Keita, Seydou
▪ 2002

      Malian photographer (b. 1921/23?, French Sudan—d. Nov. 21, 2001, Paris, France), fashioned insightful studio portraits of ordinary Malian people, usually posed with intriguing combinations of African and Western clothing and props that he provided. Keïta, who was entirely self-trained, founded a small photography studio in the city of Bamako in 1948 and quickly gained a reputation for formal portraiture. He was designated the Republic of Mali's official photographer in 1962 and closed his studio to concentrate on his new duties, but he carefully preserved and stored thousands of black-and-white images. He retired from government service in 1977. In the late 1990s Keïta's early work was discovered by André Magnin of the Contemporary African Art Collection in Paris. Thereafter, Keïta's portraits were exhibited in Paris and across the U.S. A book dedicated to his photography was published in 1997, and in early 2001 the Seydou Keïta Foundation was established in Bamako to preserve his work and to support young African artists.

▪ 1999

      Although Malian photographer Seydou Keïta had not actively practiced his art for more than 20 years, his captivating black-and-white images received international attention in the late 1990s. Rediscovered by a French collector, Keïta's portraits were the focus of exhibitions at the Cartier Foundation in Paris and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, as well as gallery shows in New York City and Los Angeles. The 1997 publication of a coffee-table book dedicated to his photography and a 1998 exhibit at the St. Louis (Mo.) Art Museum further broadened the interest in his work.

      Born in 1923, Keïta grew up in the bustling capital city of Bamako in what was then the French Sudan. He began taking photographs in 1945 when his uncle gave him a camera, and he quickly developed a passion for the art. Self-trained, Keïta displayed a gift for formal portraiture that was recognized by the residents of Bamako. They flocked to his studio to have their pictures taken, and a portrait by Keïta became a status symbol among the middle class. His flattering studio portraits of both individuals and groups followed a simple formula that focused attention on the figures. He posed his subject facing forward in front of a backdrop, the first of which was his patterned bedspread.

      His portraits documented a unique period of transition in Mali's history as the country adjusted to its newly won independence from France. Like Mali itself, the subjects of Keïta's portraits displayed the trappings of modern European culture as well as a loyalty to native African traditions. Often the figures were posed with props of their own selection, items such as a sewing machine and radio, suggesting a desire to adopt the styles and technologies of the modern world. The dress similarly reflected European tastes of the period. Interestingly, the clothing was often provided by the photographer, who kept a complete wardrobe for his clients' use. Closer examination revealed the lasting influence of the native African culture that underlaid the new modernity of the Malians. Traditional hair styles were favoured, and the marks of ritual scarification were frequently evident.

      Keïta continued to operate his studio in Bamako until 1960, when he was appointed state photographer for Mali. At that time he closed his business and carefully stored his collection of negatives. He worked as the official government photographer until his retirement in 1977. He later cooperated with those interested in reviving his work, providing access to his negatives. The photographs taken during his 17-year career as the state photographer remained the property of the government, however, and were not exhibited.

BETH KESSLER

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Universalium. 2010.

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