by Will Whitney
Love Power Peace
JACK SHAINMAN | JUNE 28 – AUGUST 10, 2018
A mother standing with her children; a group of young adults dressed smartly; babies gazing; the manner in which Malick Sidibé’s subjects seem at ease speaks volumes to Sidibé’s photographic genius. Love Power Peace (the title comes from a James Brown album) exemplifies Sidibé’s magic, showcasing never seen before photos in an exhibition that confirms his status as a cultural icon. Having passed away two years ago, Sidibé’s influence remains prominent in our picture-centric society with Beyonce’s now famous baby shower instagram as well as Gucci’s “Soul Spirit” campaign featuring Sidibé’s iconic striped studio backdrop. Chris Ofili acknowledged Sidibé’s influence in his 2004 retrospective at the New Museum, Day and Night, accompanied by his profile in the New Yorker, which featured images from Sidibé’s photo-shoot with the great painter.
On view in this exhibition, these four photographs present Ofili standing solo as well as with the Malian photographer himself. Displayed in a simple wooden frame, Ofili is seen standing causally yet confidently, being handed tea, and then drinking the tea with his mix and match button-down now draped over his shoulder in the manner of one removing a suit jacket on a humid day. The small adjustments to the images—such as the removal of the button-down—or the slight inclusion of the person handing Ofili the teapot confirm Sidibé’s excellence in capturing prescient and quotidian moments.
These adjustments, as well as Sidibé’s willingness to take his camera outside—something uncommon for portraitists in the ’60s and ’70s—set the tone of this photographer’s oeuvre. Some of the smaller works include an additional delicate touch of Malian culture: back painted glass frames created by a friend of Sidibé which feature floral designs. The color in these painted designs gives a warm contrast to the black and white photographs.
Love Power Peace features many stages of youth: the baby, the partygoer, or the newly married couple. In Arrivée de la voiture des mariés devant la mairie 15 Octobre 1970 (1970 – 2008), the bridegroom’s family arrives at the town hall in a slightly battered, white, 1950s style Chevrolet. The crowd is fixated on the family, while a small girl with braids, seated in between the bride and groom, stares directly into the camera. The dress code imparts a sense of modernism mixed with nostalgia; some wear button downs, others traditional garb. Sidibé was capturing a nation in the midst of a cultural challenge. In his essay on Sidibé and James Brown, Manthia Diawara quotes Raymond Williams’s ideas regarding social character and cultural patterns:
The new generation responds in its own ways to the unique world it is inheriting, taking up many continuities that can be traced, and reproducing many aspects of the organization, which can be separately described, yet feeling its whole life in certain ways differently, and its shaping its creative response into a new structure of feeling.1
This is the context in which Sidibé’s art inspires. He captured the essence of youth, bliss, and happiness while also understanding its challenges. Nuit du 31 Decembre (1971 – 2008) exemplifies this desire. The photograph of the young couple dressed in party attire, embracing as they stare pointedly at that the camera demonstrates a common feeling in this body of work: people’s desire to be seen and their desire to shape the narrative of which the world viewed Mali. Love Peace Power represents a look at that desire, as well as Sibidé’s impact on American culture, offering a powerful reminder of how the youth can impact the world.
- Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature. Page 49. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977)
Will Whitney is writer who lives and works in New York.