Friday, November 19, 2010

Mali matters

The night before my photo session with the Malian photographer Malick Sidibé I find myself tossing and turning, staring at the ceiling and thinking about my pose for the portrait.  Since writing my senior art history thesis at Mary Washington in the fall of 2007 on Malick Sidibé and the 2007 Venice Biennial (he won the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, the highest award offered at the exposition) and then moving to Mali as a Peace Corps Volunteer in July 2008, I have wanted him to take my portrait.  I've visited his open-to-the public and in-business studio with all of my Mali visitors - Marija, Mom and Sarah - and we've taken self-portraits each time.  I met Sidibé in February 2009 with Joe and Ashley and even got a picture with him, but not one by him.  That all changed last month.  The whole process - from making the appointment to walking to the studio to the actual portrait - has encouraged my reflection on my time in Mali.  Pictures in Mali, as in the States, are illuminating evidence of people's lives that tell us 'I was there; that time in my life mattered; I want to remember.' 

I've taken an embarrassingly large amount of photos while in Mali and while I won't print them all, I am glad to have a lot to choose from when I finally do make an album of my life here.  If you spend long enough with a Malian, or even not that long, you are bound to get a glimpse of their treasured photo album.  Plastic covered collections of pictures with Malian singers or griots on the front and back of the album and moments from your host's life in between.  When I lived in village Annie would break out her small stack of photos from time to time and tell me about her past - her weight and children indicators of place and time.   'See how fat I was?' she would ask.  'I ate meat everyday then - look at me now!' she would remark, pointing to her noticeably smaller frame.  Through her photo album I met people from her past and learned things about her like how she came to read and write Bambara thus becoming one of the only literate women in village.  Sometimes I would bring out my own photo album and chuckle at the (admittedly insulting but ultimately comical) comments people dropping by would make.  Comments like - 'Is this your mom?  She's much prettier than you,' which, I mean really, what can you do but laugh and say thank you?   

On my way to Malick Sidibé's studio, however, I get nothing but rave reviews.  After careful deliberation I decide to wear my 2010 Panafrican Women's outfit - the last complet Abu made for me in San before I moved to Bamako in September.  Before I leave the compound I stop by Ma Diallo's room, my landlord and Bamako host-mom who lives downstairs, where she gives me an approving grunt and elevator-look-head-nod  - careful not to interrupt her prayers with words.  As I navigate the uneven roads to get to the Koulikoro road I receive a few thumbs-up coupled with 'C'est comme ça!' and 'i para-la deh!' (you're looking good!) before the Sotrama prendstigi ushers me into the coveted passenger seat - unobstructed views of the road, room to stretch my legs and plenty of fresh air to breathe. 

I meet Ryan and Kevin, two RPCVs who also want to get their portraits taken, at the artisanal market near the big mosque and we walk together to the studio.  On time for our appointment, we nonetheless wait a few hours for Malick to arrive - you can't rush greatness, right?? - and in the meantime take a number of practice shots.  Two of Sidibé's sons run the shop for Malick and while we wait for their dad to arrive we chat about their father's photography and what they do here.  Karim, the older of the two, repairs cameras and handles the appointments.  Dia, in his mid-twenties and who dresses à la American, accompanies Malick to international exhibits of his work and sells flashy watches and musky cologne sent by an older brother in the States in between.  After perusing Dia's inventory - Ryan and Kevin somehow both muster the will-power to say no to Dia's wares - Malick finally arrives.  Approaching his mid-seventies, Malick walks with a cane and the enduring and endearing smile of a man who has lived a full life.  Sidibé shuffles behind his camera and, ladies first of course, I move in front of the lens to get my close-up.  Sidibé positions us all - my previous night's worries about poses a frittered use of time - and then, as quickly as the portrait session begins, it is over. Sidibé, fatigued from traveling to the studio and our portrait session, retires to a chair on the front porch of the studio.  Another group of toubabs, waiting to pick up their signed portraits taken earlier that week, seat themselves next to him as we quietly slip away.  Coulibaly jokes from the peanut gallery outside the studio our farewell as Dia and Karim nod their goodbyes.

Ryan and I return the following week to select our shots to be printed from the negatives.  The negatives are transferred onto photo paper - tiny prints of me, two of Ryan and a few of Kevin to choose from; it doesn't take long to make our selections.  Included on our negative sheet are two negative prints of a Malian man in a white boubou holding prayer beads as though offering them to the viewer.  We ask Karim about the man - humble, old and pious.  Karim says the man came to Malick after making his pilgrimage to Mecca and wanted a portrait to recognize his achievement of one of the 5 pillars of Islam.  Looking at this man's photo next to ours I am struck by the different reasons that brought us both to Malick.  I came to Malick to have my portrait taken by one of the most famous Malian photographers - a man I spent an entire semester of college studying.  The man in this tiny frame on the top-right corner of our negative sheet wants a tangible representation of his hajj.  However, upon further reflection I see that our reasons for getting our portraits taken by Malick aren't so different.  While my pilgrimage hasn't been to Mecca - my time and integration in Mali has been a special and heartfelt journey.  And when I frame this portrait and hang it in my home, like the anonymous, pious, old man will do with his own, it will hold the same significance.   It will say I was there, that time in my life mattered, I want to remember.

Dia and Ryan

What matters to you?  Do you have a favorite picture that helps you remember? 


Anonymous said...

I am in tears. You matter. My trip to Mali and all the photos from that trip matter, too. Love you. mom

Anonymous said...

You know, I was just thinking the other day about the proliferation of digital photos, but how few I print. Must start printing more, putting them in a book.. I loved this post - it took me on such a nice journey with you (as always)!

kate said...


i love this story too much for words. i know from experience how much you value pictures-- from those scrapbooks labored over with stickers and stamps to constant timed photos in high school and college. it makes sense to me that you would gravitate to an artist whose medium is portrait photography.

you make such thoughtful connections about your own experience and i love the comparison with the muslim pilgrim.

thank you always for opening your heartfelt insights for us to share in.

i love you! love pictures of us! stay positive and have a great week.

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness, Sweetheart, You can't imagine how much or deeply you matter to each of us who are in your life or whose live you touch. This blog, even more than most--and they all do, brought sweet tears to my eyes, realizing all that you have done, are doing, how much I love you, my darling granddaughter. Hugs always, Angel Girl, Memaw

Anonymous said...

Sweetheart, You have "made your mark" on each of us whose live you have touched, and especially, precious granddaughter, on those of us whose privilege it is to claim you as family. What a special treasure you are, as always you have been, and always will be, all ways. I love you, my darling, forever and ever Amen. Hugs, Angel Girl, Memaw

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