City chic: Malick Sidibé

Antwaun Sargent recalls the life and work of game-changing Malian photographer, Malick Sidibé, whose influential genius can be seen referenced everywhere from art galleries to Instagram

City chic: Malick Sidibé

Malick Sidibé Les trè Bons Amis dan la Même tenue, 1972/2008 silver gelatin print 20 14 x 13 7/8 inchrs image size 30 3/4 x 24 inches framed ©Estate of Malick Sidibé. Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

What made the late Malian photographer, Malick Sidibé, a star, was his fidelity with capturing the country’s 'Youthquake' of the 1960s and 70s. By night, he would take his camera to the Bamako clubs and open-air house parties and shoot the young people, newly independent of French colonial rule, wearing boubous and bell-bottoms, becoming themselves. The 1965 print, Danser le twist, captures the raw energy Sidibé witnessed as the youth remade themselves into a more fashionable people. In the image, a politely dressed Malian couple are seen crouched over, doing the Twist, probably as a James Brown or Ray Charles cut jumped from a jukebox. The male is in such heated rapture, his dress shoes are dusty from sweeping the dance floor all night. A selection of the photographer's nightlife pictures and portraits are on view in Art/Afrique Le Nouvel Atelier in Paris until 4 September.

City chic: Malick Sidibé

Malick Sidibé Sur Les Rochers au Bord du Fleure Niger, 1971/2008 silver gelatin print 17 x 17 inches image size 24 x 19 3/4 inches paper size ©Estate of Malick Sidibé. Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Malick Sidibé Dansez le Twist, 1965-2008 silver gelatin print 16 7/8 x 16 7/8 inches (image size) 24 x 19 3/4 inches (paper size) 27 5/8 x 27 5/8 x 1 1/2 inches (framed) ©Estate of Malick Sidibé. Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Born in the rural village of Soloba in 1936, Sidibé moved to his country’s capital of Bamako in the mid 50s, purchased a Brownie Flash and started taking snapshots of his free and fly fellow countrymen and women. There’s Les très bons amis en même tenue, a 1972 image of five friends standing in a club, sporting afros, dressed exactly alike in zigzag printed silk shirts and bell-bottoms; The 1976 street picture, Au bord du fleuve Niger, is of two young men in short shorts, hoisting a third, in baggy high-waisted pants, into the air. In 1958, Sidibé opened Studio Malick his own photography shop, where the image-maker took his signature black and white portraiture of families, friends, wedding parties. In the pictures personal style was always a second subject, dignity and aplomb was easily gleaned in a flared three-piece suit. There were those who wore eveningwear, tight blue jeans and accessorized the traditional with Western touches – eyewear, boom boxes, and motorcycles. The pictures made Bamako the capital of African photography.

Sidibé’s social reportage was like nothing anyone had seen of the people living on the continent, and in the process redefined the possibilities of photography to chronicle a country’s modernity. As contemporary African photography burgeons into a movement today to redefine the image and desires of contemporary African identity, it was as if the genre lost a father last year when Sidibé died at the age of 80. However, the influence of Sidibé’s slick pictures live on. It can be glimpsed in images being made across the continent. Girma Berta’s abstracted street scenes, Mohau Modisakeng’s performative pictures, Zanele Muholi’s social documentation, and Samuel Fosso’s majestic self-portraits, all owe a debt to Sidibé’s photographic genius. The impact of Sidibé’s eye also extends to Western pop culture and fashion. The images recently taken at Beyoncé’s baby shower paid homage to Sidibé’s studio style and Bally's AW17 collection drew inspiration from some of the Malian’s magic.

One image that captures Sidibé’s enduring legacy is the 1969 gelatin print, Portrait d'une Femme Allongee, of a Malian woman lounging in a woven boubou and matching headwrap, hands crossed, face resting in a slight grin, her eyes slant to look just past the camera. She bares the confidence of a country and continent, in one picture.