The Essential Art of African Textiles: Design Without End

September 30, 2008–April 5, 2009

Seydou Keïta (Malian, 1921(?)–2001)

My first backdrop was my bedspread. After that, I changed the backdrop every two or three years: this is how I can now establish the dates of the negatives . . .  Sometimes the backdrop went well with the clothes, particularly for the women.

—Seydou Keïta (Bamako, August 1994)

The studio photographer Seydou Keïta was an eloquent chronicler of the aspirations of a new urban elite in Mali's capital during the 1940s and 50s. During this period of immense economic and demographic growth, the population more than doubled. In this context, he was one of a number of self-taught individuals who launched businesses as commercial portrait photographers in Bamako. Beginning in 1948 his studio was situated at the heart of the city not far from the train station, the large market (le Marché Rose), and the cinema (Soudan Ciné). The élan and aesthetic appeal of Keïta's work reflect his gifts in choreographing a mise en scéne that ideally captured each of his subjects' individual character with elegance and composure. Keita shot in black and white and developed his own 13 x 18 cm negatives as prints of the same size. Despite his restricted palette, textiles dominate as vibrant formal elements; these include the various fabric backdrops he selected as well as the personal sense of style evident in the fashions worn by the female sitters. In combination these lively contrasting patterns create a distinctive and dynamic visual tension.

According to Keïta, the qualities evident in his work that attracted his clientele were his emphasis on capturing crisp detail, sharpness and clarity of line, and masterfully calibrated composition. These commissioned portraits, carefully calculated to reflect the cosmopolitanism of their subjects, were originally intended for intimate viewing in their subjects' homes. Keïta closed his studio in the early 1960s when he was called upon to serve the newly independent Malian state as official government photographer. In the 1990s, large-format prints were produced from the original negatives in Paris. The names of the individuals immortalized in these images are for the most part lost, as Keïta's archives of his negatives did not record the identities of the thousands of clients who passed through his studio.