If you were going to have your photograph taken for the first time, how would you want to look? What would you want the world to see? How would you want future generations of your family to remember you?
That’s a lot of pressure right? And something that seems quite alien to us nowadays. Most of us have our pictures taken within minutes of being born. So you can only imagine what would have been going through the minds of Seydou Keïta’s clients.
In 1948 Seydou Keïta opened a photography studio in Bamako, Mali and specialised in taking portrait shots. At a time when things were changing dramatically in Mali (it gained independence from France in 1960) it was said that sitting for a portrait with Seydou Keïta told everyone that you were modern at a time when the Muslim community of Mali was under strict rule and photography was pretty much forbidden.
Most of his pictures were taken in the courtyard of his family home, large fabric backdrops disguising the stone walls of a house behind his clients. He had various props including a radio and a vespa – which he replaced over the years as his budget allowed.
I think what I found the most fascinating is that Seydou Keïta only took one picture. Definitely not a modest chap he was proud of the fact that he was able to build a connection with his subjects and had a great eye for knowing how they would look best. Should they smile, look straight on to the camera, sit or stand. He could tell how to make them look fabulous. And he did
In 1962 he was made the official photographer of Mali’s new government and closed down his studio. It wasn’t until the early 1990’s that over 10,000 negatives of Keïta’s work were ‘discovered’ and his pictures began to be shown around the world.
Right now his portraits are on display for the first time in the Middle East at the Leila Heller gallery in Dubai. I visited the gallery in Alserkel Avenue last week for a tour of the exhibition which featured 20 incredible portraits.
It was also my first trip to the Leila Heller gallery and I was impressed with what a great space they have there. After 30 successful years in New York, they opened their Dubai space in November last year and are now showcasing contemporary artists from around the world.
Seydou Keïta’s work will be on display at the the Leila Heller Gallery until 1st September.