Thursday, February 5, 2009

Meeting Malick!!

Today is the third time I've gone by Malick Sidibe's studio and the first he was there. As we got closer to his studio and I tried to summarize my art history thesis for Joe and Ashley I felt my stomach tighten up and my heartbeat quicken thinking about meeting the man who won the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 2007 Venice Biennale and who has received numerous international awards for his photography. All my anxieties melted away as we walked up to his inconspicuous studio where we found him sitting on an upholstered chair wearing a royal blue boubou and a green skull cap with chairs arranged expectantly around him. Sidibe regularly welcomes friends, fans and even clients into his studio which is shaded from the sun by a corrugated iron roof and an outdoor area separated from the street by an unfolded room divider that also displays some of his photographs.

After the Wollersheims and I greeted, Sidibe wasted no time in sharing with us the history of the women's greeting "Nse" in Mali and stories about the Dogon people (since Ashley and Joe live in Dogon country). I was nervous I should have prepared more questions or comments about his photographs but he took the lead of the conversation (as old, cute men are wont to do) talking about Mali and social commentary in general. His sons who help out around the studio lounged nearby laughing with him at stories I'm sure they've heard a million times and which reminded us of our own dads and grandfather's stories. Sidibe made us feel at home with stories about his mentor GG and his thoughts on divorce, money, children "these days" and technology. He repeated stories I'd read about him in catalogues of his work and I learned some things I didn't know about Mali like the war that pushed the Dogon people out of Guinea and into the cliffs they continue to inhabit.

My flavor-of-the-day dream job would be to work for Art in Embassies curating shows for ambassador's and diplomat's homes and embassies. Before I left Fredericksburg in July I took a quick trip up to DC to meet with the AIE staff and tour the office and received a catalogue from the permanent show most recently installed in the US Embassy in Bamako. The show features works by artists from Mali and America to highlight both country's talents and interest in Mali. Malick had not yet seen the catalogue which I brought for him to sign so I'm now on a quest to get another one from the Embassy for him to keep. He had no idea his pictures were in the embassy (maybe those details are taken care of by an agent?) and as he opened it up and looked at the pictures in the show he giggled at seeing his own quotes and pictures in print. Malians are incredibly proud of pictures taken of them. One way you can know Malians really like you or are trying to impress you is if they bring out their mini photo albums with yellowing pictures from celebrations taken by party photographers like Malick Sidibe once was. It feels great to think about Sidibe's photography in a different way - to now understand photography's place in the Malian culture and get a fuller idea of Sidibe's own personality.

I asked if he could take my picture and said I'd worn my Malian Independence Day complet in honor of the occasion. He said I could come back tomorrow morning for my picture and that while he liked my fabric it was important to know that the departure of the French from Mali in 1960 was a liberation of the leaders of France and not the actual people. He later showed me a framed photo of a Malian Ministry official he took in the 60s who was later killed by the president in office at the time. Tidbits like this about Malian politics and the dynamic between French colonization and the current state of affairs are poignant because it's rare to hear folks speak openly about their dissatisfaction with the government. During the election in the States a Malian man commented to me how incredible it was indeed to be able to transition power peacefully from one leader to the next (consistently) and that if the people don't like the president - they can speak openly about their dissatisfaction.

While I'm not ultra busy here and my time is pretty unstructured, I feel like everyday is a learning experience with many opportunities for cultural exchange. Meeting Malick Sidibe today confirmed my love for and interest in this fascinating culture, country and people and, like my three week training outside of Bamako, got me more excited about the time I have left here in Mali.

I'm in Bamako for the week and everyday I see these kids with their homemade kites running around. Children never cease to amaze.

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