Then and Now

The Metamorphoses in the Reception of Seydou Keïta’s Oeuvre in Brazil

The exhibition in São Paulo seeks to reveal the multiplicity of exchanges among traditional African cultures and colonial culture through symbols that appear in Keïta’s photos.

Multiplicity of Exchanges

The exhibition at the Instituto Moreira Salles – open in São Paulo through 29 July and subsequently opening on 11 August in Rio de Janeiro, where it will be on display through January of 2019 – seeks to avoid approximations with the theme to assert identity politics, as Samuel Titan Jr. says, who is co-curating with Jacques Leenhardt. The intention seems to be more about revealing the multiplicity of exchanges among traditional African cultures and the colonizer through symbols that appear in Keïta’s photos. A clear example are the fabrics used in the composition of the portraits or seen in prints worn by women, partly produced by a Dutch company that distributed this textile tradition throughout West Africa at the end of the 19th century – after having appropriating batiks from Indonesia, then a Dutch colony. Or in the notorious Westernization of traditional dress, especially men’s attire, where suits or military uniforms don’t look so different from European or North American fashion during the post-war era, as Anne Grosfilley notes in a text written for the catalog Textiles and Fashion in Mali through the Lens of Seydou Keïta.

It is useful to consider the period during which the Malian photographer was active, from 1948 to 1962, when he maintained a private studio in Bamako, then capital of the French Sudan, for such reflection on multiple cultural appropriations. The rich collection from those 14 years reveals a diverse social panorama of the country of the years prior to its independence, when signs of modernity were already present, for instance, through certain technological props. One of the most important symbols of the diffusion of colonial power, the radio, is one of those objects incorporated into portraits of younger people, like the couple posing in an intimate embrace, their arms resting on the apparatus.

Beyond offering a social record of the period, what is initially striking in Keïta’s photographs is the aesthetic accuracy in the construction of scenes, revealing a formal preoccupation that already indicated a consciousness of the notion of authorship. In that way, the photo included right at the beginning, in which he is signing his own photograph as he leans on a white man’s shoulders, carries a strong symbolism regarding the reception of the photographer-author’s oeuvre which until just recently was presented in an exhibition in New York as “unknown photographer”.

Hybrid Path of Appropriations

Among the collection of 130 photos, all black and white, the variety of formats and enlargements is another interesting choice indicating the diverse contexts in which his oeuvre was presented. There is everything from the rare 18 x 13 cm vintage editions, enlarged by Keïta himself and in the same format that he used when he sold them to clients; the 50 x 60 cm enlargements he was making in the 1990s in Paris, when his oeuvre had already penetrated the circuit of galleries and museums, according to such standards; and others almost the size of murals, measuring 1,80 x 1,30m, when it started earning more value and international prestige.

Also present in the exhibit is a documentary recorded in 1998 that shows the artist at the peak of his notoriety. Having retired over 20 years ago from the position of official government photographer, which forced him to cease activities in his studio, in 1962, he was invited by director Brigitte Cornand to produce a portrait session similar to what he had previously done. What could have been an artificial representation of the “photographer in action,” staged for a French production, ends up showing a highly valued record of Keïta’s process. And, although Europe acts as intermediary, it is still a document concerning his own work which he himself created – another element in the hybrid path of appropriations present in his oeuvre.

Nathalia Lavigne is a journalist, curator and researcher with a Masters in Critical Theory and Cultural Studies from Birkbeck, University of London, and a doctoral candidate at the School of Architecture and Urbanism at the Universidade de São Paulo. She is a member of the Aesthetics of Memory in the 21st Century research group and is working on a project on digital collections and pictures of artwork on Instagram.

Translated from Portuguese by Sara Hanaburgh.

Seydou Keïta, Instituto Moreira Salles (IMS-SP), until July 29th. Galeria 2. Avenida Paulista, 2424. São Paulo, Brazil.