the growing interest in ‘vernacular photography’ and its acknowledgment of social-historical and artistic value.
The exhibition was developed in collaboration with the Contemporary African Art Collection (CAAC) - The Pigozzi Collection.
Seydou Keïta - Bamako Portraits can be seen from 6 April – 20 June 2018 at Foam. Open daily 10am - 6pm, Thurs/Fri 10am - 9pm.
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Foam is supported by the BankGiro Loterij, De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek, Gemeente Amsterdam, Olympus and the VandenEnde Foundation.
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