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Malick Sidibé's Vues de dos: Getty Conversations

What do you expect to see in a traditional portrait? See what artist Malick Sidibé has done to take his background in portrait photography to new compositions inspired by Mali and Western traditions in portraiture.

Getty has joined forces with Smarthistory to bring you an in-depth look at select works within our collection, whether you’re looking to learn more at home or want to make art more accessible in your classroom. This video series illuminates art history concepts through fun, unscripted conversations between art historians, curators, archaeologists, and artists, committed to a fresh take on the history of visual arts.

A conversation with Claire L'Heureux, Department of Photographs, J. Paul Getty Museum and Steven Zucker, Executive Director, Smarthistory in front of Vues de dos, print 2003; frame 2004, Malick Sidibé. Gelatin silver print, glass, paint, cardboard, tape, and string, 36.5 x 27 cm (The J. Paul Getty Museum) © Malick Sidibé. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

View the Getty Conversations series: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLij2XTFgmBSQXPYGkw4zLRfiF96kfRSGN

Learn more about "Vues de dos" in Getty's collection online: https://www.getty.edu/art/collection/object/109ED6

Subscribe to the Getty Museum YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/@gettymuseum.
Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

We're at the Getty Center, standing in the study room of the Department of Photographs, looking at this large print by Malick Sidibe. A woman is seated with her back to us in front of a stripped backdrop. She's in a state of partial undress, with her right arm extended toward her right foot. For a photographic print, this is fairly large. It's unusual because we're seeing the photograph behind glass that has this brilliantly painted frame. It makes the black and white nature of the photograph feel rich with texture and tone, and it draws our eye in. We're talking about the late 1950s. This was a critical moment in the history of Mali, which would gain its independence from French colonial rule in 1960. In 1962, the photographer opens his own studio. People would come to his studio in its heyday, lining up on the street outside, to have black and white photographs taken by the artist. These were photographs that would be hung on people's walls. They were an expression of their identity. The artist describes women coming in after they had their hair done. Men coming wanting to be photographed with a radio. The artist speaks about the ways in which he was their partner in bringing out for the camera who they really were. While this is not a commercial portrait photograph, we can see the artist turning back to poses that he developed while working as a commercial portrait photographer. This is so different from what we would expect from a traditional portrait photograph. We barely see this woman's face. Instead, the forms of her body, the patterns that surround her really come to the fore. We have these sandals in the foreground that are giving us a sense of movement and narrative that harken back to the cinematic influences that the artist was looking to. He said about this pose that this was inspired by mid-century Euro- American films that were popular in Bamako in which the actor would leave the scene, perhaps throwing a jacket over their shoulder and confidently strutting away. Here the artist is taking a cinematic convention and reconstructing it within a still photograph. The shell space that the photographer has arranged the sitter in brings her closer to us. It creates a sort of intimacy that's also reflected in her state of partial undress. He is very deliberate in the way that he constructs these images. You can tell the care and attention that the photographer took in composing this image in the way that the vertical strips of the backdrop play against the woman's braids. The diagonal of her braids leads your eye to the vertical stripe and back down to her face. It also draws attention to her earring. This photograph was created the same year that he won the Hasselblad Award. Just four years later, he would go on to win a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale. This photograph seems to be the product of a lifelong career as a commercial photographer. A man who now has the international attention that has allowed him to free his creative impulses, but still drawing on his experiences as a commercial photographer. The years of commercial practice allowed Sidibe to hone this skillset in presenting his sitters in the best possible light. This particular photograph, and the series which it belongs to, was made for an international audience. It's a larger scale than his commercial photography generally was. It's interesting to understand this particular pose with the knowledge that this was made for an international audience, because it does seem that Sidibe is drawing on not only Malian traditions, but also long traditions in the history of art in the West. Reclining nudes by , by Valazquez, and by many others. Here, made by an African artist coming out of a career that was dedicated to serving an African audience, and here seems to self-consciously re-interpreting that European tradition. The art historian Candace Keller has said that in interviews with the artist, she learned that Sidibe generously shared the profits of this photographic series with the sitters, helping to support his immediate community.