“He who has not had his photo taken with Seydou Keïta has not had his photo taken,” it was said of the Malian photographer, whose iconic portraits are now on show at Amsterdam’s Foam Museum
When Seydou Keïta (1921-2001) was given a Kodak Brownie Flash by his uncle in 1935, his career path took a new route. Originally an apprentice carpenter for his father, Keïta spent the following years teaching himself the technicalities of photography and eventually opened an outdoor studio in 1948 in Bamako Koura. As word quickly spread, it wasn’t long before Malians began flocking to his studio to have their portrait taken.
“My experience taught me the positions that my customers liked best,” Keïta said. “You try to obtain the best pose, the most advantageous profile, because photography is an art, everything should be as close to perfection as possible.”
As well as ornate backdrops, Keïta kept an array of props in his studio – from paper flowers to Vespas – and occasionally sitters would bring their own. In the black-and-white images he took during the late 1940s and 1950s, Keïta captures members of Malian society radiating with confidence, dignity and grace, epitomising Mali’s emerging freedom from colonialist rule and portraying them how they wished to be seen.
After Mali gained independence in 1960, Keïta was forced to close his studio when the socialist regime that came into power hired him to work as their photographer, and his archive of over 10,000 images was buried. It only came to light again following a discovery by contemporary art dealer André Magnin in the early 1990s. With Magnin’s help, Keïta’s work was shown to overseas audiences for the first time, and led to his universal recognition as the father of African photography.
In this retrospective, Foam is showing both modern and vintage prints, giving an overview of Keïta’s extraordinary legacy, as well as being a celebration of African identity.
Seydou Keïta – Bamako Portraits is on show at Foam Museum Amsterdam from 06 April to 20 June 2018. It is part of an exhibition series about photography studios, presented by Foam in recent years, founded on the growing interest in ‘vernacular photography’ and its acknowledgement of social-historical and artistic value. More information can be found here.