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On Malick Sidibé and Nick Brandt: Framing Africa In Contrasting Lenses

A review on the work of Malick Sidibé and Nick Brandt, who currently both have exhibitions showing in New York.

2016_JSG20_Malick Sidibé install view 11 HR

Installation view. Malick Sidibé. Jack Shainman Gallery, 513 West 20th Street, New York, March 17 - April 23, 2016.


“The act of photographing Africa has often been bound up with a certain conflict of vision: between how Africans see their world and how others see that world.”

—Okwui Enwezor

Framing Africa is complex.

I recently went to see two African themed photography shows currently showing in New York. The style and focus was remarkably dissimilar. Even though Nick Brandt and Malick Sidibé both favor black and white portraiture, how and where they focus their lenses produce different results.

My first stop was Edwynn Houk Gallery in Midtown Manhattan, where Brandt’s Inherit the Dust is currently showing. The silver elevator doors in the building looked so elegant that I found myself recasting the patterns on them in my mind. I got into the elevator and pressed four. This swanky gallery is considered a leading showcase for contemporary and modern photography.

Wasteland with Lion, 2015. ©Nick Brandt. Courtesy of the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York and Zurich.

Underpass with Elephants, 2015. ©Nick Brandt. Courtesy of the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York and Zurich.

Brandt is widely known for his photography of the disappearing natural world and especially, his ‘intimate depictions of animals’ and ‘sweeping landscapes of East Africa.’ Conceptually, the images in Inherit the Dust are stunning black and white portraits. The series features life-size portraits of animals looming in sweeping panoramas of garbage dumps, highway underpasses, railways and construction sites in urban Kenya.

However, as the photographer goes to the fringes of urban Nairobi, his juxtaposition of animal prints and people is odd. The unintended effect is that the photographs make the people secondary to the animals. The superimposed animal prints look very majestic and unblemished representing a time when the African landscape was primal and glorious. Here he is evoking a profound sense of lost wonders. The humans, look much smaller, scattered and inconsequential in the images in relation to the animals.

This series is a case of activism overshadowing photography. The resulting effect is a disturbing portrayal of the artificial, the unreal. With each framed photograph, Brandt is trying to capture the ‘ecological and social dilemmas’ supposedly caused by the local communities.

My next stop was the Jack Shainman Gallery where Sidibé’s solo exhibition provides good contrast. The studio portraits of Sidibé present us with a unique opportunity to consider photography through a non-Western prism.

Surprise party, 2002. ©Malick Sidibé. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

MS08.103 Les apprentis mécanitiens du garage de Dramané (framed) HR

Les apprentis mécanitiens du garage de Dramané, 1966-2008. ©Malick Sidibé. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

In his photography, the Mali native affords his subjects’ agency over their image and representation. Although Sidibé carefully and deliberately instructs the pose of his subjects, the resulting images always appear to capture a moment rather than feeling static or staged.

Walking into Jack Shainman Gallery felt like walking into a community of familiar people. There is a timelessness quality to the images. Sidibé is interested in the efficacy of youth. His images from the 60s when he started his career in Bamako are no different today—the subjects are mostly young, stylish and confident. The strength of Sidibé’s images emanates not so much in the craftsmanship or technique he employs, but rather in the sincere directness with which the subjects meet the gaze of the camera. When you are looking at them looking back at you, it is almost as if they are daring you.

Sidibe himself provides a commentary to his work in a film documentary produced by Susan Vogel in which he talks about his techniques and his philosophy of photography. The unflinching commitment to his ever-evolving, self-realized process, and his evident contentment with the place he has carved out for himself in the world of art, is both humbling and inspiring. The man's­ ­joie de vivre is palpable.

Africa is undoubtedly a construct of memories. It just depends who is behind the lenses and who is in front of the photographs.

Nick Brandt’s 'Inherit the Dust' is currently showing at Edwynn Houk Gallery at 745 Fifth Ave, 4th Floor until April 30.

Malick Sidibé’s solo exhibition is showing at Jack Shainman Gallery at 513 West 20th Street until April 23.

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