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Galerie Art-Z / Studio Art-Z : Look at me!


The Galerie Art-Z is opening a new space dedicated to African photography.
The first exhibition, entitled Regardez moi!, is devoted to the photo studios in Africa in the 1960s and 70s (Mali, Burkina-Faso, Senegal, Benin, Togo and Kenya).
Olivier Sultan, Director, sent us this text:

The ritual of posing / The photo studio in Africa in the 1960s and 70s

In the 1950’s the appearance of  photo studios established a ceremonial relationship between photographers and their models. From the outset, these studio photographs are striking for the solemnity of the poses and the mutual respect between the photographer and his model. This relationship is explained by two recurring particularities among many African photographers: – in Africa, the studio photographer was a respected professional, with a high social status. He was also the guardian of the visual memory of a community, the guarantor of the identity of the individual and the witness of the evolution of society. He was chosen for his qualities as a mediator, social interpreter, intercessor which made him more than a skilled technician: a maker of icons.

The price of the session was quite high, and was often the first and only portrait. It was a real event. We came from far away, and dressed accordingly, we even wore perfume sometimes! The photographer had to underline the social position of the model and introduced through his style this part of  the dream and fantasy which constituted his writing, his style. Accessories (glasses, clothes, watch, telephone, radio, plastic flowers, shoes, cigarette, hat, moped) were very important: it was probably less about showing what you were than what  you wanted to become. The photographer needed time to be able to fully grasp the dynamics of the personality posing in front of him.

African photography being, from its beginnings, aimed at the local market and not from an outside perspective, its particularity is that it revealed above all the aspirations of the subject. Little by little, photographers were integrating aesthetic research into their work.

The portrait must be understood as a condensed ritual representation of reality, of a social image. Families and communities were often the first recipients (we know the importance of the extended family in Africa, a community within which the photographic portrait takes its place). For the photographer, it was often a matter of guessing, of revealing the dreams, the deep aspirations of his model. Thus, at the end of the 1960s, young “yé-yé” from Bamako, Bobo Dioulasso, or Dakar sported their “bell bottom” pants or their short skirts for the first time in the Sanlé Sory studio or in front of Malick Sidibé.

Youth were the main clientele of these studio photographers, showing an enthusiasm towards certain aspects of European culture, as well as searching for themselves, and the new claim to one’s individuality.

African photographers were immediately at the very heart of their subject, of their community which they knew perfectly and which they sometimes supported financially and morally. They were the wise men, the fathers, often the “stars”, the leaders. Their activity as photographers was complex: they were at the same time craftsmen (who perfectly mastered the technique and knew how to repair their cameras), artists, and intercessors who participated in a rite of passage. No concern for hierarchy governed their activity: repairing old cameras, taking identity photos, making the portrait of an ambassador or a notable, chatting with children in the street, with street vendors, preparing an exhibition for a museum in Paris or New York, nothing  really had “priority”.

The important thing: was to be present for each person, for each studio session.

In their beginnings, Seydou Keïta, Malick Sidibé or Sanlé Sory did not consider themselves “artists”, but intercessors, mediators, directors of the social image carried by their clients. Little by little, by sublimating their models, by introducing decorations, by working on the poses (the “back views” for Malick Sidibé, the work on the fabric backgrounds for Seydou Keïta), these photographers asserted their style, their writing . They knew how to magnify the faces, work on the staging, integrate aesthetic dimensions into their work.

In tune with their times, gifted with extraordinary acuity, they reinvented the art of portraiture in Africa. The recurrence of the staging is combined with the primordial concern for the role of the model: each portrait is an encounter, each subject is presented in a unique way, exalted in their elegance, their nobility, richness. The same backgrounds, the same accessories were used for convenience from one person to another, a way for the artist to mark the ritual nature of the pose for the benefit of the subject in its singularity. But it is to better free the artist from the framing of the composition, for the benefit of the real subject.
Certainly, Seydou Keïta – known throughout Bamako, and exhibited at the Cartier Foundation in Paris – and Malick Sidibé – Golden Lion of the Venice Biennale in 2007, Hasselblad Prize in 2003 – were without a doubt the most renowned, recognized worldwide.

They were aware of it. They had gradually shifted their point of view, modified certain points of reference, without losing their progress in artistic creation, nor their view of the subject inscribed in the present.

Here we are very far from the “ethnographic” or colonial photography of the early 20th century, complicit in a spectacle where an aesthetic and ideological system assigned the image of non-Western peoples a trophy value in a world of carnival spectacle: it was then rather a tool of domination, of power, of classification of otherness.
African studio photography, primarily intended for people and not for a market or an outsider view, was very far from voyeurism. Its rise can be seen in relation to an unprecedented historical period: that of the independence of their countries, an era placed under the sign of hope, freedom, and faith in the future. As a symbol of modernity, it accompanied a desire for emancipation from colonial authority, and resulted in a symbolic reappropriation of one’s view of oneself.

Another particularity: often invested with a ritual function, photography in Africa has long echoed traditional rites. More than a simple inert image, it is a part of the mind, it only retains the subject temporarily. Through it the individual can intervene in the natural cosmic process, prolong life symbolically, making the photographer an intercessor between two worlds, a maker of icons on paper, one who materializes the double of the other, both social and spiritual, of the person photographed. In West Africa, it very quickly integrated the cult of the dead: photography of the deceased on their deathbed, use of the portrait during funeral rites.

In most African cultures, the representation of the human face had to be impersonal: too obvious a resemblance could attract bad luck, even death. It is interesting to note that among the Igbo of West Africa photography was the first tolerated faithful representation of the human face. That of the deceased was hung face down against the wall, to avoid an unwelcome “exit” of his spirit into the world of the living. Among the Yoruba (Nigeria, Benin), photography gradually replaced the protective dolls of the twin unit, in the event of the death of one of them. Thus through it, the individual could intervene in the natural cosmic process, prolong life symbolically.

Olivier Sultan, April 2024


Regardez-moi !
Jusqu’au 29 juin 2024
Galerie Art-Z & Studio Art-Z
27 et 29 rue Keller
75011 Paris France
06 63 24 42 22

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