Nuit de Noël, 1963 by Malick Sidibé

When Malick Sidibé’s Photographs Danced Before Me

The Malian photographer helped shape an African worldview and created a lexicon of black identity.

My interest in the politics and aesthetics of photography started from an unlikely source: Dambudzo Marechera, the enfant terrible of African literature. In his seminal text The House of Hunger, a coming of age novella set in the 60s and 70s, he writes about Solomon, a township photographer who could obliterate 'the squalor of reality' with his photographs. His customers, who have little hope of ever leaving the township can only realize their dreams of escape through the illusions he creates:

Photographs of Africans in European wigs... Africans who pierce the focusing lens with a gaze of paranoia. The background of each photo is the same: waves breaking upon a virgin beach and a lone eagle swiveling like glass fracturing light towards the potent spaces of the universe. A cruel yearning that
can only be realized in crude photography.

The residents of Marechera's house of hunger were growing up in the era of Malick Sidibé's early photography. At the time, they were bombarded with images from colonial media institutions. These constructions of blackness were proverbial masks that, writes Laura Taitz in Emerging Perspectives on Dambudzo Marechera "served to hamper any attempt at self-definition or self-representation." The masks embody the contradictions of colonized identities and the politics of representation, subjects Marechera obsessively grappled with in his subsequent works, Black Sunlight and The Black Insider.

Sidibé is the antithesis of Solomon. He set out to change the idea of black beauty and fashion through his street photography and studio portraits instead of imposing or maintaining the prevailing photographic models based on Western aesthetics.

Surprise Party, 1964 By Malick Sidibé

The first image of Malick Sidibé I encountered was the portrait of a young couple dancing at a Christmas party. It is one of the most iconic images from his oeuvre that spans a wide spectrum. The pose here is unrehearsed. It is graceful and dynamic and encapsulates the hallmark of Sidibé's photography that captured the energy and hope of a generation of young ­black Africans living in a period of political and social transition.

His early photography affirms his participation in the decolonization of the 1960s, and in shaping the new look of young black and proud Africans who were consciously stylish and au courant. There is something rebellious and doggedly determined in their moves and gazes. By photographing them in the manner in which they wanted to be seen, Sidibé too was insisting on their right of being.

Looking at his photographs today, it is easy to see how productive they were in shaping the African worldview and creating a lexicon of black identity. Sidibé never stopped documenting youth culture and style in Mali. His photography journey began with youths dancing their way out of their colonial past into an era of freedom, expression and fashion.

The import of Sidibé's contribution to the African sensibility and image is huge. His work is understated and yet sophisticated in its detail, especially the interaction of space, movement and subject. He was the first African and the first photographer to win the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 2007 Venice Biennale that was themed, “Think with the Senses Feel with the Mind." His place in the pantheon of photography greats is assured.

Photo: Courtesy of Radswan

Freddie Harrel Is Building Conscious Beauty For and With the African Diaspora

Formerly known as "Big Hair Don't Care", creator Freddie Harrel and her team have released 3 new wig shapes called the "RadShapes" available now.

Photo: Courtesy of Radswan

The normalising of Black and brown women in wigs of various styles has certainly been welcomed by the community, as it has opened up so many creative avenues for Black women to take on leadership roles and make room for themselves in the industry.

Radswan (formerly known as Big Hair Don't Care), is a lifestyle brand "bringing a new perspective on Blackness through hair, by disrupting the synthetic market with innovative and sustainable products." Through their rebrand, Radswan aims to, "upscale the direct-to-consumer experience holistically, by having connected conversations around culture and identity, in order to remove the roots of stigma."

The latest from French-Cameroonian founder and creator Freddie Harrel - who was featured on our list of 100 women of 2020 - has built her career in digital marketing and reputation as an outspoken advocate for women's empowerment. On top of her business ventures, the 2018 'Cosmopolitan Influencer of the Year' uses her platform to advocate for women's empowerment with 'SHE Unleashed,' a workshop series where women of all ages come together to discuss the issues that impact the female experience, including the feeling of otherness, identity politics, unconscious bias, racism and sexism.

And hair is clearly one of her many passions, as Freddie says, "Hair embodies my freest and earliest form of self expression, and as a shapeshifter, I'm never done. I get to forever reintroduce my various angles, tell all my stories to this world that often feels constrained and biased."

Armed with a committee of Black women, Freddie has cultivated Radswan and the aesthetic that comes with the synthetic but luxurious wigs. The wigs are designed to look like as though the hair is growing out of her own head, with matching lace that compliments your own skin colour.

By being the first brand to use recycled fibres, Radswan is truly here to change the game. The team has somehow figured out how to make their products look and feel like the real thing, while using 0% human hair and not negotiating on the price, quality or persona.

In 2019, the company secured £1.5m of investment led by BBG Ventures with Female Founders Fund and Pritzker Private Capital participating, along with angelic contributions from Hannah Bronfman, Nashilu Mouen Makoua, and Sonja Perkins.

On the importance of representation and telling Black stories through the products we create, Freddie says, "Hair to me is Sundays kneeling between your mothers or aunties legs, it's your cousin or newly made friend combing lovingly through your hair, whilst you detangle your life out loud. Our constant shapeshifting teaches us to see ourselves in each other, the hands braiding always intimately touching our head more often than not laying someone's lap."

"Big Hair No Care took off in ways we couldn't keep up with," she continues, "RadSwan is our comeback.It's a lifestyle brand, it's the hair game getting an upgrade, becoming fairer and cleaner. It's the platform that recognises and celebrates your identity as a shapeshifter, your individuality and your right to be black like you."

Check out your next hairstyle from Radswan here.

Radswan's RadShape 01Photo: Courtesy of Radswan

Radswan's RadShape 02Photo: Courtesy of Radswan

Radswan's RadShape 03Photo: Courtesy of Radswan

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