exhibition, Paris, photography

Seydou Keïta, Fascination & Ambiguity

1 Seydou Keïta, à gauche ST, 1956

Seydou Keïta, Untitled, 1956-1957 (printed 1997), 120x180cm [left]; Untitled, 1958 (printed 1997), 120x180cm [right]

Seydou Keïta’s work (on view at the Grand Palais, March 31 – July 11, 2016), one of the great African photographers, is both fascinating and ambiguous. Fascinating because Keïta’s undeniable talent as a portraitist bestows unparalleled dignity and beauty on his models. He is one of the first to go beyond semi-ethnographic portraits of stereotyped Africans, standing stiffly with their official insignia (whether they were dignitaries or constables – the one pictured above is the latter), and neither inclined nor allowed to demonstrate any sign of individuality. Keïta pushes back against this Eurocentric and colonial gaze, and goes beyond it in letting his models’ personality shine through, in seeing them as human beings in their own right, with their styles, personalities, emotions, with their grace or their pride – like this young woman featured on the exhibition poster (pictured above, left). The contrast between the two portraits displayed side by side is a good indication of the radical change Keïta heralds, an upheaval in the way we look at African men and women.

2 Seydou Keïta, ST, 1956-57

Seydou Keïta, Untitled, 1956-1957 (modern print), 120x180cm

And it is ambiguous, because Keïta plays on formalism as well as on expressionism – even if representing individuality trumps formalism most of the time – and moreover because his tender and friendly gaze often references “colonial” postures and poses: there are many reclining and sensual “Odalisques”, some of them illustrious. Is this the vision that an African artist has of the African woman? Is this the result of digesting, adapting, transposing the old myths Orientalism about the sexuality of “the Other”, about the unbridled sensuality of Arab women and Negresses? Beyond the extremely beautiful composition of some of these photographs, something slightly troubling arises in us, a vague puzzlement stirred up by feminist and postcolonial issues.

3 Seydou Keïta, ST, 1952-55

Seydou Keïta, Untitled, 1952-1955 (modern print), 120x180cm

The most extraordinary photograph of the exhibition is, to my eyes, this reclining couple: I wonder why they elected such a pose (only in the catalogue can we see them sat down, cutely but much more conventionally). The woman is looking at us brazenly, confidently, her body wrapped in fabric with only her right knee protruding, her necklace hanging out freely, her long slender fingers with perfect nails seemingly suspended in mid-air, for whatever reason. The man, on the contrary, has no interest for us (for the photographer): his eyes are down, his chin awkwardly touching his wife’s hairdo, his left hand firmly grasping her. She wears black, he wears white; there are flip-flops and slippers on the foreground; the backdrop is neutral, nothing distracts the viewer’s eye, except for the corners of the carpet featuring a star within a crescent – how can it not echo the couple? Most certainly, they came to the studio wearing these clothes, whereas Keïta might have supplied the carpet. But who advocated for such an artificial and sensual pose? It is, to my knowledge, a unique occurrence in Keïta’s work.

4 Seydou Keïta, ST, 1954 (tirage

Seydou Keïta, Untitled, 1954 (printed 1998), 120x180cm

The visitor, prompted by such a composition and a few other eerie images, can indulge in picturing Keïta the portrait photographer as an extremely creative inventor, at times verging on the bizarre if not the surreal. In this photograph of women standing in front of a Peugeot 203, the eye is drawn towards the masculine figure that is cut in half on the right, probably the owner of the car, the husband and father, the “boss”. Keïta cuts him in half, erases him in what can be construed as a kind of humiliation or castration. But – for there is a “but” –, there is a man featured in this photograph, a hidden man (see detail below). And even if he is barely visible, this man claims the scene as its own, implacaby, like an omnipotent deus ex machina.

5 idem, détail

Seydou Keïta, [Detail of] Untitled, 1954 (printed 1998), 120x180cm

Photos 1 & 5 by Lunettes Rouges.


Read this article:
in the original French; alt.
in Spanish

Original publication date by Lunettes Rouges: May 22, 2016.

Translation by Lucas Faugère


One thought on “Seydou Keïta, Fascination & Ambiguity

  1. Pingback: Seydou Keïta, fascination et ambiguïté | lunettesrouges1

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s