Who are these Africans in Seydou Keita's large format photographs, staring at me from their perfectly central positions in their statuesque, dignified, poses? They are neither the starving nomads walking through my television set, decade after decade, nor are they the offspring of National Geographic, the happy tribal peoples of the darkest continent who build grass huts and hunt rhinos. Who are these subjects who paid good money to be captured on film by the self-taught Malian commercial photographer?
The Malian writer Issa Baba Traore tells us that Keita's subjects were sophisticated urbanites of Bamako and beyond, whose fondness for gold, the greatest natural resource of Mali, was equalled only by their determination to show off youthful physical beauty. Photography was not only a legitimate means to flaunt one's good looks but also, a form of representation that distinguished them from their provincial rural cousins who still believed that the release of the shutter would hocus-pocus the karma from their souls.
From 1945 until 1977 they entrusted their ids to both natural and artificial light, and to this man who placed them in front of fringed Jacquard bedspreads, or cotton paisley, and floral patterned backdrops. He made them regal, monumental, and managed to find each person's brand of elegance. Even the first President of the Republic had his portrait taken by Keita. And although the photographer declares, in the oversized publication accompanying the exhibition, that he never saw the work of foreign photographers - historical or contemporary - even in magazines, it is absurd to imagine that this continued throughout the three decades of his career. Maybe someone at the Cartier Foundation should have asked him about paintings - the French imported every possible natural resource from their colonies, and the only thing they exported (besides wine and Camembert, perhaps) was their precious language and culture. Surely somewhere in the capital of a beloved French colony, one could imagine that Keita would have seen reproductions of Manet's Olympia or Matisse's Red Room.
What makes these photographs so wonderful is not (as the official texts would have us believe), the fact that this very capable craftsman is an unknown naif who succeeded to document his society through commercial portraiture, like some in house anthropologist. Nor is it the iconography of dress, posture, and rich industrial age commodities (i.e. radios, accordions, automobiles, eyeglasses, bow-ties, etc.) though they play an important part in the reading of these exquisite portraits as clues to the subjects' social standing. What's amazing about these photographs is that, with their 19th century style, they are so aesthetically French. Thus it is no surprise that Seydou's negatives would be acquired in total by a Frenchman, seized, I'm sure, by the confluence of colonial subject matter and second Empire elegance. Moreover, besides being an ethnographer's treasure trove, Keita's life's work is also post-technological 'raw material' that can be mined for eternity and provide the new owner with never-ending reproduction fees. Today you can even purchase a CD-Rom of Keita's entire oeuvre.
The fact that these portraits hang in the basement gallery of a foundation set up by bijoux barons, predisposes one to wonder about things like mineral rights, and the riches that were once Africa's. But these 39 newly minted photographs are surely being displayed because they connote a happier time when taxes were lower, France believed itself to be more homogeneous, Africans travelled less, and people stayed at home to have their pictures taken by superb photographers like Seydou Keita.