Malick Sidibé, Always

The late Malick Sidibé was a 'philosopher of happiness' writes Emmanuel Iduma

Group photo from Invisible Borders' visit with Malick Sidibé in 2014. Photo courtesy of Invisible Borders.

There is the man, and there is work by the man. Both facts occasionally coincide. In my case, it was during the 2014 Invisible Borders road trip when I met Malick Sidibé with other African artists. I saw him in his seventy-eighth year, when his eyesight had almost failed completely. I saw him in the house where his old cameras and negatives were housed.

I wrote about that encounter. When I learned of his death, I returned to my essay immediately as a matter of urgent consolation. The first thing I wanted to do was remember him as the man I saw two years before his death. Like his photographs of parties, I dare anyone to disprove that certain emotions cannot be compressed into an instant. For me, the sentiment is homage. I met him for an hour or less. I met him in a group. I met him while I listened. That is enough. My memory of his presence is on repeat.

Listening to Malick Sidibé. Photo courtesy of Invisible Borders

A friend sent me a text. “I’m so sad about Malick Sidibé.” I felt that sadness too, a sorrow usually reserved for a death in the family. As my feelings alternated between gratitude and loss, I recalled that Jack Shainman Gallery was exhibiting his lesser-known work. I changed my day’s plans and hurried to see it.

There hadn’t been anytime I considered life as hurried in relation to his images. Pleasure always seemed in continuum. For instance, in the images of couples dancing in the Surprise Party series. Now, in his bodily absence, I saw that time, glimpsed from a certain state of mind, passes quickly. You see the fizzling joy of youth. You see the promise of the post-independence ‘60s return, in your gaze, undelivered. You see women and the men who desire them, or men and the women who desire them. You see motorcycles, hats, bracelets, sunglasses, starched boubous—all the ephemera that make you momentarily content.

Susan Vogel’s Malick Sidibé: Portrait of the Artist as a Portraitist (2006), produced in association with the Musée National du Mali, opens with Sidibé saying, “Without this work, what would I have done?” His statement contains many worlds. Such as a world of those like me who knew him after his work was done. Later in the film, he says, “Man has a desire to remain eternal on earth—how?” Since he was a photographer, there is a clear relationship his work has with infinite time. In its very essence a photograph is a generous record that outlives its maker. Now and always Malick Sidibé pitches forward.

I spent the day after seeing the exhibition browsing tribute photographs on Facebook. There were mostly photographs Sidibé had taken, the ones that made him famous. There was also several from his funeral: the crowd at his home, his body wrapped in a multi-colored shroud, placed on a stretcher, clerics and family members praying for his soul, men discussing logistics, a somber crowd sitting and waiting.

There was also a 2007 photograph uploaded by the Kenyan photographer Mimi Cherono Ng’ok, a tribute to the photographer’s toolkit: it depicted four rows of old cameras, mainly medium formats, taken by Ng’ok in Sidibé’s studio. All the tributes I read culminated in that. You needed no further evidence of his willingness to go afield, to tinker with monochromatic form, to experiment with light.

The Cameras of Malick Sidibé by Mimi Cherono Ng'ok (2007)Malick Sidibé's toolkit, 2007. Photo by Mimi Cherono Ng'ok

Writing this with the knowledge of his death, offering an encomium in a sea of many, I wonder about the fact that his photographs leave little room for anything else—except the recognition of a master photographer deserving praise. I do not mean his work is without difficulty. When I look, for instance, at the latter photographs of women with their back to the camera, in the series Vue de Dos, I am fascinated by a kind of reverse Olympia, by women who will not comply with a frontal gaze. So, then, I praise how Sidibé approached truth in and out of the studio. Truth was something social; truth was something wrestling with modernity.

In the short film by Vogel, screened in the Gallery as part of the exhibition, he says, “Photography is very social.” Only six minutes long, the film succeeds especially because of its brevity. His wit and humor was portrayed as culminating in essential wisdom. By now venerated, by now approaching the end of his life, you see him repeatedly bursting into merriment, laughing and causing laughter.

Sidibé at his core, I propose, was a philosopher of happiness. In one scene in Vogel’s film he ends a statement with “I don’t like sadness.” At the end of our meeting with him, he said, “I am very happy.” That he was content at the end comforts me, as it should comfort all who mourn. I believe his contentment is related to his work as a studio photographer who worked mainly in the working-class Bamako neighborhood of Bagadadji. The number of lives that entered his was incalculable. Like a doctor, his hand bore a memory of all the poses he orchestrated, the bodies whose grace he revealed.

The dead do not disappear. They are made to occupy infinite space. The extent of my gratitude is to return Sidibé’s question to him. Without your work Maestro, what would we have done?

Emmanuel Iduma is a writer and art critic. He writes about historical and contemporary Nigerian photographs for The Trans-African.

Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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